The Sword in the Shadow

The shattered domes above administered a pale column of light, falling unwanted upon him in the darkness — he wondered if it was so very different to a crown? A dusting of snow and ice fell also, glittering down through eternity; briefly illuminated like the lives of men. Outside the night swirled thick and sheer; clutching the castle and his heart within the talons of its misery.He gazed down at his deep-lined hands; the warped fingers of an old craftsman and a cruel joke of time’s design. Peering between the furrows of his wizened palms, he followed each line wrought there like letters upon the parchment of his life, to where the seeds of his story had long ago sprouted, beneath the scars and welts of age. Time had passed, it seemed, in the blink of an eye. Emptying his hands of that which he had once possessed more of than any man; like the rich are prone to do — he had squandered all his wealth. So swiftly do such sands fall, he reflected bitterly.

Merlin trembled in the dark, but not with cold, or fear but with a need. Greasy sweat slid from his skin; his body wracked with the deep ache of his waning sorcery. The last essence of his craft still lingering in his hands was draining away. Like a desert he heaved; exhausted with an ancient thirst. For he was now arid of his once potent magic. It had started with the bloody fall of Camelot; which he could never forget, however old he grew. He’d spent many long years in self-imposed incarceration since, in the shadows of its ruins, sifting through the sands he’d spilled, searching for some answer, for reasons – though he blamed only himself – he’d been here so long he had become a relic himself. Closing his eyes he let the emptiness of time fill his mind, and become his being; it buoyed him up and carried him away upon its rolling swell, to where the darkness fell away and he fell with it; dragged under by the tide that waits for no-man, or wizard. Lancelot had led his rebel knights against their young King, when Merlin had refused Lancelot the use of his sorcery; demanding Merlin disguise him with Arthur’s glamour, so that he might have Guinevere for a mere night of carnal pleasure. The champion had ranted at him when Merlin denied him; consumed with his lust and longing – maddened by it.

“You did it for Uther!” he had wailed – more like a woman much less a knight – on his knees beseeching Merlin to enchant his form. He shook the wizard like a rag-doll, mad with fury, as grasping hands slithered around the sages throat.

“You crowned Uther’s spawn King! I do not crave the crown, Merlin. I want the Queen!”

Merlin had struck him across the face; disgusted – as one would a feral child.

“He is your King — you confuse Queen and whore too readily!” the wizard rumbled, glowering over him, the thunder in his voice rolling across the sky.

“I’ll see you burn for this, warlock!” Lancelot threatened, with no more venom than a worm. Foolishly, Merlin had spared him, leaving him sniveling on the ground shying his face away, whimpering. Believing the mercy he’d shown would shame Lancelot beyond further folly, Merlin had set about orchestrating his banishment. Lancelot’s shame, however, was bottomless.

“Better to rule in the wilderness, than serve him in Camelot,” Lancelot spat, as he departed. So be it, thought Merlin.

The outcast knight returned to Camelot from exile with an army raised from the remnants of Uther’s enemies. They lay siege in the knowledge Arthur quested for the Grail — and with the weapon that could destroy them all at his side; leaving those who remained no defence against the bloodthirsty rebel host. Lancelot took Queen Guinevere as his prize; ravishing her upon the table where they had once held court. Again and again he violated her, as his rebel-knights looked on. Word had reached Arthur of Lancelot’s vile betrayal and the search for the Grail was abandoned. With the help of Excalibur he retook the city, and in revenge, Arthur slew him with it. Though the city was liberated Arthur had never forgave Merlin’s failure to protect the Kingdom or his Queen. For a time, a peace of sorts settled over the bruised and scarred land, but in fact it was the beginning of the end. Woe upon woe had fallen. Arthur burned the Round Table, declaring it desecrated. Heartbroken and hollow, Guinevere had drowned herself in the lake surrounding Avalon. She had taken Excalibur with her too, down with her to lay in its murky depths, leaving Arthur alone and bereft of all he had once clung to. Truly, then did Albion grow sick; Camelot became a gaunt bastion where only crows and wolves strayed as the young King’s rule faltered. He turned away from Merlin’s council and drowned his sorrows with wine and women whose hearts were closed, but whose legs where open; who suckled men at their breasts like sows in their sties.

Merlin’s hands, he realised, were blackened – with the filth of so much spent time. Just a meddling fool am I, he thought. A presence lurked in the shadows strung thereabouts like webs around him; a low cunning that hissed in a familiar yet threatening tone; it’s voice thick with gloating. A cold wicked thing that crawled out from its throat and died on the air.

“Merlin?” it simpered, coyly. “Merlin! The boy you would have crowned; Arthur, he is dead!

“A lie!” the wizard roared, suddenly animate and enraged.

“The Wolves of Albion crack the marrow from his still-warm bones amongst red snow.” rasped the voice from the dark.

“Truth curdles in your maw long before you speak it!” spat the wizard, as something rolled across the floor towards him. It was Arthur’s head! It was not a lie. Now the truth was truly dead. The man who was once a wizard bellowed at the whisperer – at the dark; overcome with despair, sinking to the floor to cradle his old friend’s head, weeping tears that froze as they fell. The thing in the dark laughed softly at him – for a long time, before it finally crawled away and left him, utterly alone.

A whisper broke from Merlin’s lips, a flake of memory; “Excalibur!” Once a prayer, perhaps a dream, now a mockery. Yet that thought dulled by the silent pillage of time, now began to thaw. ‘Who will wield you now Excalibur?’ he wondered.

In the deep bleak dark of eternal winter, he fled from Camelot’s ruin. Snows were driven high against the land, the woods he had know when they were young, were now as stark as the Christian cross against the sky. When dawn came it rose out of night like an old leper, its light haggard and cold. The orphaned wind blew through him, slicing down to his bones; as merry as a sallow tune whistled by Death himself; a sound that whittled on the soul. Excalibur had been forged to unite Albion; now it was his only chance of avenging Arthur; an impossible chance – the blade had been lost along with Guinevere and the sorcery that once aided him now lay as frozen in his hands as the blood in his veins. Excalibur was no more attainable to him than the Grail; though to find it, he must try.

Merlin scoured the bones of Albion for Avalon and Arthur’s fabled weapon. But he saw no sign of either; only the shadow of the Wolves, which lay hard upon the land, having scoured its green heart ashen. The tides were swollen with poison and death; ebbing at the land, casting up the dead upon the shore. The wind howled — mad with hunger, snarling around him, snapping its cold jaws and shaking at his thread-bare cloak where it snatched it up. Above, the sun was a sallow wen in the sky, and envious of the moon; for its light guttered like a candle scraped-up from pauper’s tallow. The air was thick with the misery of a dying land, as if misery were a tangible miasma like the heaps of frozen dead. Much time had passed over the land since it was young. Merlin journeyed North to speak with the eagles but found it full of wild Picts and Celts, brooding with malcontent. They knew nothing of the sword, nor cared for Albion’s plight – or Merlin’s; they were blood drinkers, with hearts as cold and bleak as the mountains they dwelt amongst. To the West he journeyed in fear, in the shadow of dark hills and deep valleys pooled with mist where the Old Red One was said to slumber: Wǣrmag, last of the Great Wyrms. She who had devoured the knight-errant and Christian warrior George; who’d come seeking glory for his charlatan god, and found only death. There at last Merlin came to the edge of the land where the waters lay wide and deep, and had grown treacherous and cruel; grown fat upon those who had gone down to be bound with the cold dark soul of the ocean. Merlin knew he must cross despite his great fear; somehow he knew that Avalon lay on its distant shore, though how he could not say, only that he felt compelled. Across the grey water he hoped he would find Excalibur, though it was too far to swim and the dead cried to him from out of the depths to join them – there was no sorcery left within him powerful enough to carry him over. A horn sounded from out of the gloom, again; then presently, again. A mournful sound, yet one that he could not ignore, it heralded a boat, that drifted towards the shore where he stood as if it had strayed from an empty dream.

It took him across the waters to a wild place. Where the shore was choked with the corpses of men, and watchful shadows moved between the trees. Merlin did not stray from the path; fearful of the woods and the eyes that scrutinized him from within. The air was foul with the stench of death and something else unwholesome that brooded there. As night drew over the strange land, he found himself seeking shelter. Spying a fire burning through the trees and mindful of what haunted his wake he stepped into the circle of firelight.

“Merlin!” she said, in a welcoming voice and bid him seat himself. He would have fled then, but it seemed his way was barred. Yellow eyes gleamed at him from the trees, resigned, he faced her.

“Morgana.” he sighed.

“You have grown old Merlin, slow.”

He considered her: Sable hair fell down about her shoulders and beneath the furs and skins she wrapped herself within, he saw glimpses of lithe limbs and flesh that was smooth and firm. Her eyes shimmered with a rainbow of snakes and the soft, deceptive hook of her smile lured him, and terrified him both.

“You look as you did, last I saw you Morgana – so many years ago!”

“Come now!” she laughed; a sound like the jangling of knives.

“For two as old as we, I look not a day older than a score and one!”

Merlin had seen this too and it was troubling him. She had been no-more than a peddler of potions back then, who muttered foul pacts to the dark. Her power should not be so great.

“What trickery, Morgana?”

“Do you not believe your eyes Merlin? Do you doubt your own desire – the quickening of your paltry, old-man’s milk?” Her furs fell to one side and he gasped at the sight of her and the sudden memory she raised from his loins. He dropped his eyes, though the pull of her flesh and the tow of her gaze was powerful – heavy, like a chain. She covered herself – a storm blown across the moon – and laughed a sharp, high laugh.

“You can have me Merlin. You are all that is left of the old world, the old ways – of Albion. Ally yourself to me, Merlin and you shall be rejuvenated. The land shall be healed”

She picked up a cup and drank from it, savouring its contents.

“We are all that is left Morgana; I am simply all that is left of the old way to oppose you.”

Her gaze hardened, she placed the cup down, though not far from her reach, and leaned closer, like a snake about to strike.

“Do you not find me desirable Merlin? This body I will grant you to use. I crave a man’s embrace Merlin, I have been so lonely since…”

Merlin’s eyes filled with slow thunder, then dawn began at last to break beneath the clouds of his aging wit.

“Lancelot!” he snapped. “You bewitched him!”

“Me?” she replied with feigned offense, one hand splayed between her breasts, in mock placation.

“He was so eager to please me, so hungry for this body of mine. I didn’t have the heart to reject him – like you did.”

“I did not reject him, Morgana. I exiled him!”

“I know Merlin, I found him wandering, lost and alone. He was beside himself with what he had asked of you. I gave him love, Merlin, then I gave him purpose. That is all a dumb boy needs!” Morgana raised the cup to her lips and drank again, the pools of her eyes mocking him with their silent sirens-call. “To Lancelot!” she cooed. At last Merlin understood.

“The Grail! You drink from the Holy Grail!”

“Oh, this?” She held it in front of her gaze, appropriating surprise. “My sweet and eager Lancelot, he found it for me Merlin. Do keep up,” she glanced to his loins; pretending to stifle a smirk, “if you can?”

“Lancelot brought you the Grail?” Merlin demanded, ignoring her.

“Yes, once he had tasted me, he was mine to use. So virile, so lusty,” she said, mocking him with her eyes again, “he reminded me of you in some way – only bigger. He was so terribly vain though, and dull, puffed up like a cockerel. One soon tires of the crowing of cocks, and is forced to wring their necks.”

“Lancelot was lost in his obsession for the Queen, Morgana; he would not have brought you the Grail, he would have taken it to Arthur, for the Queen.”

“But he did! I am a very talented lover Merlin, so very attentive. Do you not remember? I can be whatever a man desires. Whatever Lancelot desired. Much like you did for Uther, so he could have Igraine.”

That shame still haunted him. She knew it. Though it had been necessary; to mix those bloodlines. Morgana’s insight into such things was always twisted – she had used the Grail’s power to ensnare one of its holiest of warriors.

“You seduced the greatest knight in the land and set him loose – after you had warped his mind – to destroy the kingdom and make carrion of its King!”

“I am very grateful to Lance, for the Grail; thus denying Arthur of its use, whilst fathering me twelve daughters; they who roam the land, free in the dark – they who hunted Arthur down.”

Merlin shuddered, those unholy dogs should not have been the end for Arthur, with Excalibur he would have stood a chance. “Why, Morgana?”

“Because of him, because of you! You spurned me Merlin, all those years ago. And so I vowed that I would take the boy you cherished so dearly from you. To take your joy as you crushed mine. You would not grant me the happiness I sought with you, so I would deny you yours. Then something happened I did not expect. I fell in love with him.”

Merlin almost laughed.

For a moment her eyes glistened wistfully and her gaze faltered, something of the maid he had once known returned – but only momentarily.

“He only had eyes for Guinevere. He was the only one I did not try to enchant, Merlin. The only one I was true for. He never even noticed me.”

“You have lain waste to a whole country and bartered away its destiny to those who bid for such things in the dark, because Arthur spurned you? You are mad Morgana! Drunk on the power of the Grail.”

She turned then; to venom and fire, spit and claw.

“Hell hath no fury, Merlin. Hell hath none like mine.”

“Fury does not justify you coupling with the black goat of the pit, nor making the dark powers of the underworld your allies!”

“I ally myself against your rotting God upon his cross; against the coming of this bastard messiah you think will save your land. I ally myself against any who would deem only men holy! Arthur’s blessed knights of the round table – a fools dream! They are drunken brigands who butcher and rape in the name of this Christ! Why are my daughters any less worthy than any man who follows him?”

“You have slaughtered far more than Arthur’s crusade ever did, Morgana! Did you ever think of the innocent? Of Guinevere?”

“Ha! She knew what she was doing – quaffing Arthur’s royal seed like the poor would a bowl of porridge! Would you like to see where the whore died?” She led him to a high cliff above a wrathful ocean. Avalon was an island now, as real as any – her Ireland. Her daughters followed, snapping and snarling at Merlin’s heels.

“There!” she said, pointing down to where the sea was calmed with the quiet of the grave, silver glinted there in the deep, sparkling like a sunken star.

‘Excalibur!’ Merlin knew.

Morgana still held the Grail in her hand and raised it to drink a toast to Albion’s dead queen.

“She came here to slay me, with that cursed weapon! The foolish girl. She could not match my power though, so she flung herself to her death instead; clutching that fucking sword between her whore’s teets, rather than surrender my bane.”

“To Guinevere.” she hissed, lurching drunkenly and raising the Grail to sup from it again, .

“To Guinevere!” he muttered also, snatching the Grail from Morgana’s grasp. Merlin tumbled down through eternity; the sword below the water glittering in the deep; illuminating him from below the churn of the thirsty waves. Down he went to lie with the Queen and her King’s old sword, as the thunder of the waves above him drowned out Morgana’s screams of despair. At last he had found peace.

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