The story of King Arthur pulling the sword from the stone is widely remembered. This feat, orchestrated by Merlin, Arthur’s life-long mentor and counselor, established Arthur as the rightful king of Britain.
The stone was legendary even before Myrddin embedded the sword within it. Fallen from the heavens, it gave off strange emanations, energy that those close enough could feel. The stone was a relic from the time the Masters entered the world and still contained some of their energy. The sword... well, Myrddin was proud of that clever, poetic fiction.
He’d learned many things in his long life, but perhaps none more useful than the power of stories in the world of Men. After all, hadn’t the myth of the Christ reshaped the world? Myrddin had planted countless seeds of imagination and watered them with myth. The sword was one of these. Long had it remained sunk deep within the stone, the legend carefully crafted to ensure only the true and rightful ruler of Britain could remove it. The king who would unite the islands’ people.
Uter could have withdrawn the sword if Myrddin had allowed it, but too many doubts had taken root. It would instead fall to Uter’s son, Artur, the Masters’ new champion. Myrddin had groomed him from birth, removing him from his father’s damaging influence. Not controlling Uter’s life from the start had been one of Myrddin’s greatest missteps. Uter’s most kingly feature had been his blood.
Myrddin had listened to the accounts of those who’d attempted to remove the sword from the stone, which varied depending on their bloodline. Those who carried the Masters’ blessing in their blood could grip the sword’s hilt, though just the act of standing on the stone induced vertigo, disorientation, nausea, and fear. Most staggered away, weak and doubled over.
Those with virginal blood had a much harder time. Myrddin couldn’t know what it was like, but he imagined it as a cold splash into a sea of madness. Myrddin was familiar with madness – it had claimed him for many years, and he still felt its call. He would give in to that call one day, he knew. But not until the work was done.
The tales of these attempts added to the legend, confirming for many that the blade was magical, perhaps even strangely alive. All manner of stories were told about its origins, and the threads of these stories were interwoven with the local myths. The tapestry was vast and strong, and it served Myrddin and, through him, the Masters.
“Go on,” Myrddin said to the teenaged Artur. “Try.”
Artur looked up at his mentor, feeling the weight of the command. That was the way with Myrddin—the words were kindly, framed as a request, but undoubtedly a command. Artur usually complied. The few times he hadn’t... well, he didn’t like thinking of those. Myrddin didn’t rely on physical violence like Artur’s foster family had, but defying him meant contending with the nightmares, and those were always worse.
As Artur approached the stone, his foster brother, Cai, began to laugh, the mocking growing louder and more raucous as Cai’s friends joined in. A crowd gathered in the small square that now housed the stone. Everyone enjoyed a chance to watch someone try, and fail, to withdraw the sword.
A voice called out for wagers, but no one obliged. Artur knew how it looked. He was tall but gawky and thin. He’d always looked sickly, his skin pale and with a tendency to mottle. He had yet to grow anything resembling a beard, and the hairs that did sprout from his face were patchy and thin. Myrddin had assured him these were all signs of the Masters’ blessing, but to most he looked weak.
But he’d never felt weak, not inside. Inside, he felt a deep well of strength, and beneath that, a vast, dark sea of primal power. Like the ocean depths where the Masters waited, slumbering. He was connected to Them and had always been.
As Artur mounted the stone, he felt it thrum beneath him, a deep vibration moving through his body. Accompanying it, a whispering so faint as to seem like the wind, speaking words in a language he didn’t know. Images filled his mind: immense creatures beneath the sea, sleeping but restless. Hungering.
The sword’s hilt was old and bore no crossguard, in the Roman style. A gladius. Worn by time and mottled by verdigris. Mocking calls filled the air, but Artur ignored them, reaching out to the hilt, wrapping his hands around it. Beneath his gloves lay another sign of the Masters’ blessing— the webbing that stretched between his fingers. Myrddin had assured him it was a sign of high honor. His father, his true father, had born the same. Yet his true father had never attempted this.
The thrumming intensified, as if the sword were channeling it to his core. The whispering became a chant, sonorous and unrelenting. Shadows in his mind shifted and moved in ways no earthly thing could. At first, it felt like a communion. He became part of something more than himself, something immense and unknowable. But fear and desperation smothered his awe. It was too much. He was but a small vessel. The things he touched had no boundaries, recognized no lines, exceeded shape and weight and earthly presence. He wanted, no, needed it to stop, so he pulled at the sword, throwing what strength he had into the attempt, trying to tap into the dark well inside of him.
The thrumming vibration grew so strong he was sure it would shake him to bits. The sword seemed joined to the center of the earth. He almost let go, almost stepped away, but the fear of the nightmares kept him rooted, the certainty of Myrddin’s displeasure if he failed. He was a reed in the mouth of a god blowing a dissonant song.
Then, smoothly, the sword slid free. He almost fell backward at the sudden lack of resistance. Instead, he held the sword above his head. His arms felt weak, but the sword seemed to weigh nothing at all.
He had done it. He’d done what no other had.
Artur’s eyes alighted for a moment on Cai’s face and its expression of shock and horror. He took pleasure in that before finding Myrddin. The old man was smiling. Myrddin had many smiles, and this one was deep and labyrinthine. Schemes within schemes. “Hail, the true king!” Myrddin shouted.
Artur would contend with those schemes later. He looked down at the shocked faces, feeling the surging of his blood, somehow both hot and cold, and the seemingly fathomless depths of the well within him. He imagined the Masters there at the bottom, singing a song only he could hear. A song for Artur, not Myrddin. The smile that curled his lips felt like a new beginning.
One disturbing element of the Arthur legend, which is tied intrinsically to its tragic ending, is Arthur’s child with his half-sister Morgan Le Fay. This relationship resulted in Arthur’s future nemesis, his son Mordred.
The “dragon” was not what Artur had expected. It had rubbery skin and too many teeth, like the nightmarish offspring of a toad and a wolf. And it was fast. Far faster than an ancient creature should be. He’d barely managed to get his sword free before its fetid breath was upon him.
Artur had hacked at it. The sword wasn’t the one he’d drawn from the stone—that was ensconced at his estate, proof of his right to rule—and it had broken against the thick skin and ancient bones. Artur had only survived by stabbing the splintered end of the blade into the creature’s eye. At the battle’s conclusion, he felt broken, too. He was bleeding badly, his shoulder punctured by one of the creature’s many teeth, and he couldn’t feel his left arm. He also swore he’d heard the bone in his left leg crack as the creature fell against him. He was alive, but for how long?
He managed to mount his horse, still covered in the creature’s stench, and rode for the nearest town.
He found the estate first.
Artur was barely conscious when he reached its doors, and when he tried to call for help, only a weak rasp emerged. He fell from the saddle, determined to crawl, but passed out before reaching the door.
He awoke some time later, resting on a soft bed, with pillows beneath his head. A woman sat over him, delicate of features, with dark hair and dark eyes. She was tending his wound, he realized, though he felt no pain.
“Awake, I see,” she said, a hint of playfulness in her voice. “You lost a lot of blood, but I think you’ll recover.”
“I owe you much, my lady. What is your name?”
“Morgaine, sir knight.”
“I am Artur.”
“Not Artur, the king?” Her hand froze above him. The light caught it, outlining the delicate webbing between her fingers, exactly like his.
He reached up with his free hand and gripped hers. It was warm, and soft. She flushed.
“Sorry,” Artur stammered, feeling the sting of his own embarrassment. “It’s just...” He showed her his hand and flexed the fingers.
A smile curled one side of her mouth. She wrapped her fingers around his and squeezed gently. “What brings the king so far afield?”
“Slaying fell beasts.” It sounded as ridiculous then as when Myrddin had first mentioned it. “A heroic deed to inspire my people.”
“Yet you risk your life. The king’s life.”
“Myrddin says it’s necessary. I am king, yes, but I can not be like any other king. I must be more.”
“More than a king?”
“A high king. Above all others. A king like there never was.”
“And you can be this king?”
“Myrddin thinks I can,” Artur said.
“Myrddin seems to think a great many things,” Morgaine said. “What does Artur think? What does Artur want?”
“I want to be that king,” he said.
“And nothing else?”
Artur realized he’d never considered it. Myrddin had prepared the course, set Artur’s feet upon it, and he’d begun walking.
“What is it you want?” he asked.
“Me?” She placed a cool, damp cloth on his forehead. “Power.”
He almost sat up. “Power? For what purpose?”
“I also have a teacher, a... guide. She, too, likes to tell me what’s necessary. As a woman, others often tell me what’s necessary. I would like to choose for myself.”
As the light from the window caught her face, Artur thought how beautiful she was. Her skin had an almost bluish tinge to it. Like how he’d imagined the fairy folk looked when he was a child.
“I hope you are able to, one day,” Artur said. “I hope we both can.”
“First you must learn what it is you want. What you really want.” She stood. “Now rest.”
For three days he stayed with Morgaine, healing. But on the third, he rose from his sickbed.
“Are you certain you’re strong enough?” she asked.
“I am. Because of you.” He took her hands. “I’ve thought about what you said, and I know now what I want.” He pulled her to him, hard and close, and pressed his lips against hers. He half-worried she would pull away, but she pressed against him, her lips soft and warm. She was the first woman he’d kissed, and she tasted like the sea. He pulled to the bed, and she followed. She was warm, and welcoming, and his and his alone.
He left the next morning but told Morgaine he would return. She held his hand tightly, her eyes large and dark. “I won’t forget you,” he said, knowing it was the truth.
When he returned to Myrddin, the old man smiled at Artur’s victory over the ancient creature. When Artur explained what happened afterward, Myrddin’s smile seemed to widen all the more.
Though the Sword in the Stone established Arthur as king, he wielded a different sword afterward. Excalibur, also known as Caliburnus in Latin and Caledfwlch in Welsh, helped to establish Arthur as the true king of Britain. Many of the stories say it had magical powers and was given to Arthur by the Lady of the Lake.
Artur’s face betrayed his nervousness as he rowed the boat. Myrddin would never admit it, but the lake people made him nervous, too. They were the Masters’ original servants, enlisted thousands of years before his birth. Their long service had changed them so they could no longer live on land.
The lake people had attempted to conquer the islands by force but had underestimated the tenacity of their inhabitants. The islanders united to fight the “monsters” and forced them into the sea and into myth. The lake people now lived on in tales and legends as the asrai, merrow, selkies, and Fomori.
Myrddin had sympathy for their plight but recognized their approach as flawed. His whole purpose was to find another way to achieve the Masters’ goals. A better way. And though they all served those same Masters, the lake people were alien, and ancient. There were few Myrddin didn’t understand, and the lake people made up most of that number.
Beneath the murky water, dark shapes undulated. Artur looked to Myrddin, who waved for him to continue.
A face emerged from the water, wet and corpselike, and Myrddin signaled Artur to stop. The creature continued to rise, revealing long tangled hair and greenish-blue skin, slick and wet. The eyes were bulbous and too large, pools of inky black. The nose just a whisper. The jaws spread wide within fleshy jowls. Aquatic vegetation of olive and ochre draped over the head and torso, which bore two flat flaps of skin that once had been breasts. The lake people were ruled by their women, and always had been. Those rulers, priestesses of a sort, gave rise to the stories of witches and hags.
“The Weaver.” She spoke in the secret language of the Masters, a croaking, gurgling sound. “Spinner of stories, master of words.”
“Words can shape men’s minds,” Myrddin said.
“Why do you disturb our rest?”
“I bring the fruits of my labors, our Masters’ champion—Artur, rightful king of the islands and the harbinger that was prophesied.”
Pale membranes flicked down over her wet black eyes. The priestess was silent. And eerily still, maintaining her position in the water with seemingly no effort. Myrddin held his breath.
The priestess leaped forward, the sudden flurry of movement sending him scrambling back. Too late he realized her webbed hands were stretched toward Artur. Where the priestess’ legs should have been, there was only a mass of writhing tentacles. He reached for Artur, but before he could grab him, Artur was pulled into the water and beneath. The surface churned, split by a frantic stream of bubbles.
Myrddin leaned over the side of the boat, one hand bracing himself, the other reaching into the water, desperate to intercede. He had not been tested against the lake people, certainly not against the priestesses, and he wasn’t sure who was stronger.
Yet even as he considered his next move, Artur surfaced and scrabbled for the boat. Myrddin pulled him in. “Thank the Masters you aren’t wearing mail,” he gasped as Artur tumbled into the boat. Myrddin examined him for wounds. “Are you all right?”
Artur nodded, coughing up water.
“She held me under the water,” Artur wheezed. “Gazing into my eyes the whole time. I could feel others around me, could feel their attention.” He sucked in more air and touched his neck where a thin line of blood stained the water dripping from him. “She cut me. Then, she threw me back.”
The priestess’s head emerged from the water once more, the plant strands reconfigured, the slitted gills at her neck trembling in the air. She regarded Myrddin. “He will... suffice.”
Myrddin nodded, still shaken by the experience. They had given their blessing. That was all he’d needed. “Grab the pole,” he commanded Artur. “We can go.”
“Wait.” Both men froze at the single word from the priestess. “A gift. For the king.” Her arm emerged from the water, the cruel claws at the edge of her webbed hands long, and dark, and sharp, in the waning light. She gripped a sword, the blade dark, very similar in appearance to the stone Artur had pulled the other sword from. Veins of green and gold threaded through it and seemed to writhe as the blade caught the setting sun. The hilt was straight and greenish-bronze. An old hilt, but one that could be remade. A thrum of power reverberated from it.
Artur looked to Myrddin. “Go on,” Myrddin said. “Take it.”
Artur reached for the sword, receiving it from the webbed, clawed hand, and something in his face changed, something Myrddin couldn’t place.
“Do not forget us,” the priestess said in a froglike croak, and Myrddin wasn’t sure who she was addressing. Then she submerged, vanishing into the lake’s darkness.
Even so, Myrddin didn’t relax until they were on the lake’s shore, dry land beneath their feet.
A number of events occurred in quick succession after Arthur received Excalibur. He fought off a rebellion, established Camelot as his royal seat, and married Princess Guinevere, whose father, King Leodegrance, gave him the legendary Round Table. He also attracted heroic knights to his service, those who would later be called the Knights of the Round Table.
Artur looked defiant. “Marry?”
“You are a king,” Myrddin said. “Surely you knew you’d need to marry.”
“Of course.” Artur waved a hand. He moved now with a confidence and surety unknown to his younger self. He looked every bit the king in his mail, Caliburnus hanging from his belt. “I only thought it would wait longer.”
“We need this alliance,” Myrddin said. It was the truth, but he left out that Gwenhwyfar’s blood was also blessed by the Masters. An offspring of theirs would be a potent heir and a possible replacement for Artur, if things took a foul turn.
“Can’t I marry Morgaine?” Artur had talked of her often. Myrddin had arranged for their first meeting, yet another contingency, but he hadn’t expected the boy to moon over his half-sister so.
“The Lady Morgaine is a fine woman but not the right match for the king.” Myrddin placed a hand on Artur’s shoulder. This close, he could feel the rhythm of Caliburnus. It must be like a second heartbeat to Artur. Many thought it had been named for its ability to cleave through Artur’s enemies, mailed or otherwise, but in truth it had been named for its true purpose: to cleave the bonds that kept the Masters sleeping and silent.
The sword was still something of a mystery to Myrddin. The arts the Masters had bestowed upon him were similar to those employed by the lake people, and from the same source, but they were different enough to remain incomprehensible. Myrddin had even wondered if the lake people could use the sword to work their will upon Artur. If so, it wasn’t clear how. It was probably just paranoia on his part, but paranoia had served him well to that point.
Even if there was a taint to the blade, it was unlikely Artur could be convinced to part with it. Myrddin had seen Caliburnus wielded in battle. The king’s enemies felt it even before it struck. Merely drawn, it worked itself inside their heads, in whispers and twisting scraps of nightmare. It unnerved and distressed, gnawing at its victims’ minds. And when Caliburnus struck, it struck hard, shearing through flesh, bone, and metal alike. Those not killed outright died soon afterward, riddled with infections that came on with frightening speed.
Artur’s union with Caliburnus served Artur. Myrddin needed a union that served him.
“It is a marriage, nothing more. We perform the ceremony, you consummate it, then we return to the work while Gwenhwyfar sews and reads books.”
Artur ground his teeth together, then nodded. “Very well.”
“Good,” Myrddin said. “I will speak to Leodogran about a date.”
“Myrddin,” Artur said. “I had a dream. I saw us assembling a mighty force to work the Masters’ will. I saw a chamber within the castle, below the dungeons, a ritual chamber where we could touch the Masters, where we could feel Them. I saw a large table of dark rock, a table of many angles and none.”
Myrddin nodded, ruminating on the idea. Such a thing could keep the knights focused on their purpose. In such a chamber they could swear themselves to Artur, and the Masters. And the table could be yet another seed of legend and myth, a symbol; more enduring, perhaps, than the knights themselves.
Such a table could never be ordinary, however, so Myrddin returned to the stone that had held the sword. It had remained in the same spot, reinforcing the legend and Artur’s right to rule, but it could be made to serve a new legend. Myrddin regarded it for a long while disguised as a traveling bard, listening to the stone’s song.
“You must be hardy to stand so close,” said a musical female voice. He turned to see a young woman, incredibly beautiful, with large, dark eyes and wavy black hair that hung past her shoulders. “Most say the magic makes them sick.”
Myrddin backed away. “I was trying to hear its music.”
“From the stone?”
He smiled at her. “One can find music in the most unlikely of places.”
Her smile widened. “Show me.”
So he did, whisking her away to a forest glade, soft skin upon soft grass, until she herself sang. As they lay in the aftermath, Myrddin still in the form of a younger man, she told him her name was Viviane. “I feel the need to assert my modesty.”
Myrddin smirked. “I caught no glimpse of it.”
She smacked him, her expression defiant. “I’m no trollop. It’s just... there’s only one Myrddin.”
He sat up in shock and alarm, wondering how she’d penetrated his disguise, fearing an ambush.
“Calm yourself,” Viviane said. “I knew it was you even if no other would. I’ve always had a touch of the sight.”
Myrddin had heard of such people, gifted with a natural ability to detect the art or pierce visual obfuscations.
“Can you... do things?”
She shrugged. “Sometimes, though there’s not much design in it. If I’m angry at someone, something bad might happen to them.”
Myrddin stared at her. He wondered if she could possibly bear the Masters’ blessing without him knowing it. A slight trace in the blood could surely escape his notice, but that wouldn’t explain her gifts. Unless this was something else entirely. Something he could use.
“Would you...?” he began.
“Would you let me teach you? Let me investigate this ‘sight’?”
“You? The great Myrddin teaching the likes of me? Are you having a joke with me?”
“Not at all.” Her eyes were wide, dark pools reflecting the light. He stroked her cheek. “Let me teach you.”
She said yes without words, and they fell back onto the grass, entwined.
Later, thinking about Viviane, Myrddin marveled at how different she was. He had known many women, to serve his own animal needs and the needs of the Masters, the management and merging of bloodlines. But never had one of their number intrigued him so.
Seeing Viviane as an omen of change, Myrddin had the sword stone hauled to the castle and sent Artur’s men scouring the countryside for more like it, more embers of falling stars. Then they hollowed out a chamber deep beneath the castle and began constructing the table of Artur’s dreams.
They pulled the bodies of thirteen workmen out of the chamber by the end, eight insane and gibbering; five dead with beet-red eyes and blood leaking from their ears. But in the end, the table was complete. Standing before it, no one could name its shape. Never constant, its geometries were elusive and bewildering. One of Artur’s knights would later call it the Table of Endless Angles. He was a foreigner, and the closest translation, which formed the seed of the legend, was the Round Table. They named the chamber Kem’loth, meaning “the beating heart” in the ancient tongue, and a corruption of that later gave the castle its name.
One by one, Artur brought his knights to Kem’loth and made them swear their lives and souls, first to him, then to the Masters. With each vow, the men were bound to Artur. The will of the Masters would enforce their loyalty. Any who broke their vow would be subject to endless mental torment and, eventually, insanity.
They met often around the table, planning their great acts. In Kem’loth, as the energy in the stones ebbed and flowed, it was, at times possible to feel the presence of the Masters despite their ancient slumber beneath the waves. At times, Myrddin felt a trace of that glorious future when the Masters would return and his great work would finally end. That promise of rest was largely a salve, but at times it was also a torment.
Yet another tragedy of the legend is the affair between Guenivere, Arthur’s wife, and Lancelot, his greatest knight and friend. This betrayal would go on to fracture the alliance Arthur had built.
“We need an heir,” Myrddin said. “If for nothing else than to cement your rule.”
“How many times must I cement my rule?” Artur asked, feeling his irritation rise. “First it was the sword in the stone, then monsters, then the lake people, then the castle. Now an heir. Is the edifice you built so shoddy that its bricks forever need shoring up?”
“The edifice you built,” Myrddin said, his tone as sharp and even as a blade.
“We both know that’s nonsense. I’ve tried, with Gwenhwyfar. I do not know what she wants, I don’t know how to make her happy.”
“Fuck her happiness,” Myrddin said. “Get her with child.”
“I’ve tried!” Artur threw his hands in the air. “For all the help she’s given. Is it my fault my seed fails to quicken in her belly?”
Myrddin looked thoughtful. It was an ongoing concern for him, that maybe something had failed in the bloodline. There was no reason to think so, save that months had passed and the queen was still not pregnant. Could she be barren? Was that possible?
It would have unnerved him completely if he hadn’t already planned for it. Medraut, Morgaine’s child by Artur, conceived at their first meeting, still lived. Myrddin had hoped the child would end up a cautionary measure, but if needed...
“Will you speak to her?” Artur asked.
“Me? Speak to your wife? In what capacity?”
“As my trusted advisor. As a wise old man. You can stress the importance to her. My attempts have been failures.”
Myrddin could usually corral Artur, but when it came to Gwenhwyfar, Artur was exceedingly obstinate, so Myrddin agreed. When he found the queen, she was in quiet conversation with Llansiloth, one of Artur’s knights and some said the best of them. Myrddin had been surprised to discover Llansiloth’s people had long revered the lake people, and rumors claimed there had been interbreeding over the years. If so, it was likely that Llansiloth’s blood rivaled that of Artur’s. The connection was a source of consternation to Myrddin, both that he’d not been aware of Llansiloth’s folk and that they owed their allegiance to the inscrutable lake people.
Still, Artur and Llansiloth were thick as thieves, as, it seemed, were Llansiloth and Gwenhwyfar. Llansiloth’s back was mildly hunched, and he had a small, slight nose and a smooth, sloping forehead. He bowed respectfully to Myrddin before making his exit.
“Did Artur send you?” Gwenhwyfar asked.
“We are both concerned about the lack of an heir. Even if he doesn’t quite grasp it, you understand the reality of the situation. It is necessary for your security and for Artur to be successful.”
“I am well aware.” She turned away, her copper curls sinuous, almost serpentine. Despite her potent blood, she showed few outward signs of it. She was quite beautiful, her features fine and pleasing. Despite his long devotion to the Masters, Myrddin still found untainted human women to be desirable. Something about them being unspoiled aroused his passion. She glanced back at him and caught his stare. He cursed himself for a fool. She wasn’t just “some woman.” And besides, he still favored Viviane.
“Is his performance... adequate?” Myrddin asked.
“That is a good word for it,” Gwenhwyfar said. “He ruts as well as any animal.”
“He is your husband, and your king.”
“I am aware of that as well.” She looked out over the ramparts, down at the fields below. She seemed to him like a princess out of a tale, trapped in a tall tower. “He has my body, but he’ll never have my heart. I know you don’t care, but it’s true.”
“You are correct. I don’t care. Just make that body available as often and as eagerly as you can. As a woman, that is your purpose. If you can not be of use in that capacity, your service is not required.”
He let the threat hang for a moment before stalking away. He would need to acquaint himself with Morgaine’s child, make all the necessary preparations. Artur was everything he’d hoped for. He wouldn’t be stymied now.
A major element in the Arthur legend is the search for the Holy Grail, the cup from the Last Supper, later used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch Christ’s blood. Some claim the name comes from the Old French, ‘sang réal,’ meaning royal blood.
Viviane’s eyes sparkled as an image took shape on the water in the scrying pool. “That’s it,” Myrddin said. “Yes.”
Amber-haired Gwenhwyfar sprawled on a divan, the tall, dark form of Llansiloth stretched out beside her. They appeared to be speaking, though the scrying pool didn’t convey sound. That ceased to matter when Llansiloth kissed Gwenhwyfar, pressing her down against the divan.
“Enough,” Myrddin said, disgusted.
Viviane waved a hand, and the pool returned to its natural state. Her tutelage had been progressing in leaps and bounds, though Myrddin still couldn’t place the origin of her abilities. There was something akin to the Masters’ blessing in it but nothing familiar. Could there be a third path, other servants of the Masters? Perhaps brought to the island from travelers or conquerors?
“Does Artur know?” Viviane asked.
“No,” Myrddin said. “I’ve made sure to keep him distracted and focused elsewhere. I introduced him to Medraut as well. Told him the youth was his son.”
“You deem that wise?”
Myrddin gave a half shrug. “I don’t think it can hurt. I’m considering making it known he’s Artur’s bastard. At least then we’d have an heir, one I have influenced and whose bloodline is strong.”
“It’s always about bloodlines with you.”
He looked at her sharply. “That’s all there is. That’s all that matters.”
He hesitated. He’d allowed himself to speak freely with her, but this was close to the heart of his purpose. His sacred responsibility.
“Come, now.” She pressed against him. “Who would I tell?”
He’d never spoken of it, never expressed the terms of his service aloud, but as he considered the many labors, and the long years, he felt a familiar maddening frustration.
“The gods I serve, They do not speak plainly. Their meaning is rarely clear.”
“I would expect that’s true of most such beings.” She wrapped an arm around him, sliding her other hand up his chest. Her nails scraped against his skin.
“Even so, it can be hard to know their true thoughts. There is a prophecy. It says my Masters’ return will be accomplished by a promised king, a ruler priest who will carry their blood in his veins. So the bloodline is essential, and I have carefully coordinated unions to strengthen it. Artur is one of these, but so is Medraut. Not even I know who the prophesied one is. Maybe Artur. Maybe Medraut. Maybe neither.”
“How will you know?”
“When they accomplish what they’re supposed to accomplish. When the Masters return.”
She rubbed his chest. “That sounds frustrating. And incredibly exhausting.”
“Yes,” he said, feeling at last some recognition of his struggle. “Yes.” He kissed her.
“I hope the prophecy is revealed soon,” she said. “So you can know rest.”
He was later ashamed to recall how he’d wept. Just a few tears, but he couldn’t hold them back, and they spilled freely onto Viviane’s naked body as he filled her, and tried to fill himself with her, and only her.
Arthur’s golden age sadly never came to pass. Lancelot and Guinevere’s betrayal, along with Mordred’s treachery, resulted in a civil war that fractured the Knights of the Round Table and led to Arthur’s fatal wounding.
Artur seemed in good spirits when Myrddin arrived in Kem’loth. “I trust your visit with Medraut went well?” Myrddin asked.
“He’s a good boy,” Artur said. “Morgaine has even been teaching him some of your so-called art.”
“Has she?” Myrddin kept the frown from his face. He’d thought it a small matter to let Morgaine splash about on the surface of the art, confident she’d never plumb its depths. But to teach Medraut... He wasn’t sure of its wisdom. Even so, he should be the teacher. He resolved to bring the matter up with Morgaine later.
“Have you given any more thought to bringing Medraut here? To join your knights?”
“Now might not be the best time.” Artur beckoned Myrddin to one of the chairs, and Myrddin sat, wondering at the king’s meaning.
Artur leaned forward. “Gwenhwyfar is pregnant,” he said triumphantly. “The heir you’ve long wished for is on his way.”
Myrddin kept absolutely still, determined to control his reaction. “You are sure?”
“Yes.” Artur smacked the surface of the table. “The midwife confirmed it.”
Myrddin forced a smile and bowed his head. “Then my deepest congratulations to you and the queen.”
“So with an actual heir on the way, now might not be the best time to bring my bastard to court.”
“Quite perceptive,” Myrddin said. “It must be postponed.”
“I intend to announce the pregnancy tonight. Have a feast. It will be good for the men.”
“Sire...” Myrddin found he got the best results when being deferential. “Would you consider waiting for the announcement? Until I can examine the queen? I’d like to verify the safety of the baby.”
Artur sighed. “Very well. Do what you need to do.”
Myrddin strode to the queen’s rooms and sent her servants away.
Gwenhwyfar fixed him with a hard glare. “You do not rule here.”
He bit back the response so close to his lips. “Is it true? You are with child?”
She smiled, and it was overly sweet. “It is.”
“Then it is not Artur’s. It is the knight’s.”
“You can’t prove that.”
Rage filled him, and he advanced on her until he was closer than anyone, save the king or her servants, should be. “You’d do better than to try to defy me,” he growled. “I will not allow another man’s child to be heir to Artur or to his throne. Don’t think I lack the means to stop this farce.”
“You would threaten the child of your king? Artur already dotes on it.”
“It is within my means to stop the birth of your child, yes. But I needn’t do so. I can reveal your infidelity.”
“You could,” she said, “but it would tear your beloved kingdom apart to do so. You know how Artur loves Llansiloth.”
“You underestimate your husband,” Myrddin said. And the faith and trust he has in me, he added silently. I have guided his steps since birth. Who are you but a brood mare brought in to receive his seed? And even that you failed at.
He stalked away, knowing that if he stayed he would strike her. And that would create too many complications.
He’d intended to go straight to Artur, expose Gwenhwyfar and Llansiloth’s betrayal, but he was too full of anger to act decidedly. He needed care in revealing he’d known of the infidelity for months. Instead he went to Viviane.
“What’s the matter, love?” she asked, her face full of concern.
“That witless bitch got herself pregnant. Only not by Artur.”
“Yes! She thinks to pass it off as Artur’s get, but I will not allow it. Not after the work I’ve done to get us here.”
“Come.” Viviane beckoned him to the bed. Myrddin joined her and she held his hands in hers. “It will be all right.”
“It will,” Myrddin said. “I will make it right. I will expose the queen and her shameful knight and I’ll have Artur make Medraut his heir.”
“Oh, Myrddin,” Viviane said. “I don’t think that will be enough.”
“What do you mean?”
Viviane shook her head. “You expect that if you expose them, Llansiloth and Gwenhwyfar will just slink away. But they won’t.”
“Why not?” Myrddin snapped. “What do you know?” He tried to pull his hands away, but Viviane held them firm, gripping his wrists with surprising strength. He looked at her in alarm, then felt burning pain where she gripped him, the result of two deep incisions, one in each wrist, welling with blood.
His vision wavered, as if by water, and when he blinked, her hands were green, and webbed, and tipped with black claws. A woman of the lake sat where Viviane had just been. Her wide lips peeled back from her mouth, revealing discolored needle-sharp teeth.
“Oh, Myrddin,” she croaked. “You were so easily misled.”
“It was me this whole time. Me who you lay with. Me who you taught. Not Viviane, but Ny-Mu-Weh, high priestess, who served the Masters long before you were born. Before the continent of Mu sank with Them beneath the waves.”
“But why? I serve Them, too!”
“Perhaps. But you’ve perverted our ways. You, maker of myths, spinner of stories. Working like a shy rogue when you could bend this world to your will. Artur rules. Why manipulate the couplings you desire when you can simply command they happen?”
“The mission has always been to find the prophesied one.”
“I believe the prophesied one will come, when we are all joined in service to the Masters.”
A wave of disorientation passed through him, either from the loss of blood or some poison in the wound.
“But you accepted Artur...” he gasped.
“He was necessary to consolidate our power. I was unable to navigate here. But I’ve found the right wave. Llansiloth is one of mine. My blood runs in his veins. A child of his and Gwenhwyfar’s will succeed Artur.”
Myrddin’s anger returned. He tried to pull away again, but his body refused to obey. “You forget Medraut,” he said. “He’s ambitious. I saw to that. He will not let the throne go.”
“Your overconfidence is your downfall,” Ny-Mu-Weh said. “The time you spent with the boy, trying to mold him, is far outweighed by the time spent with his mother. Morgaine, too, is one of mine.”
“No,” Myrddin protested. “She’s Igraine’s daughter.”
“I seeded that bloodline long ago.” Her smile was horrific. “Who do you think taught Morgaine the art?”
“No,” Myrddin said. “No.”
“Soon the forces will assemble on the battlefield. Medraut’s army against his father’s. In the battle, Artur will die. In the name of Artur’s heir, Gwenhwyfar and Llansiloth will rule as regents, and Medraut will pledge himself to their cause. And if the prophesied one is not soon revealed, we will begin a campaign of conquest until we control the world. Even if it takes a thousand years or more.”
“You’ll ruin everything... all I’ve worked for.”
“Or undo the ruin you threatened.” She released his hands, which fell limply into his lap. He couldn’t move. No part of his body would obey him. Ny-Mu-Weh flicked a hair from his face with a claw. “You have always discounted females. Yet you were so easily led by your manhood.” She traced a claw down his chest, and fiery pain erupted everywhere it touched. It came to rest just over his heart. “And maybe this, too?” Her tone was mocking. “The weaver of lies, caught so neatly by one. The oldest of all. But no one loves you. You are irrevocably alone.”
Despite the shock and horror, and the poison running through him, he felt the hollow ache beneath it all. The recognition that the love he believed in was a lie. And always had been. Yet its loss was real.
“My plans will continue after me,” he said. “I’ve thought ahead.”
“Perhaps they will. And perhaps you have. But you won’t die yet. This poison will not kill you. But it will trap you here. I’ll leave you alive, with the scrying pool, so you can witness what we accomplish in your absence. So you can witness your defeat.”
She left him then, as he floated in a red haze of blood and confusion. Later, he would recall her releasing Artur’s blood into the water. Later, he’d realize she’d had more understanding of the blood than he did. But in that moment, it was the loss that swallowed him, and it was the loss that dragged him down.
Mordred died in the final battle against Arthur, as did most of the Knights of the Round Table. But before Arthur could perish from his fatal wounds, he was taken away to the mystical isle of Avalon. The stories differ on who took him there, but most recount that Morgan Le Fay was involved.
Morgaine stood on the battlefield amidst the screams of dying men, her hands clenched at her sides. The air was heavy with the stink of the dead, but even so, she smelled Ny-Mu-Weh’s approach. “How does this serve the Masters?” Morgaine asked.
“Arthur’s forces were stronger than anticipated,” Ny-Mu-Weh said. “They fought harder than expected.”
“It’s the myth.” Morgaine turned to face her teacher. “You discounted Myrddin’s tactics, but the stories work. They inspired his followers. They believed Artur was special, that he was chosen.” I almost did myself, she thought.
“Perhaps,” Ny-Mu-Weh said. “Your people are easily misled.”
“My son is dead,” Morgaine said, hearing the bitterness in her voice.
“Yes,” Ny-Mu-Weh said. “It is unfortunate.”
“You can bear another child. And there is Gwenhwyfar and her spawn.”
Morgaine remained silent. She knew Gwenhwyfar wouldn’t rule for long. With Arthur and the knights gone, the kingdom would soon be wrested from her. She was a woman, after all. Ny-Mu-Weh’s greatest flaw was she didn’t understand humanity, after spending centuries in the dark.
Morgaine went to Artur, who still stirred on the ground. Blood pooled around him, seeping from rents in his armor. Caliburnus lay just out of his reach, singing its dirge-like song. Morgaine bent to pick it up. “Yes,” Ny-Mu-Weh said. “End it. Crush the last of Myrddin’s dreams.”
Morgaine gripped the sword’s hilt and lifted it, feeling its strength thrum through her, the strength of the Masters. “Why did you give it to him?” she asked. “If you intended all this?”
“So it would come to his child,” Ny-Mu-Weh said. “So it would confirm the royal legacy.”
“It is a strong weapon,” Morgaine said. “Strong enough even for this.” She whirled, swinging the sword with all her strength, feeling the sword feed her art, feeling her art feed the sword. The blade struck Ny-Mu-Weh in the neck, shearing through gills, rubbery flesh, and bone. Ny-Mu-Weh’s head tumbled to the ground, inky black eyes still wide in surprise.
Morgaine knelt down to Artur, placing Caliburnus’ hilt in his hand, seeing some color and life return to him at the contact. “It’s me. Morgaine.” She tugged off his gauntlet and slid her webbed hand into his. His grip was weak, but she felt the barest squeeze.
“Morgaine,” he wheezed. “If it is the end, I’m glad you’re with me.”
“Hush,” Morgaine said. “It is not the end. Only a pause.”
“Mordred?” he asked.
She shook her head, unable to stop the tears that spilled forth.
Artur wept as well. “I didn’t want—”
“I know,” she said. What they wanted was never a consideration. “I’ll take you away from here. To Asfalarn, across the water, where you can heal, where we can be nearer the Masters. There we’ll wait for the time to make our return. When we do, we’ll remake the world. You and I alone. When the time comes, we will choose, and no one else.”
Although accounts of Merlin’s end differ, most agree that he either died or was imprisoned, the latter often by magic. While the legends speak of Arthur’s return one day, Merlin’s destiny is less certain.
Myrddin watched it all through the scrying pool, his brief satisfaction at seeing Ny-Mu-Weh’s death the only break in his despair. So many lives lost. So many years of planning. For nothing.
Yet... Artur would live on. Not just in body, thanks to Morgaine’s ministrations, but in legend. Myrddin was sure of it. He’d doubted Artur was the champion prophesied, but now the truth was clear. The myth would endure, down through the centuries, and when the time was right, he would return, the Masters would wake, and the whole world would tremble.
Myrddin hoped he’d see it. With Ny-Mu-Weh dead, there was no one who knew where he was, and her enchantments still held, trapping him. But even the art would fade; stories and tales were the only magic with true longevity. One day the wards would fail, while the legend of Arthur outlasted them. Myrddin would just need to be patient and hope his long life, the gift of the Masters, would sustain his body.
His mind... well, there would be no avoiding the madness to come. Better to embrace it and trust he’d emerge at a more opportune time. After all, he had done it before.
So he reached down into himself, to the maelstrom within, and surrendered, letting the madness take him, tossing himself into turbulent seas, one last throw of the dice, until the story would need him once more.
Until then, in the halls of Asfalarn, dead Artur would wait, dreaming.