The Mists of Avalon: Avalon Book 7 | Chapter 18 of 81

Author: Marion Zimmer Bradley | Submitted by: Maria Garcia | 197041 Views | Add a Review

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12

The priestesses above a certain grade took it in turns to serve the Lady of the Lake, and at this season when the Lady was very busy with preparations for the approaching Midsummer festival, one of them always slept in the little wattled house, so that the Lady might have someone at her call night and day. It was so early that the sun still hid in the mist at the edge of the horizon when Viviane stepped into the room beyond her own, where her attendant slept, and beckoned quietly to awaken her.

The woman sat up in bed, flinging her deerskin tunic over her undergown.

“Tell the bargemen to be ready. And go and ask my kinswoman Morgaine to attend upon me.”

A few minutes later, Morgaine paused respectfully before the entrance where Viviane was kneeling to build up her fire. She made no sound; after nine years of training in the priestess arts, she moved so silently that no footfall or even a breath of air marked her passing. But after those years, too, the ways of the priestesses were so well known to her that she was not surprised when Viviane turned as she reached the door, and said, “Come in, Morgaine.”

Rather contrary to her usual custom, however, Viviane did not invite her kinswoman to sit, but kept her standing there, regarding her evenly for a moment.

Morgaine was not tall; she would never be that, and in these years in Avalon she had grown as tall as she would ever be, a scant inch taller than the Lady. Her dark hair was plaited down the back of her neck and wrapped with a deerskin thong; she wore the dark-dyed blue dress and deerskin overtunic of any priestess, and the blue crescent shone darkly between her brows. Nevertheless, smooth and anonymous as she was among them, there was a glint in her eyes which answered to Viviane’s cool stare, and Viviane knew from experience that, small and delicately made as she was, when she wished she could throw a glamour over herself that made her appear not only tall but majestic. Already she appeared ageless, and she would, Viviane knew, look much the same even when white appeared in her dark hair.

She thought, with a flicker of relief, No, she is not beautiful, then wondered why it should matter to her. No doubt Morgaine, like all young women, even a priestess vowed lifelong to the service of the Goddess, would prefer to be beautiful, and was intensely unhappy because she was not. She thought, with a slight curl of her lip, When you are my age, my girl, it will not matter whether or no you are beautiful, for everyone you know will believe that you are a great beauty whenever you wish them to believe it; and when you do not, you can sit back and pretend to be a simple old woman long past such thoughts. She had fought her own battle more than twenty years ago, when she saw Igraine growing to womanhood with the tawny and russet beauty for which Viviane, still young, would gladly have bartered her soul and all her power. Sometimes, in moments of self-doubt, she wondered if she had thrust Igraine into marriage with Gorlois so that she need not be endlessly taunted with the younger woman’s loveliness, mocking her own dark severity. But I brought her to the love of the man destined for her before the ring stones of Salisbury plain were piled one upon another, she thought.

She realized that Morgaine was still standing quietly, awaiting her word, and smiled.

“Truly I grow old,” she said. “I was lost, for a moment, in memories. You are not the child who came here many years ago; but there are times when I forget it, my Morgaine.”

Morgaine smiled and the smile transformed her face, which in repose was rather sullen. Like Morgause, Viviane thought, though otherwise they are nothing alike. It is Taliesin’s blood.

Morgaine said, “I think you forget nothing, kinswoman.”

“Perhaps not. Have you broken your fast, child?”

“No. But I am not hungry.”

“Very well. I want you to go in the barge.”

Morgaine, who had grown used to silence, answered only with a gesture of respect and assent.

It was not, of course, a request unusual in any way—the barge from Avalon must always be guided by a priestess who knew the secret way through the mists.

“It is a family mission,” Viviane said, “for it is my son who is approaching the island, and I thought it well to send a kinswoman to welcome him here.”

Morgaine smiled. “Balan?” she said. “Will his foster-brother Balin not fear for his soul if he goes beyond the sound of church bells?”

A glint of humor lighted Viviane’s eyes, and she said, “Both of them are proud men and dedicated warriors, and they live blameless lives, even by the standards of the Druids, harming none and oppressing none, and ever seeking to right a wrong when they find it. I doubt not that the Saxons find them four times as fearsome when they fight side by side. In fact, they are afraid of nothing, except the evil magic of that wicked sorceress who is mother to one of them . . .” and she giggled like a young woman, and Morgaine giggled with her.

Then, sobering, she said, “Well, I do not regret sending Balan to fosterage in the outer world. He had no call to become a Druid, and he would have made a very bad one, and if he is lost to the Goddess, no doubt she will watch over him in her own way, even if he prays to her with beads and calls upon her as Mary the Virgin. No, Balan is away on the coast, fighting against the Saxons at Uther’s side, and I am content to have it so. It is of my younger son I spoke.”

“I thought Galahad still in Brittany.”

“So did I, but last night with the Sight I saw him . . . he is here. When last I saw him, he was but twelve years old. He is grown considerably, I should say; he must now be sixteen or more, and ready for his arms, but I do not know for certain that he is to bear arms at all.”

Morgaine smiled, and Viviane remembered that when Morgaine had first come here, a lonely child, she had sometimes been allowed to spend her free time with the only other child fostered here, Galahad.

“Ban of Benwick must be old now,” Morgaine remarked.

“Old, yes; and he has many sons, so that my son, among them, is just one more of the king’s unregarded bastards. But his half-brothers fear him and would rather he went elsewhere, and a child of the Great Marriage cannot be treated like any other bastard.” Viviane answered the unspoken question. “His father would give him land and estates in Brittany, but I saw to it before he was six years old that Galahad’s heart would always be here, at the Lake.” She saw the glint in Morgaine’s eyes and answered, again, the unspoken.

“Cruel, to make him ever discontent? Perhaps. It was not I that was cruel, but the Goddess. His destiny lies in Avalon, and I have seen him with the Sight, kneeling before the Holy Chalice. . . .”

Again, with an ironic inflection, Morgaine made the little gesture of assent with which a priestess under vows of silence would have acquiesced to a command.

Suddenly Viviane was angry with herself. I sit here justifying what I have done with my life, and the lives of my sons, to a chit of a girl! I owe her no explanations! She said, and her voice was chilled with sudden distance, “Go with the barge, Morgaine, and bring him to me.”

A third time the silent gesture of assent and Morgaine turned to go.

“One moment,” Viviane said. “You will break your fast here with us when you bring him back to me; he is your cousin and kinsman too.”

When Morgaine smiled again, Viviane realized that she had been trying to make the girl smile, and was surprised at herself.

         

         

Morgaine went down along the path toward the edge of the Lake. Her heart was still beating faster than usual; often, these days, when she spoke with the Lady, anger was mixed with affection, to neither of which she was allowed to give voice, and this did strange things to her mind. She wondered at herself, because she had been taught to control her emotions as she controlled her words and even her thoughts.

Galahad she remembered from her first years in Avalon—a scrawny, dark, intense boy. She had not liked him much, but because her heart hungered for her own small brother, she had let the lonely boy run about after her. Then he had been sent away to fosterage and she had seen him only once since, when he was twelve years old, all eyes and teeth and bones thrusting through outgrown clothes. He had grown into an intense disdain of anything female, and she had been occupied with the most difficult part of her training, so she had paid him little heed.

The small, dark men who poled the barge bent before her in silent respect to the Goddess whose form the higher priestesses were supposed to wear, and she signed to them without speaking and took her place in the prow.

Swiftly and silently the draped barge glided out into the mist. Morgaine felt the dampness coalescing on her brow and clinging to her hair; she was hungry, and chilled to the bone, but she had been taught to ignore that too. When they came out of the mist, the sun had risen on the far shore, and she could see a horse and rider waiting there. The barge continued its slow strokes forward, but Morgaine, in a rare moment of self-forgetfulness, stood unguarded, looking at the horseman there.

He was slightly built, his face aquiline and darkly handsome, set off by the crimson cap with an eagle feather in its band and the wide crimson cloak that fell gracefully around him. When he dismounted, the natural grace with which he moved, a dancer’s grace, took her breath away. Had she ever wished to be fair and rounded, when dark and slender could show this beauty? His eyes were dark too, glinting with a touch of mischief—mischief which alone gave Morgaine awareness of who this must be, although, otherwise, not a single feature remained of the scrawny boy with the bony legs and enormous feet.

“Galahad,” she said, pitching her voice low to keep it from trembling—a priestess-trick. “I would not have recognized you.”

He bowed smoothly, the cape swirling as he moved—had she ever despised that as an acrobat’s trick? Here it seemed to grow from his body.

“Lady,” he said.

He has not recognized me either. Keep it so.

Why at this moment did she remember Viviane’s words? Your virginity is sacred to the Goddess. See you keep it so till the Mother makes her will known. Startled, Morgaine recognized that for the first time in her life, she had looked on a man with desire. Knowing that such things were not for her, but that she was to use her life as the Goddess should decree, she had looked on men with scorn as the natural prey of the Goddess in the form of her priestesses, to be taken or denied as seemed right at the moment. Viviane had commanded that this year she need not take part in the Beltane fire rituals, from which some of her fellow priestesses emerged with child by the will of the Goddess, children who were either born, or cast forth by the knowledge of herb lore and drugs she had been taught—an unpleasant process, which if not followed inevitably brought on the even more unpleasant and dangerous process of birth, and tiresome children who were reared or sent to fosterage as the Lady decreed. Morgaine had been glad enough to escape this time, knowing that Viviane had other plans for her.

She gestured him to step on board. Never lay hands upon an outsider—the words of the old priestess who had schooled her; a priestess of Avalon must be even as a visitor from the otherworld. She wondered why she had to stop her hand from reaching out to touch his wrist. She knew, with a sureness that made the blood beat hard in her temples, that under the smooth skin would lie hard muscle, pulsing with life, and she hungered to meet his eyes again. She turned away, trying to master herself.

His voice was deep and musical as he said, “Why, now you move your hands, I know you—everything else about you has changed. Priestess, were you not once my kinswoman, called Morgaine?” The dark eyes glinted. “Nothing else is the same as when I used to call you Morgaine of the Fairies. . . .”

“I was, and I am. But years have passed,” she said, turning away, gesturing to the silent servants of the barge to pole it away from the shore.

“But the magic of Avalon never changes,” he murmured, and she knew he was not speaking to her. “The mist and the reeds and the cry of water birds . . . and then the barge, like magic, gliding from the silent shore . . . I know there is nothing for me here, and yet, somehow, I always return. . . .”

The barge moved silently across the Lake. Even now, after years of knowing that it was no magic, but intensive training in silencing the oars, Morgaine was still impressed by the mystical silence through which they moved. She turned to call the mists, and was conscious of the young man behind her. He stood, easily balanced beside his horse, one arm flung across the saddle blanket, shifting his weight easily without motion, so that he did not visibly sway or lose balance as the boat moved and turned. Morgaine did this herself from long training, but he managed it, it seemed, by his own natural grace.

It seemed that she could feel his dark eyes like a palpable warmth on her back as she stepped to the prow and raised her arms, the long sleeves trailing. She drew a deep breath, charging herself for the magical act, knowing she must concentrate all her strength, intensely angry at herself for her own awareness of the man’s eyes on her.

Let him see, then! Let him fear me and know me as the Goddess-self! She knew some rebel part of herself, long stifled, was crying out, No, I want him to see the woman, not the Goddess, not even the priestess, but another deep breath and even the memory of that wish was exhaled.

Up went her arms into the arch of the sky; down, with the mists following the sweep of her trailing sleeves. Mist and silence hung dark around them. Morgaine stood motionless, feeling the young man’s body warmth very close to her. If she moved even a little, she would touch his hand, and knew how his hand would feel, scalding against her own. She moved away with a little swirling of her robes, and collected distance about herself as with a veil. And all the time she was astonished at herself, saying within her mind somewhere, this is only my cousin, it is Viviane’s son who used to sit in my lap when he was little and lonely! Deliberately she summoned the picture of that awkward boy covered with bramble scratches, but when they sailed out of the mist the dark eyes were smiling at her, and she felt dizzy.

Of course I am faint, I have not yet broken my fast, she told herself, and watched the hunger in Galahad’s eyes as he looked on Avalon. She saw him cross himself. Viviane would be angry if she had seen that.

“It is indeed the land of the fairy folk,” he said, low, “and you are Morgaine of the Fairies, as always . . . but you are a woman, now, and beautiful, kinswoman.”

She thought, impatient, I am not beautiful, what he sees is the glamour of Avalon. And something rebellious in her said, I want him to think me beautiful—myself, not the glamour! She set her mouth tightly and knew that she looked stern, forbidding, all priestess again.

“This way,” she said curtly and, as the barge’s bottom scraped silently on the sandy edge, signalled for the bargemen to attend to his horse.

“By your leave, lady,” he said, “I will attend to it myself. It is not an ordinary saddle.”

“As you like,” Morgaine said, and stood and watched while he unsaddled his horse himself. But she was too intensely curious about everything concerning him to stand silent.

“Why, it is indeed a strange saddle . . . what are the long leather strappings?”

“The Scythians wear them—they are called stirrups. My foster-father took me on pilgrimage, and I saw them in their country. Even the Roman legions had no such cavalry, for the Scythians with these can control and stop their horses in mid charge, and that way they can fight from horseback,” he said, “and even in the light armor the horsemen wear, an equestrian knight is invincible against anyone on foot.” He smiled, the dark, intense face lighting up. “The Saxons call me Alfgar—the elf-arrow which comes out of darkness and strikes unseen. At Ban’s court they have taken up the name and call me Lancelet, which is as near as they can come to it. Some day I will have a legion of horses equipped this way, and then let the Saxons beware!”

“Your mother told me you were already a warrior,” Morgaine said, forgetting to pitch her voice low, and he smiled again at her.

“And now I know your voice, Morgaine of the Fairies . . . how dare you come upon me as a priestess, kinswoman? Well, I suppose it is the Lady’s will. But I like you better like this than solemn as a Goddess,” he said, with the familiar mischief, as if they had parted but the day before.

Clasping at shreds of her dignity, Morgaine said, “Yes, the Lady awaits us, and we must not keep her waiting.”

“Oh yes,” he mocked, “always we must scurry to do her will. . . . I suppose you are one of those who hurry to fetch and carry, and hang trembling on her every word.”

For that Morgaine found no answer except to say, “Come this way.”

“I remember the way,” he said, and walked quietly at her side instead of following behind with proper respect. “I too used to run to her and wait upon her will and tremble at her frown, until I found she was not just my mother, but thought herself greater than any queen.”

“And so she is,” Morgaine said sharply.

“No doubt, but I have lived in a world where men do not come and go at a woman’s beckoning.” She saw that his jaw was set and that the mischief was gone from his eyes. “I would rather have a loving mother than a stern Goddess whose every breath bids men live and die at her will.”

To that Morgaine found nothing whatever to say. She set a swift pace that meant he must scurry at her heels to keep up.

Raven, still silent—for she had bound herself by vows of perpetual silence, save when she spoke tranced as a prophetess—let them into the dwelling with an inclination of the head. As her eyes adjusted to the dimness, Morgaine saw that Viviane, seated by the fire, had chosen to greet her son not in the ordinary dark dress and deerskin tunic of a priestess, but had put on a dress of crimson and done her hair high on her forehead with gems glittering there. Even Morgaine, who knew the tricks of glamour for herself, gasped at the magnificence of Viviane. She was like the Goddess welcoming a petitioner to her underworld shrine.

Morgaine could see that Galahad’s chin was set and that the cords in his knuckles stood out, white, against his dark fists. She could hear him breathing, and guessed at the effort with which he steadied his voice, as he rose from his bow.

“My lady and mother, I give you greeting.”

“Galahad,” she said. “Come, sit here beside me.”

He took a seat across from her instead. Morgaine hovered near the door and Viviane beckoned her to come and seat herself too.

“I waited to breakfast with you both. Here, join me.”

There was fresh-cooked fish from the Lake, scented with herbs and dripping butter; there was hot, fresh barley bread, and fresh fruit, such food as Morgaine seldom tasted in the austere dwelling of the priestesses. She, and Viviane too, ate sparingly, but Galahad helped himself to everything with the healthy hunger of a youth still growing. “Why, you have set a meal fit for a king, Mother.”

“How does your father, and how does Brittany?”

“Well enough, though I have not spent much time there in the last year. He sent me on a far journey, to learn for his court about the new cavalry of the Scythian peoples. I do not think even the soldiers of Rome, such as they are, have any such horsemen now. We have herds of Iberian horses—but you are not interested in the doings of the stud farms. Now I have come to bring word to the Pendragon’s court of a new massing of Saxon armies; I doubt not they will strike in full force before Midsummer. Would that I had time and enough gold to train a legion of these horsemen!”

“You love horses,” Viviane said in surprise.

“Does that surprise you, madam? With beasts you always know precisely what they think, for they cannot lie, nor pretend to be other than they are,” he said.

“The ways of nature will all be open to you,” Viviane said, “when you return to Avalon in the life of a Druid.”

He said, “Still the same old song, Lady? I thought I gave you my answer when last I saw you.”

“Galahad,” she said, “you were twelve years old. That is too young to know the better part of life.”

He moved his hand impatiently. “No one calls me Galahad now, save you alone, and the Druid who gave me that name. In Brittany and in the field I am Lancelet.”

She smiled and said, “Do you think I care for what the soldiers say?”

“So you would bid me sit still in Avalon and play the harp while outside in the real world the struggle goes on for life and death, my lady?”

Viviane looked angry. “Are you trying to say this world is not real, my son?”

“It is real,” said Lancelet, with an impatient movement of his hand, “but real in a different way, cut off from the struggle outside. Fairyland, eternal peace—oh, yes, it is home to me, you saw to that, Lady. But it seems that even the sun shines differently here. And this is not where the real struggles of life are taking place. Even the Merlin has the wit to know that.”

“The Merlin came to be as he is through years when he learned to know the real from the unreal,” said Viviane, “and so must you. There are warriors enough in the world, my son. Yours is the task to see farther than any, and perhaps to bid the warriors come and go.”

He shook his head. “No! Lady, say no more, that path is not mine.”

“You are still not grown to know what you want,” Viviane said flatly. “Will you give us seven years, as you gave your father, to know whether this is your road in life?”

“In seven years,” said Lancelet, smiling, “I hope to see the Saxons driven from our shores, and I hope to have a hand in their driving. I have no time for the magics and mysteries of the Druids, Lady, and would not if I could. No, my mother, I beg you to give me your blessing and send me forth from Avalon, for to tell the truth, Lady, I will go with your blessing or without it. I have lived in a world where men do not wait for a woman’s bidding to go and come.”

Morgaine shrank away as she saw the white of rage sweep over Viviane’s face. The priestess rose from her seat, a small woman but given height and majesty by her fury.

“You defy the Lady of Avalon, Galahad of the Lake?”

He did not shrink before her. Morgaine, seeing him pale under the dark tanning of his skin, knew that inside the softness and grace was steel to match the Lady’s own. He said quietly, “Had you bidden me this when I still starved for your love and approval, madam, no doubt I would have done even as you commanded. But I am not a child, my lady and mother, and the sooner we acknowledge that, then the sooner we shall be in harmony and cease from quarrelling. The life of a Druid is not for me.”

“Have you become a Christian?” she asked, hissing with anger.

He sighed and shook his head. “Not really. Even that comfort is denied me, though in Ban’s court I could pass as one when I wished. I think I have no faith in any God but this.” He laid his hand on his sword.

The Lady sank down on her bench and sighed. She drew a long breath and then smiled.

“So,” she said, “you are a man and there is no compelling you. Although I wish you would speak of this to the Merlin.”

Morgaine, watching unregarded, saw the tension relax in the young man’s hands. She thought, He thinks she has given way; he does not know her well enough to know that she is angrier than ever. Lancelet was young enough to let the relief show in his voice. “I’m grateful to you for understanding, madam. And I will willingly seek counsel of the Merlin, if it pleases you. But even the Christian priests know that a vocation to the service of God is God’s gift and not anything that comes because one wants it or does not. God, or the Gods if you will, has not called me, or even given me any proof that He—or They—exist.”

Morgaine thought of Viviane’s words to her, many years ago: it is too heavy a burden to be borne unconsenting. But for the first time she wondered, What would Viviane really have done if at any time during these years I had come to her and told her that I wished to depart? The Lady is all too sure that she knows the will of the Goddess. Such heretical thoughts disturbed her, and quickly she thrust them from her mind, resting her eyes again on Lancelet. At first she had only been dazzled by his dark handsomeness, the grace of his body. Now she saw specific things: the first down of beard along his chin—he had not time, or had not chosen, to shave his face in the Roman fashion; his slender hands, exquisitely shaped, fashioned for harp strings or weapons, but callused just a little across palm and the insides of the fingers, more on the right hand than the left. There was a small scar on one forearm, a whitish seam that looked as if it had been there for many years, and another, crescent-shaped, on the left cheek. His lashes were as long as a girl’s. But he did not have the androgynous, boy-girl look of many boys before their beards have grown; he was like a young stag. Morgaine thought she had never seen so masculine a creature before. Because her mind had been trained to such thoughts, she thought, There is nothing of the softness of a woman’s training in him, to make him pliable to any woman. He has denied the touch of the Goddess in himself; one day he will have trouble with her. . . . And again her mind leaped, thinking that one day she would play the role of the Goddess at one of the great festivals, and she thought, feeling a pleasant heat in her body, Would that he might be the God. . . . Lost in her daydream, she did not hear what Lancelet and the Lady were saying until she was recalled by hearing Viviane speak her name, and she came back to herself as if she had been wandering somewhere out of the world.

“Morgaine?” the Lady repeated. “My son has been long away from Avalon. Take him away, spend the day on the shores if you will, you are freed for this day from duties. When you were children both, I remember, you liked it well, to walk on the shores of the Lake. Tonight, Galahad, you shall sup with the Merlin, and shall be housed among the young priests who are not under the silence. And tomorrow, if you still wish for it, you shall go with my blessing.”

He bowed profoundly, and they went out.

The sun was high, and Morgaine realized that she had missed the sunrise salutations; well, she had the Lady’s permission to absent herself, and in any case she was no longer one of the younger priestesses for whom the missing of such a service was a matter for penances and guilt. Today she had intended to supervise a few of the younger women in preparing dyes for ritual robes—nothing that could not wait another day or a handful of days.

“I will go to the kitchens,” she said, “and fetch us some bread to take with us. We can hunt for waterfowl, if you like—are you fond of hunting?”

He nodded and smiled at her. “Perhaps if I bring my mother a present of some waterfowl she will be less angry with me. I would like to make my peace with her,” he said, almost laughing. “When she is angry she is still frightening—when I was little, I used to believe that when I was not with her she took off her mortality and was the Goddess indeed. But I should not speak like that about her—I can see that you are very devoted to her.”

“She has been as devoted to me as a foster-mother,” Morgaine said slowly.

“Why should she not be? She is your kinswoman, is she not? Your mother—if I recall rightly—was the wife of Cornwall, and is now the wife of the Pendragon . . . is it so?”

Morgaine nodded. It had been so long that she could only half remember Igraine, and now sometimes it seemed to her that she had been long motherless. She had learned to live without need of any mother save the Goddess, and she had many sisters among the priestesses, so she had no need of any earthly mother. “I have not seen her for many years.”

“I saw Uther’s queen but once, from a distance—she is very beautiful, but she seems cold and distant too.” Lancelet laughed uneasily. “At my father’s court I grew used to women who were interested only in pretty gowns and jewels and their little children, and sometimes, if they were not married, in finding a husband. . . . I do not know much about women. You are not like them either. You seem unlike any woman I have ever known.”

Morgaine felt herself blushing. She said low, reminding him, “I am a priestess like your mother—”

“Oh,” he said, “but you are as different from her as night from day. She is great and terrible and beautiful, and one can only love and adore and fear her, but you, I feel you are flesh and blood and still real, in spite of all these mysteries around you! You dress like a priestess, and you look like one of them, but when I look into your eyes I see a real woman there whom I could touch.” He was laughing and intense, and she thrust her hands into his, and laughed back at him.

“Oh, yes, I am real, as real as the ground under your feet or the birds in that tree. . . .”

They walked together down by the waterside, Morgaine leading him along a little path, carefully skirting the edges of the processional way.

“Is it a sacred place?” he asked. “Is it forbidden to climb the Tor unless you are a priestess or a Druid?”

“Only at the great festivals is it forbidden,” she said, “and you may certainly come with me. I may go where I will. There is no one on the Tor now except sheep grazing. Would you like to climb it?”

“Yes,” he said. “I remember once when I was a child I climbed it. I thought it was forbidden, and so I was sure that if anyone knew I had been there I would be punished. I still remember the view from the height. I wonder if it was as enormous as it seemed to me when I was a little lad.”

“We can climb the processional way, if you will. It is not so steep, because it winds round and round the Tor, but it is longer.”

“No,” he said. “I would like to climb straight up the slope—but"—he hesitated—"is it too long and steep for a girl? I have climbed in rougher country, hunting, but can you manage in your long skirts?”

She laughed and told him that she had climbed it often. “And as for the skirts, I am used to them,” she said, “but if they get into my way I will not hesitate to tuck them up above my knees.”

His smile was slow and delightful. “Most women I know would think themselves too modest to show their bare legs.”

Morgaine flushed. “I have never thought modesty had much to do with bared legs for climbing—surely men know that women have legs like their own. It cannot be so much of an offense of modesty to see what they must be able to imagine. I know some of the Christian priests speak so, but they seem to think the human body is the work of some devil, not of God, and that no one could possibly see a woman’s body without going all into a rage to possess it.”

He looked away from her, and she realized that beneath the outward assurance he was still shy, and that pleased her. Together they set off upward, Morgaine, who was strong and hardy from much running and walking, setting a pace which astonished him and which, after the first few moments, he found it difficult to match. About halfway up the slope Morgaine paused, and it was a definite satisfaction to her to hear him breathing hard when her own breath still came easily, unforced. She wound the loose folds of her skirt up around her waist, letting only a single drape hang to her knees, and went on along the steeper, rockier part of the slope. She had never before had the slightest hesitation in baring her legs, but now, when she knew he was looking at them, she could not keep from remembering that they were shapely and strong, and she wondered if he really thought her immodest after all. At the top, she climbed up over the rim of the hill and sat down in the shadow of the ring stones. A minute or two later he came over the edge behind her and flung himself down, panting.

When he could speak again, he said, “I suppose I have been riding too much and not walking and climbing enough! You, you are not even short of breath.”

“Well, but I am accustomed to coming up here, and I do not always stop to go round by the processional way,” she said.

“And on the priests’ Isle there is not even a shadow of the ring stones,” he said, and pointed.

“No,” she said. “In their world there is only their church and its tower. If we wanted to listen with the ears of the spirit we could hear the church bells . . . they are shadows here, and in their world, we should be shadows. I sometimes wonder if that is why they avoid the church and keep great fasts and vigils on our holy days—because it would be too uncanny to feel all around them the shadow of the ring stones and perhaps even, for those who still had some shadow of the Sight, to feel and sense all around them the comings and goings of the Druids and hear the whisper of their hymns.”

Lancelet shivered and it seemed that a cloud covered the sun for a moment. “And you, you have the Sight? You can see beyond the veil that separates the worlds?”

“Everyone has it,” Morgaine said, “but I am trained to it beyond most women. Would you see, Galahad?”

He shivered again and said, “I beg you, do not call me by that name, cousin.”

She laughed. “So even though you live among Christians, you have that old belief of the fairy folk, that one who knows your true name can command your spirit if he will? You know my name, cousin. What would you have me call you? Lance, then?”

“What you will, save for the name my mother gave me. I still fear her voice when she speaks that name in a certain tone. I seem to have drunk in that fear from her breasts. . . .”

She reached over to him and laid her fingertips over the spot between his brows which was sensitive to the Sight. She breathed softly on it, and heard his gasp of astonishment, for the ring stones above them seemed to melt away into shadows. Before them now the whole top of the Tor stretched, with a little wattle-and-daub church rising beneath a low stone tower which bore a crude painting of an angel.

Lancelet crossed himself swiftly as a line of grey-clad forms came toward them, as it seemed.

“Can they see us, Morgaine?” His voice was a rough whisper.

“Some of them, perhaps, can see us as shadows. A few may think we are some of their own people, or that their eyes are dazzled with the sun and they see what is not there,” she said, with a catch of breath, for what she told him was a Mystery which she really should not have spoken to an uninitiated person. But she had never in her life felt so close to anyone; she felt she could not bear it, to keep secrets from him, and made him this gift, telling herself that the Lady wanted him for Avalon. What a Merlin he would make!

She could hear the soft sound of singing: O thou lamb of God, who drawest away from us all evil of this world, Lord Christ, show us thy mercy. . . .

He was singing it softly under his breath, as the church vanished and the ring stones towered again above them.

She said quietly, “Please. It is an offense to the Great Goddess to sing that here; the world she has made is not evil, and no priestess of hers will allow man to call it so.”

“As you will.” He was silent, and again the shadow of cloud passed over his face. His voice was musical, so sweet that when he ceased singing she longed to hear it again.

“Do you play the harp, Lance? Your voice is beautiful enough for a bard.”

“As a child, I was taught. After, I had only the usual training befitting a nobleman’s son,” said Lancelet. “I learned only so great a love of music as to be discontented with my own sounds.”

“Is it so? A Druid in training must be a bard before he is a priest, for music is one of the keys to the laws of the universe.”

Lancelet sighed. “A temptation, that; one of the few reasons I can see for embracing that vocation. But my mother would have me sit in Avalon and play the harp while the world falls apart around us and the Saxons and the wild Northmen burn and ravage and pillage—have you ever seen a village sacked by the Saxons, Morgaine?” Quickly, he answered his own question. “No, you have not, you are sheltered here in Avalon, outside of the world where these things are happening, but I must think of them. I am a soldier, and it seems to me that in these times, defending this beautiful land against their burning and looting is the only work befitting a man.” His face was indrawn, looking on dreadful things.

“If war is so evil,” Morgaine said, “why not shelter from it here? So many of the old Druids died in that last of great magics which removed this holy place from profanation, and we have not enough sons to train in their place.”

He sighed. “Avalon is beautiful, and if I could make all kingdoms as peaceful as Avalon, then I would gladly stay here forever, and spend my days in harping and making music and speaking with the spirits of the great trees . . . but it seems to me no work for a man, to skulk here in safety when others outside must suffer. Morgaine, let us not speak of it now. For today, I beg you, let me forget. The world outside is filled with strife, and I came here for a day or two of peace; will you not give it to me?” His voice, musical and deep, trembled a little, and the pain in it hurt her so profoundly she thought for a moment that she would weep. She reached for his hand and pressed it.

“Come,” she said. “You wanted to see if the view was as you remembered. . . .”

She led him from the ring stones and they looked out over the Lake. Bright water, rippling softly in the sunlight, stretched all around the Island; far below, a little boat, no larger at this height than a fish leaping, streaked the surface. Other islands, indistinct in the mist, rose as dim shapes, blurred by distance and by the magical veil which removed Avalon from the world.

“Not very far from here,” he said, “there is an old fairy fort at the top of a hill, and the view from the wall is such that standing there, a man can see the Tor, and the Lake, and there is an island which is like the shape of a coiled dragon—” He gestured with his shapely hand.

“I know the place,” Morgaine said. “It is on one of the old magical lines of power which crisscross the earth; I was brought there once to feel the earth powers there. The fairy people knew those things—I can sense them a little, feel the earth and the air tingling. Can you feel it? You too are of that blood, being Viviane’s son.”

He said in a low voice, “It is easy to feel the earth and air tingling with power, here in this magical isle.”

He turned away from the view, saying as he yawned and stretched, “That climb must have taxed me more than I thought; and I rode much of the night. I am ready to sit in the sun and eat some of that bread you carried here for us!”

Morgaine led him into the very center of the ring stones. If he was sensitive at all, she thought, he would be aware of the immense power here.

“Lie back on the earth and she will fill you with her strength,” she said, and handed him a piece of the bread, which she had spread thickly with butter and comb honey before wrapping it in a bit of deerskin. They ate slowly, licking their fingers free of the honey, and he reached for her hand, taking it up playfully and sucking a bit of honey off her finger.

“How sweet you are, cousin,” he said, laughing, and she felt her whole body alive with the touch. She picked up his hand to return the gesture, and suddenly dropped it as if it had burned her; to him it was only a game, perhaps, but it could never be so to her. She turned away, hiding her burning face in the grass. Power from the earth seemed to flow up through her, filling her with the strength of the very Goddess herself.

“You are a child of the Goddess,” she said at last. “Do you know nothing of her Mysteries?”

“Very little, though my father once told me how I was begotten—a child of the Great Marriage between the king and the land. And so, I suppose, he thought I should be loyal to the very land of Brittany which is mother and father to me. . . . I have been at the great center of the old Mysteries, the great Avenue of Stones at Karnak, where once was the ancient Temple; that is a place of power, like to this one. I can feel the power here,” he said. He turned over and looked up into her face. “You are like the Goddess of this place,” he said wonderingly. “In the old worship, I know, men and women come together under her power, though the priests would like to forbid it, as they would like to tear down all the ancient stones like these above us, and the great ones of Karnak. . . . They have already torn down a part of them, but the task is too great.”

“The Goddess will prevent them,” said Morgaine simply.

“Maybe so,” Lancelet said, and reached up to touch the blue crescent on her forehead. “It is here that you touched me when you made me see into the other world. Has this to do with the Sight, Morgaine, or is that another of your Mysteries of which you may not speak? Well, I’ll not ask you, then. But I feel as if I had been ravished into one of the old fairy forts where, they say, a hundred years can pass in a night.”

“Not so long as that,” Morgaine said, laughing, “though it is true that time runs differently there. But some of the bards, I have heard, can still come and go from the elf country . . . it has moved further than Avalon into the mists, that is all.” And as she spoke, she shivered.

Lancelet said, “Maybe when I go back to the real world, the Saxons will all have been vanquished . . . and gone.”

“And will you weep because there is no longer any reason for your life?”

He laughed and shook his head, holding her hand in his. After a minute he said in a low voice, “Have you, then, gone to the Beltane fires to serve the Goddess?”

“No,” said Morgaine quietly. “I am virgin while the Goddess wills; most likely I am to be kept for the Great Marriage . . . Viviane has not made her will or the will of the Goddess known to me.” She bent her head and let her hair fall across her face, feeling shy before him, as if he could read her thoughts and know the desire which swept through her like a sudden flame. Would she indeed lay down that guarded virginity if he should ask it of her? Never before had the prohibition seemed a hardship; now it seemed that a sword of fire was laid between them. There was a long silence, while the shadows passed across the sun, and there was no sound except the chirping of small insects in the grass. At last Lancelet reached up and drew her down, laying a soft kiss, which burned like fire, on the crescent on her brow. His voice was soft and intense.

“All the Gods together forbid I should trespass where the Goddess has marked you for her own, my dear cousin. I hold you sacred as the Goddess herself.” He held her close; she could feel that he was shaking, and a happiness so intense that it was pain flooded through her.

She had never known what it was to be happy, not since she was a small and heedless child; happiness was something she dimly remembered before her mother had burdened her with the weight of her little brother. And here in the Island, life had soared into the free spaces of the spirit and she had known exaltation and the delights of power as well as the suffering and struggle of the pain and the ordeals; but never the pure happiness she knew now. The sun seemed to burn more brightly, the clouds to move through the sky like great wings against the dazzling, sparkling air, every bud of clover in the grass shimmered with its own interior light, a light that seemed to shine out from her as well. She saw herself mirrored in Lancelet’s eyes and knew that she was beautiful, and that he desired her, and that his love and respect for her were so great that he would even hold his own desire within bounds. She felt she would burst with her joy.

Time stopped. She swam in delight. He did no more than stroke her cheek with the gentlest of feather-light caresses, and neither of them wanted more. She played softly with his fingers, feeling the calluses on his palms.

After a long time, he drew her against him and spread the edges of his cloak over her. They lay side by side, barely touching, letting the power of the sun and the earth and the air move through them in harmony, and she dropped into a dreamless sleep through which she was still conscious of their intertwined hands. It seemed that some time, a very long time ago, they had lain like this, content, timeless, in an endless joyful peace, as if they were part of the standing stones which had stood here forever; as if she both experienced and remembered being with him here. Later she woke and saw him sleeping, and sat memorizing every line of his face with a fierce tenderness.

The sun had declined from noon when he woke, smiling into her eyes, and stretched like a cat. Still enclosed in the bubble of her joy, she heard him say, “We were going down to hunt waterfowl. I would like to make peace with my mother—I am so happy I cannot bear to think of being at odds with any living thing today, but perhaps the spirits of nature will send us some waterfowl whose given destiny is to make us a happy meal. . . .”

She laughed, clasping his hand. “I will take you where the water birds hunt and fish, and if it is the will of the Goddess, we will catch nothing, so we need not feel guilt about disturbing their destiny. But it is very muddy, so you must take off those boots you have for riding, and I will have to tuck up my dress again. Do you use a throwing stick like the Picts, or their little arrows with poison, or do you snare them and wring their necks?”

“I think they suffer less when they are quickly netted and their necks broken at once,” Lancelet said thoughtfully, and she nodded.

“I will bring a net and snare—”

They saw no one as they climbed down the Tor, sliding in a few minutes down what had taken them more than an hour to climb. Morgaine slipped into the building where nets and snares were kept and brought out two; they went quietly along the shore and found the reeds at the far side of the Island. Barefoot, they waded into the water, hiding in the reeds and spreading the nets. They were in the great shadow of the Tor, and the air felt chill; the water birds were already beginning to descend in numbers to feed. After a moment a bird began to struggle and flap, its feet caught in Morgaine’s snare; she moved swiftly, seized it and, within seconds, broke its neck. Soon Lancelet caught one, then another; he tied their necks together with a band of reeds.

“That is enough,” he said. “It is good sport, but on such a day as this I would rather not kill anything needlessly, and there is one for my mother and two for the Merlin. Do you want one for yourself?”

She shook her head. “I eat no flesh,” she said.

“You are so tiny,” he said, “I suppose you need little food. I am big and I hunger quickly.”

“Are you hungry now? It is too early for most berries, but we might find some haws from the winter—”

“No,” he said, “not now, not really; my supper will be all the more welcome for a little hunger.” They came up on the shore, soaked. Morgaine pulled off her deerskin overtunic to dry it on a bush, for it would stiffen, and pulled off her skirt too, wringing out the water, standing unselfconsciously in her undershift of unbleached linen. They found where they had left their shoes, but they did not put them on, only sitting on the grass, holding hands quietly and watching the waterfowl swimming, suddenly upending their tails and diving for small fish.

“How still it is,” Lancelet said. “It is as if we were the only people alive in all the world today, outside time and space and all cares and troubles, or thoughts of war or battle or kingdoms or strife. . . .”

She said, her voice shaking as the thought struck her that this golden time must end, “I wish this day could last forever!”

“Morgaine, are you weeping?” he asked in sudden solicitude.

“No,” she said fiercely, shaking a single rebellious drop from her lashes, seeing the world burst into prism colors. She had never been able to weep; had never shed a single tear in fear or pain, through all the years of ordeals in the making of a priestess.

“Cousin, kinswoman . . . Morgaine,” he said, holding her against him, stroking her cheek. She turned and clung to him, burying her face in the front of his tunic. He felt warm; she could feel the steady beat of his heart. After a moment he bent and laid one hand under her chin, raising her face, and their lips met.

He whispered, “I would you were not pledged to the Goddess.”

“I, too,” she said softly.

“Come here, come here—let me hold you, like this—I have sworn I will not . . . trespass.”

She closed her eyes; she no longer cared. Her oath seemed a thousand leagues and a thousand years distant, and not even the thought of Viviane’s anger could have deterred her. Years afterward, she wondered what would have happened if they had stayed like that even a few more minutes; no doubt the Goddess in whose hands they lay would have had her will with them. But even as their lips joined again, Lancelet stiffened a little, as if hearing something just outside the range of hearing.

Morgaine pulled away and sat up.

“Morgaine, what is that?”

“I hear nothing,” she said, straining to hear beyond the sound of soft water lapping in the Lake, wind rustling in the reeds, and the occasional sound of a fish jumping. And then it came again, like a soft sighing . . . like someone weeping.

“Someone is crying,” said Lancelet, and unfolded his long legs quickly to stand up. “Over there . . . someone is hurt or lost, it sounds like a little girl. . . .”

Morgaine followed quickly, barefoot, leaving her skirt and tunic on the bush. It was just possible that one of the younger priestesses might have become lost here, though they were not supposed to leave the enclosure near the House of Maidens. Still, young girls were young girls, and could not yet be trusted not to break rules; one of the old priestesses had once said that the House of Maidens was for little girls whose whole duty in life was to spill things, break things, and forget things, the rules of their daily life among them, until they had spilled, broken, and forgotten everything they could, and thus made room in their lives for a little wisdom. And now that Morgaine was a full priestess, she had begun to instruct the young, and sometimes she felt the old priestess had been right: surely she had never been so silly and empty-headed as the girls who were now in the House of Maidens.

They followed the sound. It was hazy, now fading out for minutes altogether, and then coming back, quite clear. Mist was beginning to drift in from the Lake in thick tendrils, and Morgaine was not quite sure whether it was ordinary fog born of the dampness and the approaching sunset, or whether it was the outlying mist of the veil surrounding the magical realm.

“There,” said Lancelet, plunging suddenly into the mist. Morgaine followed him and saw dimly, fading from shadow into reality and back again, the figure of a young girl standing in the water up to her ankles, and crying.

Yes, Morgaine realized, she’s really there; and, No, this is no priestess. She was very young and dazzlingly pretty; she seemed all white and gold, her skin pale as ivory just stained with coral, her eyes palest sky-blue, her hair long and pale and shining through the mist like living gold. She wore a white dress which she was trying unsuccessfully to hold out of the water. And somehow she seemed to shed tears without any ugly distortion of her face, so that, weeping, she only looked prettier than ever.

Morgaine said, “What is the matter, child? Are you lost?”

She stared at them as they came closer, and whispered, “Who are you? I didn’t think anyone could hear me here—I called out to the sisters, but none of them could hear me, and then the land started to move, and where it had been all solid, suddenly I was standing here in the water and the reeds were all around me and I was afraid. . . . What is this place? I never saw it before, and I have been in the convent for almost a year now. . . .” And she crossed herself.

Suddenly Morgaine knew what had happened. The veil had thinned, as it did occasionally in spots of such concentrated power, and somehow this girl had had enough sensitivity to be aware of it. This happened, sometimes, as a momentary vision, so that someone could see the other world as a shadow or a brief vision; but to move through into the other world was rare.

The girl took a step toward them, but under her feet the marshy surface swayed, and she stopped in panic.

“Stand still,” Morgaine said gently. “The ground is a little unsafe here. I know the paths. I’ll help you out, dear.”

But even as she moved forward, her hand extended, Lancelet stepped in front of her, picked up the young girl, and carried her to dry land, setting her down.

“Your shoes are wet,” he said, for they squelched as she moved. “Take them off and you can dry them.”

She looked at him in wonder; she had stopped crying. “You’re very strong. Not even my father is as strong as that. And I think I have seen you somewhere, haven’t I?”

“I don’t know,” Lancelet said. “Who are you? Who is your father?”

“My father is King Leodegranz,” she said, “but I am here at school in the convent. . . .” Her voice began to shake again. “Where is it? I cannot even see the building anywhere, or the church—”

“Don’t cry,” Morgaine said, stepping forward, and the young girl drew back a little.

“Are you one of the fairy people? You have that blue sign on your forehead—” and she raised her hand and crossed herself again. “No,” she said doubtfully, “you cannot be a demoness, you do not vanish when I cross myself, as the sisters say any demon must do—but you are little and ugly like the fairy people—”

Lancelet said firmly, “No, of course neither of us is a demon, and I think we can find the way back to your convent for you.” Morgaine, her heart sinking, saw that he now looked upon the stranger as he had looked on her only minutes before, with love, desire, almost worship. As he turned back to Morgaine, saying eagerly, “We can help her, can’t we?” Morgaine saw herself as she must look to Lancelet and to the strange golden maiden—small, dark, with the barbarian blue sign on her forehead, her shift muddy to the knees, her arms immodestly bare and her feet filthy, her hair coming down. Little and ugly like one of the fairy folk. Morgaine of the Fairies. So they had taunted her since childhood. She felt a surge of self-hatred, of loathing for her small, dark body, her half-naked limbs, the muddy deerskin. She snatched her damp skirt off the bush and put it on, conscious suddenly of her bare limbs; she wound the filthy deerskin tunic over it. For a moment, as Lancelet looked at her, she felt that he too must think her ugly, barbarian, alien; this exquisite golden creature belonged to his own world.

He came and gently took the stranger girl’s hand, with a respectful bow. “Come, we can show you the way back.”

“Yes,” said Morgaine dully, “I will show you the way. Follow me, and stay close, because the ground is treacherous and you could mire yourself and not get out for a long time.” For a furious moment she was tempted to lead them both into the impassable mire—she could do it, she knew the way—lead them out there and leave them to drown or wander forever in the mists.

Lancelet asked, “What is your name?”

The fair girl said, “My name is Gwenhwyfar,” and she heard Lancelet murmuring, “What a lovely name, fitting to the lady who bears it.” Morgaine felt a surge of hatred so great she thought that she would faint with its force. She felt it would be with her until she died, and in that molten instant she actually longed for death. All the color had gone from the day, into the mist and the mire and the dismal reeds, and all her happiness had gone with it.

“Come,” she repeated in a leaden voice, “and I will show you the way.”

As she turned to go she heard them laughing together behind her and wondered, through the dull surge of hatred, if they were laughing at her. She heard Gwenhwyfar’s girlish voice saying, “But you don’t belong to this horrible place, do you? You don’t look like one of the fairy folk, you’re not little and ugly.”

No, she thought, no, he was beautiful, and she—little and ugly. The words burned into her heart; she forgot that she looked like Viviane, and that, to her, Viviane was beautiful. She heard Lancelet saying, “No, no, I would love to come back with you—really, I would—but I am promised to dine with a relative this night, and my mother is angry enough with me already; I don’t want to make the old gentleman angry too. But no, I don’t belong to Avalon . . .” and, after a minute, “No, she’s—well, a cousin of my mother’s, or something like that, we knew each other when we were children, that’s all.” And now she knew that he was speaking of her. So quickly, then, all that had been between them had been reduced to a distant family tie. Fiercely fighting back a surge of tears that made her throat ache, knowing that weeping would make her uglier than ever in their eyes, she stepped on dry land. “There lies your convent, Gwenhwyfar. Be careful to keep to the path, or you may lose yourself in the mists again.”

She saw that the girl had been holding Lancelet’s hand. It seemed to Morgaine that he let it go reluctantly. The girl said, “Thank you, oh, thank you!”

“It is Morgaine you should thank,” Lancelet reminded her. “It is she who knows the paths in and out of Avalon.” The girl gave her a shy sidelong look. She dropped a little polite curtsey. “I thank you, mistress Morgaine.”

Morgaine drew a deep breath, drawing the mantle of a priestess around her again, the glamour she could summon when she would; despite her filthy and torn clothing, her bare feet, the hair that straggled in wet locks around her shoulders, she knew that suddenly she looked tall and imposing. She made a remote gesture of blessing and turned, silent, summoning Lancelet with another gesture. She knew, even though she did not see, that the awe and fright had returned to the girl’s eyes, but she moved silently away, with the noiseless gliding of a priestess of Avalon, Lancelet’s steps, reluctant, following her own silent ones.

After a moment she looked back, but the mists had closed and the girl had vanished within them. Lancelet said, shaken, “How did you do that, Morgaine?”

“How did I do what?” she asked.

“Suddenly look so—so—like my mother. All tall and distant and remote and—and not quite real. Like a female demon. You frightened the poor girl, you shouldn’t have done it!”

Morgaine bit her tongue with her sudden wrath. She said in a remote and enigmatic voice, “Cousin, I am what I am,” and turned, hurrying up the path ahead of him. She was cold and weary and sick with an inner sickness; she longed for the solitude of the House of Maidens. Lancelet seemed a long way behind her, but she no longer cared. He could find his own way from here.

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Alice
Great book, nicely written and thank you BooksVooks for uploading

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