The Mists of Avalon: Avalon Book 7 | Chapter 52 of 81

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

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9

Summer on the hills; the orchard in the queen’s garden covered with pink and white blossoms. Morgaine, walking beneath the trees, felt an aching homesickness all through her blood, remembering the Avalon spring and the trees covered with those white and rosy clouds. The year was swinging toward the summer solstice; Morgaine reckoned it up, realizing ruefully that at last the effects of half a lifetime in Avalon were wearing away—the tides no longer ran in her blood.

No, need I lie to myself? It is not that I have forgotten, or that the tides no longer run in my blood, it is that I no longer let myself feel them. Morgaine considered herself dispassionately—the somber costly gown, suitable for a queen . . . Uriens had given her all the gowns and jewels which had belonged to his late wife, and she had her jewels from Igraine as well; Uriens liked to see her decked out in jewels befitting a queen.

Some kings kill their prisoners of state, or enslave them in their mines; if it pleases the King of North Wales to hang his with jewels and parade her forth at his side, and call her queen, why not?

Yet she felt full of the flow of the summer. Beneath her on the hillside she could hear a plowman encouraging his ox with soft cries. Tomorrow would be Midsummer.

Next Sunday a priest would carry torches into the field and circle it in procession with his acolytes, chanting psalms and blessings. The richer barons and knights, who were all Christian, had persuaded the people that this was more seemly in a Christian country than the old ways, where the people lighted fires in the fields, and called the Lady in the old worship. Morgaine wished—and not for the first time—that she had been only one of the priestesses, not one of the great royal line of Avalon.

I would still be there, she thought, one of them, doing the work of the Lady . . . not here, like any shipwrecked sailor, lost in an alien land. . . . Abruptly she turned and walked through the blossoming garden, her eyes downcast, refusing to look any further at the apple blossoms.

Spring comes again and again, and the summer follows, with its fruitfulness. But I am as alone and barren as one of those locked-up Christian virgins within convent walls. She set her will against the tears which seemed somehow always beneath the surface these days, and went inside. Behind her the setting sun spread crimson over the fields, but she would not look at it; all was grey and barren here. As grey and barren as I.

One of her women greeted her as she stepped inside the door.

“My lady, the king has returned and would see you in his chamber.”

“Yes, I suppose so,” said Morgaine, more to herself than to the woman. A tight band of headache settled around her forehead, and for a moment she could not breathe, could not force herself to walk inside the darkness of the castle which, all this cold winter, had closed round her like a trap. Then she told herself not to be fanciful, set her teeth, and went to Uriens’ chamber, where she found him half-clad and lying on the flagstones, stretched out with his body servant rubbing his back.

“You have tired yourself again,” she said, not adding, you are no longer young enough to go about your own lands like this. He had ridden to a nearby town to hear about some disputed lands. She knew that he would want her to sit beside him and listen to his tales of all that he had heard in the countryside. She sat down in her own chair nearby and listened with half an ear to what he told her.

“You can go, Berec,” he told the man. “My lady will fetch my clothes for me.” When the man had gone he asked, “Morgaine, will you rub my feet? Your hands are better than his.”

“Certainly. But you will have to sit in the chair.”

He stretched out his hands and she gave him a tug upward. She placed a footstool under his feet and knelt beside it, chafing his thin, callused old feet until the blood rose to the surface and they looked alive again; then she fetched a flask and began to rub one of her herbal oils into the king’s gnarled toes.

“You should have your man make you some new boots,” she said. “The crack in the old ones will make a sore there—see where it is blistered?”

“But the old ones fit me so well, and boots are so stiff when they are new,” he protested.

Morgaine said, “You must do as you like, my lord.”

“No, no, you are right, as always,” he said. “I will tell the man tomorrow to come and measure my feet for a pair.”

Morgaine, putting away her flask of herbal oil and fetching a pair of shapeless old soft shoes, thought: I wonder if he knows that this may be his last pair of boots, and that is why he is reluctant? She would not think about what the king’s death would mean to her. She did not want to wish him dead—he had never been anything but kind to her. She slid the soft indoor slippers on his feet and stood up, wiping her hands on a towel. “Is that better, my lord?”

“Wonderful, my dear, thank you. No one can look after me the way you do,” he said. Morgaine sighed. When he had the new boots he would have more trouble with his feet; they would, as he had rightly foreseen, be stiff, and that would make his feet just as sore as they were now. Perhaps he should stop riding and stay at home in his chair, but he would not do that.

She said, “You should have Avalloch ride out to hear these cases. He must learn to rule over his people.” His oldest son was the same age as she. He had waited long enough to rule, and Uriens looked like living forever.

“True, true—but if I do not go, they will think their king does not care for them,” Uriens said. “But perhaps when the roads are bad next winter I will do so. . . .”

“You had better,” she said. “If you have chilblains again, you could lose the use of your hands.”

“The fact is, Morgaine,” he said, smiling his good-natured smile at her, “I am an old man, and there is nothing that can be done about it. Do you think there is roast pork for supper?”

“Yes,” she said, “and some early cherries. I made sure of that.”

“You are a notable housekeeper, my dear,” he said, and took her arm as they went out of the room. She thought, He thinks he is being kind to say so.

The household of Uriens was assembled already for the evening meal: Avalloch; Avalloch’s wife, Maline, and their young children; Uwaine, lanky and dark, with his three young foster-brothers and the priest who was their tutor; and below them at the long table the men-at-arms and their ladies, and the upper servants. As Uriens and Morgaine took their seats and Morgaine signalled to the servants to bring food, Maline’s younger child began to clamor and shout.

“Granny! I want to sit on Granny’s knee! Want Granny to feed me!”

Maline—a slender, fair-haired, pale young woman, heavily pregnant—frowned and said, “No, Conn, sit down prettily and be quiet!”

But the child had already toddled to Morgaine’s knee, and she laughed and lifted him up. I am an unlikely grandmother, she thought; Maline is almost as old as I. But Uriens’ grandsons were fond of her, and she hugged the little boy close, taking pleasure in the feel of the small curly head digging into her waist, the grubby little fingers clutching at her. She sliced bits of pork with her knife and fed them to Conn from her own plate, then cut him a piece of bread in the shape of a pig.

“See, now you have more pork to eat . . .” she said, wiping her greasy fingers, and turned her attention to her own meal. She ate but little meat, even now; she soaked her bread in the meat juices, but no more. She was quickly finished, while the rest were still eating; she leaned back in her chair and began to sing softly to Conn, who curled up contentedly in her lap. After a time she grew aware that they were all listening to her, and she let her voice drop away.

“Please go on singing, Mother,” Uwaine said, but she shook her head.

“No, I am tired—listen, what did I hear in the courtyard?” She rose and signalled to one of the serving-men to light her to the doorway. Torch held high, he stood behind her, and she saw the rider come into the great courtyard. The serving-man stuck his torch into one of the wall brackets and hurried to help the rider dismount. “My lord Accolon!”

He came, his scarlet cape swirling behind him like a river of blood. “Lady Morgaine,” he said, with a deep bow, “or should I say—my lady mother?”

“Please do not,” Morgaine said impatiently. “Come in, Accolon, your father and brothers will be happy to see you.”

“As you are not, lady?”

She bit her lip, suddenly wondering if she would weep. She said, “You are a king’s son, as I am a king’s daughter. Do I have to remind you how such marriages are made? It was not my doing, Accolon, and when we spoke together, I had no idea—” She stopped, and he looked down at her, then stooped over her hand.

He said so softly that even the serving-man did not hear, “Poor Morgaine. I believe you, lady. Peace between us, then—Mother?”

“Only if you do not call me Mother,” she said, with a shred of a smile. “I am not so old. It is well enough for Uwaine—” and then, as they came back into the hall, Conn started upright and began to cry out again for “Granny!” Morgaine laughed, mirthlessly, and went back to pick up the toddler. She was aware of Accolon’s eyes on her; she cast her own down at the child in her lap, listening silently as Uriens greeted his son.

Accolon came formally to embrace his brother, to bow before his brother’s wife; he knelt and kissed his father’s hand and then turned to Morgaine. She said shortly, “Spare me further courtesies, Accolon, my hands are all pork fat, I have been holding the baby, and he is a messy feeder.”

“As you command, madam,” said Accolon, going to the table and taking the plate one of the serving-women brought to him. But while he ate and drank, she was still conscious of his eyes.

I am sure he is still angry with me. Asking my hand in the morning, and in the evening, seeing me promised to his father; no doubt he thinks I succumbed to ambition—why marry the king’s son if you can have the king?

“No,” she said firmly, giving Conn a little shake, “if you are to stay in my lap you must be quiet and not paw at my dress with your greasy hands. . . .”

When he saw me last I was clad in scarlet and I was the king’s sister, reputed a witch . . . now I am a grandmother with a dirty child in my lap, looking after the housekeeping and nagging my old husband not to ride in mended boots which make his feet sore. Morgaine was acutely aware of every grey hair, every line in her face. In the name of the Goddess, why should I care what Accolon thinks of me? But she did care and she knew it; she was accustomed to having young men look at her and admire her, and now she felt that she was old, ugly, undesirable. She had never thought herself a beauty, but always before this she had been one of the younger people, and now she sat among the aging matrons. She hushed the child again, for Maline had asked Accolon what news of Arthur’s court.

“There is no news of great doings,” Accolon said. “I think those days are over for our lifetime. Arthur’s court is quiet, and the King still does penance for some unknown sin—he touches no wine, even at high feast days.”

“Has the Queen yet shown any signs of bearing him an heir?” Maline asked.

“None,” said Accolon, “though one of her ladies told me before the mock games that she thought the Queen might be pregnant.”

Maline turned to Morgaine and said, “You knew the Queen well, did you not, mother-in-law?”

“I did,” said Morgaine, “and as for that rumor, well, Gwenhwyfar always thinks herself pregnant if her courses come a day late.”

“The King is a fool,” said Uriens. “He should put her away and take some woman who would give him a son. I remember all too well what chaos ruled the land when they thought Uther would die with no son. Now the succession should be firmly established.”

Accolon said, “I have heard that the King has named one of his cousins for his heir—the son of Lancelet. I like that not—Lancelet is the son of Ban of Benwick, and we want no foreign High Kings reigning over our own.”

Morgaine said firmly, “Lancelet is the son of the Lady of Avalon, of the old royal line.”

“Avalon!” said Maline disdainfully. “This is a Christian land. What is Avalon to us now?”

“More than you think,” said Accolon. “I have heard that some of the country people, who remember the Pendragon, are not happy with so Christian a court as Arthur’s, and remember that Arthur, before his crowning, took oath to stand with the folk of Avalon.”

“Yes,” said Morgaine, “and he bears the great sword of the Holy Regalia of Avalon.”

“The Christians seem not to hold that against him,” Accolon said, “and now I remember some news from the court—King Edric of the Saxons has turned Christian and came to be baptized, with all his retinue, at Glastonbury, and he knelt and took oath before Arthur in token that all the Saxon lands accepted Arthur as High King.”

“Arthur? King over Saxons? Will wonders never cease!” Avalloch said. “I always heard him say he would deal with the Saxons only at the point of his sword!”

“Yet there he was, the Saxon king, kneeling in Glastonbury church, and Arthur hearing his oath and taking him by the hand,” said Accolon. “Perhaps he will marry the Saxon’s daughter to the son of Lancelet and have done with all this fighting. And there sat the Merlin among Arthur’s councillors, and one would have said he was as good a Christian as any of them!”

“Gwenhwyfar must be happy now,” said Morgaine. “Always she said God had given Arthur the victory at Mount Badon because he bore the banner of the Holy Virgin. And later I heard her say that God had spared his life that he might bring the Saxons into the fold of the church.”

Uriens shrugged and said, “I do not think I would trust a Saxon behind me with an axe, even if he wore a bishop’s miter!”

“Nor I,” said Avalloch, “but if the Saxon chiefs are praying and doing penance for their souls’ sake, at least they are not riding to burn our villages and abbeys. And as to penance and fasting—what, think you, can Arthur have on his conscience? When I rode with his armies, I was not among his Companions and knew him not so well, but he seemed an uncommon good man, and a penance of such length means some sin greater than common. Lady Morgaine, do you know, you who are his sister?”

“His sister, not his confessor.” Morgaine knew her voice was sharp, and fell silent.

Uriens said, “Any man who waged war for fifteen years among the Saxons must have more on his conscience than he cares to tell; but few are so tender of conscience as to think of it when the battle is past. All of us have known murder and ravage and blood and the slaughter of the innocent. But the battles are over for our lifetime, God grant, and having made our peace with men, we have leisure to make peace with God.”

So Arthur does penance still, and that old Archbishop Patricius still holds the mortgage on his soul! How, I wonder, does Gwenhwyfar enjoy that?

“Tell us more of the court,” Maline begged. “What of the Queen? What did she wear when she sat at court?”

Accolon laughed. “I know nothing of ladies’ garments. Something of white, with pearls—the Marhaus, the great Irish knight, brought them to her from the Irish king. And her cousin Elaine, I heard, has borne Lancelet a daughter—or was that last year? She had a son already, I think, that was chosen Arthur’s heir. And there is some scandal in King Pellinore’s court—it seems that his son, Lamorak, went on a mission to Lothian, and now speaks of marrying Lot’s widow, old Queen Morgause—”

Avalloch chuckled. “The boy must be mad. Morgause is fifty, at least, maybe more!”

“Five-and-forty,” Morgaine said. “She is ten years older than I.” And she wondered why she thus turned the knife in her own wound . . . do I want Accolon to realize how old I am, grandmother to Uriens’ brood . . . ?

“He is mad indeed,” Accolon said, “singing ballads, and carrying about the lady’s garter and such nonsense—”

“I should think that same garter would make a horse’s halter by now,” said Uriens, and Accolon shook his head.

“No—I have seen Lot’s lady and she is a beautiful woman still. She is not a girl, but she seems all the more beautiful for that. What I wonder is, what can the woman want with a raw boy like that? Lamorak is not more than twenty.”

“Or what can a boy like that want with the old lady?” Avalloch insisted.

“Perhaps,” said Uriens, with a ribald laugh, “the lady is well learned at sport among the cushions. Though one would hardly think she could have learned it, married all those years to old Lot! But no doubt she had other teachers. . . .”

Maline flushed and said, “Please! Is this talk seemly in a Christian household?”

Uriens said, “If it were not, daughter-in-law, I doubt your girdle would be grown so wide.”

“I am a married woman,” said Maline, crimson.

Morgaine said sharply, “If to be a Christian household means not to speak of what one is not ashamed to do, then the Lady forbid I should ever call myself Christian!”

“Still,” said Avalloch, “perhaps it is ill done to sit here at meat and tell ugly stories about lady Morgaine’s kinswoman.”

Accolon said, “Queen Morgause has no husband to be offended, and the lady is of age, and her own mistress. No doubt her sons are well pleased that she contents herself with a paramour and does not marry the boy! Is she not also the Duchess of Cornwall?”

“No,” said Morgaine, “Igraine was Duchess of Cornwall after Gorlois was set down for his treason to Pendragon. Gorlois had no son, and since Uther gave Tintagel to Igraine for bride-gift, I suppose now it belongs to me.” And Morgaine was suddenly overcome with homesickness for that half-remembered country, the bleak outline of castle and crags against the sky, the sudden dips into hidden valleys, the eternal noise of the sea below the castle . . . Tintagel! My home! I cannot return to Avalon, but I am not homeless . . . Cornwall is mine.

“And under the Roman law,” said Uriens, “I suppose, as your husband, my dear, I am Duke of Cornwall.”

Again Morgaine felt the surge of violent anger. Only when I am dead and buried, she thought. Uriens cares nothing for Cornwall, only that Tintagel, like myself, is his property, bearing the mark of his ownership! Would that I could go there, live there alone as Morgause at Lothian, my own mistress with none to command me. . . . A picture came in her mind, the queen’s chamber at Tintagel, and she seemed very small, she was playing with an old spindle on the floor. . . . If Uriens dares to lay claim to an acre of Cornwall, I will give him six feet of it, and dirt between his teeth!

“Tell me now your news of this country,” said Accolon. “The spring was late—I see the plowmen are just getting into the fields.”

“But they have nearly done with plowing,” said Maline, “and Sunday they will go to bless the fields—”

“And they are choosing the Spring Maiden,” said Uwaine. “I was down in the village, and I saw them choosing among all the pretty girls . . . you were not here last year, Mother,” he said to Morgaine. “They choose the prettiest of all for the Spring Maiden, and she walks in the procession around the fields when the priest comes to bless it . . . and there are dancers who dance round the fields . . . and they carry an image made from the last harvest, made from the barley straw. Father Eian does not like that,” he said, “but I don’t know why not, it is so pretty. . . .”

The priest coughed and said self-consciously, “The blessing of the church should be enough—why should we need more than the word of God to make the fields grow and blossom? The straw image they carry is a memory of the bad old days when men and animals were burned alive so that their lives should make the fields fertile, and the Spring Maiden a memory of—well, I will not speak before children of that evil and idolatrous custom!”

“There was a day,” said Accolon, speaking directly to Morgaine, “when the queen of the land was the Spring Maiden, and the Harvest Lady as well, and she did that office in the fields, that the fields might have life and fertility.” Morgaine saw at his wrists the faint blue shadow of the serpents of Avalon.

Maline made the sign of the cross and said primly, “God be thanked that we live among civilized men.”

Accolon said, “I doubt you would be asked to do that office, sister-in-law.”

“No,” said Uwaine, tactless as any boy, “she is not pretty enough. But our mother is, isn’t she, Accolon?”

“I am glad you think my queen is handsome,” said Uriens hastily, “but the past is past—we do not burn cats and sheep alive in the fields, nor kill the king’s scapegoat to scatter his blood there, and it is no longer needful that the queen should bless the fields in that way.”

No, thought Morgaine. Now all is sterile, now we have priests with their crosses, forbidding the lighting of the fires of fertility—it is a miracle the Lady does not blight the fields of grain, since she is angry at being denied her due. . . .

Soon after, the household went to rest; Morgaine, the last to rise from her seat, went to supervise the locks and bars, and then went, with a small lamp in her hand, to make sure Accolon had been given a good bed—Uwaine and his foster-brothers were now occupying the room that had been his when he lived here as a boy.

“Is all well with you here?”

“Everything I could desire,” said Accolon, “except a lady to grace my chamber. My father is a fortunate man, lady. And you well deserve to be the wife of a king, not of a king’s younger son.”

“Must you always taunt me?” she burst out. “I have told you; I was given no choice!”

“You were pledged to me!”

Morgaine knew that the color was leaving her face. She set her lips like stone. “Done is done, Accolon.”

She lifted her lamp and turned away. He said behind her, almost a threat, “This is not done between us, lady.”

Morgaine did not speak; she hurried along the corridor to the chamber she shared with Uriens. Her lady-in-waiting was ready to unlace her gown, but she sent the woman away. Uriens sat on the edge of the bed, groaning.

“Even those slippers are too hard on my feet! Aaah, it is good to go to rest!”

“Rest well, then, my lord.”

“No,” he said, and pulled her down at his side. “So tomorrow the fields are to be blessed . . . and perhaps we should be grateful we live in a civilized land, and the king and the queen need no longer bless the fields by lying together in public. But on the eve of the blessing, dear lady, perhaps we should have our own blessing, private in our chamber—what would you say to that?”

Morgaine sighed. She had been scrupulously careful of her aging husband’s pride; never did she make him feel less than a man for his occasional and clumsy use of her body. But Accolon had roused in her an anguished memory of her years in Avalon—the torches borne to the top of the Tor, the Beltane fires lighted and the maidens waiting in the plowed fields . . . and tonight she had had to hear a shabby priest mocking what was, to her, holy beyond holiness. Now even Uriens, it seemed, made a mockery of it.

“I would say that such blessing as you and I might give the fields would be better left undone. I am old and barren, and you are not such a king as can give much life to the fields, either!”

Uriens stared at her. In all the year of their marriage she had never spoken a harsh word to him. He was too startled even to reproach her.

“I doubt it not, you are right,” he said quietly. “Well, then, we will leave that to the young people. Come to bed, Morgaine.” But when she lay down beside him, he lay quiet, and after a moment, he put a shy arm across her shoulders. Now Morgaine was regretting her harsh words . . . she felt cold and alone, she lay biting her lip so that she would not cry, but when Uriens spoke to her, she pretended she was asleep.

         

         

Midsummer dawned brilliant and beautiful; Morgaine, waking early, realized that, however much she might say to herself that the sun tides ran no longer in her blood, there was something within her that ran heavy with the summer. As she dressed, she looked dispassionately at the sleeping form of her husband.

She had been a fool. Why should she have accepted compliantly Arthur’s word, fearing to embarrass him before his fellow kings? If he could not keep his throne without a woman’s help it might be he did not deserve to hold it. He was a traitor to Avalon, an apostate; he had given her into the hands of another apostate. Yet she had meekly agreed to what they had planned for her.

Igraine let her life be used for their politics. And something in Morgaine, dead or sleeping since the day she fled forth from Avalon, bearing Gwydion within her womb, suddenly woke and stirred, moving sluggishly and slow like a sleeping dragon, a movement as secret and unseen as the first movements of a child in the womb; something that said, clear and quiet within her, If I would not let Viviane, whom I loved, use me this way, why should I bow my head meekly and let myself be used for Arthur’s purposes? I am queen in North Wales, and I am duchess in Cornwall, where Gorlois’s name still means something, and I am of the royal line of Avalon.

Uriens groaned, heaving himself stiffly over. “Ah, God, I ache in every muscle and there is a toothache in every toe of my foot—I rode too far yesterday. Morgaine, will you rub my back?”

She started to fling back furiously, You have a dozen body servants, and I am your wife, not your slave, then stopped herself; instead she smiled and said, “Yes, of course,” and sent a pageboy for her vials of herbal oil. Let him think her still compliant to everything; healing was a part of a priestess’s work. If it was the smallest part, still, it gave her access to his plans and his thoughts. She rubbed his back and kneaded salve into his sore feet, listening to the small details of the land dispute he had ridden out yesterday to settle.

For Uriens, any woman could be queen, he wants only a smiling face and kind hands to cosset him. Well, he shall have them while it suits my purpose.

“And now it looks as if we would have a fine day for the blessing of the crops. We never have rain at Midsummer-day,” Uriens said. “The Lady shines on her fields when they are consecrated to her—that is what they used to say when I was young and a pagan, that the Great Marriage could not be consummated in the rain.” He chuckled. “Still, I remember once when I was very young, when the fields had been rained on for ten days, and the priestess and I might have been pigs wallowing in the mud!”

Against her will, Morgaine smiled; the picture he made in her mind was ludicrous. “Even in ritual, the Goddess will have her joke,” she said, “and one of her names is the Great Sow, and we are all her piglets.”

“Ah, Morgaine, those were good times,” he said, then his face tightened. “Of course, that was long ago—now what the folk want in their kings is dignity. Those days are gone, and forever.”

Are they? I wonder. But Morgaine said nothing. It occurred to her that Uriens, when he was younger, might have been a king strong enough to resist the tide of Christianity washing over the land. If Viviane had tried harder to put a king on the throne who was not bound hard and fast to the rule of the priests . . . but of course, who could have foreseen that Gwenhwyfar would be pious beyond all reason? And why had the Merlin done nothing?

If the Merlin of Britain and the wise folk at Avalon had done nothing to stem this tide that was drowning the land and washing away all the old ways and the old Gods, why should she blame Uriens, who was after all only an old man, and wanted peace? There was no reason to make him an enemy. If he was content, it would not matter to him what she did . . . she did not know yet what she meant to do. But she knew that her days of silent compliance were over.

She said, “I wish I had known you then,” and let him kiss her on the forehead.

If I had been married to him when first I became marriageable, North Wales might never have become a Christian land. But it is not too late. There are those who have not forgotten that the king still wears, however faded, the serpents of Avalon about his arms. And he has married one who was a High Priestess of the Lady.

I could have done her work better here than all those years at Arthur’s court, in Gwenhwyfar’s shadow. It occurred to Morgaine that Gwenhwyfar would have been content with a husband like Uriens, whom she could keep within her own sphere, rather than one like Arthur, living an entire life in which she had no part.

And there had been a time, too, when Morgaine had had influence with Arthur—the influence of the woman he had first taken in coming to manhood, who wore, for him, the face of the Goddess. Yet, in her folly and pride, she had let him fall into the hands of Gwenhwyfar and the priests. Now, when it was too late, she began to understand what Viviane had intended.

Between us, we could have ruled this land; they would have called Gwenhwyfar the High Queen, but she would have had Arthur only in body; he would have been mine in heart and soul and mind. Ah, what a fool I was. . . . He and I could have ruled—for Avalon! Now Arthur is the priests’ creature. And he bears, still, the great sword of the Druid Regalia, and the Merlin of Britain does nothing to hinder him.

I must take up the work that Viviane let fall. . . .

Ah, Goddess, I have forgotten so much. . . .

And then she stopped, shaking at her own daring. Uriens had reached a pause in his tale; she had ceased rubbing his feet, and he looked down questioning at her, and she said hastily, “I am quite sure you did the right thing, my dear husband,” and spread some more of the sweet-smelling salve on her hands. She had not the slightest idea what she had agreed to, but Uriens smiled and went on with his tale, and Morgaine slid off into her own thoughts again.

I am a priestess still. Strange how I am suddenly sure of that again, after all these years, when even the dreams of Avalon are gone.

She pondered what Accolon had told them. Elaine had borne a daughter. She herself could not give Avalon a daughter, but as Viviane had done, she would bring her a fosterling. She helped Uriens to dress, went down with him, and with her own hands fetched him fresh new-baked bread from the kitchen and some of the foaming new beer. She served him, spreading honey on his bread. Let him think her the most doting of his subjects, let him think her only his sweet compliant wife. It meant nothing to her, but one day it might mean much to have his trust, so that she could do what she chose.

“Even with the summer my old bones ache—I think, Morgaine, that I will ride south to Aquae Sulis and take the waters there. There is an ancient shrine to Sul—when the Romans were here they built a huge bathhouse, and some of it is still there, unfallen. The great pools are choked, and when the Saxons came they carried off much of the fine work, and threw down the statue of the Goddess, but the spring is still there, undamaged—boiling up in clouds of steam, day after day and year after year, from the forges at the center of the earth. It is awesome to behold! And there are hot pools where a man can soak all the weariness from his bones. I have not been there for two or three years, but I shall go again, now the countryside is quiet.”

“I see no reason you should not,” she agreed, “now there is peace in the land.”

“Would you care to go with me, my dear? We can leave my sons to care for everything here, and the old shrine would interest you.”

“I would like to see the shrine,” she said, sincerely enough. She thought of the cold unfailing waters of the Holy Well on Avalon, bubbling up inexhaustible, forever, sourceless, cool, clear. . . . “Still, I do not know if it would be well to leave all things in your sons’ hands. Avalloch is a fool. Accolon is clever, but he is only a younger son—I do not know if your people would listen to him. Perhaps if I were here, Avalloch would take counsel of his younger brother.”

“An excellent idea, my dear,” Uriens said sunnily, “and in any case it would be a long journey for you. If you are here I will not have the slightest hesitation in leaving all things to the young men—I will tell them they must come to you for good advice in all things.”

“And when will you set forth?” It would not be at all a bad thing, Morgaine thought, if it were known that Uriens did not hesitate to leave his kingdom in her hands.

“Tomorrow, perhaps. Or even after the blessing of the crops this day. Will you have them pack my things?”

“Are you sure you can travel that long a road? It is not an easy ride even for a young man—”

“Come, come, my dear, I am not yet too old to ride,” he said, frowning a little, “and I am sure the waters will do me good.”

“I am sure they will.” Morgaine rose, leaving her own breakfast almost untasted. “Let me call your body servant and have everything made ready for you to depart.”

She stood at his side during the long procession around the fields, standing on a little hill above the village and watching the capering dancers, like young goats . . . she wondered if any of them so much as knew the significance of the phallic green wands wound about with red and white garlands, and the pretty girl with her hair streaming, who walked, serene and indifferent, among them. She was fresh and young, not fourteen, and her hair was coppery gold, streaming halfway between her waist and knees; and she had on a gown, dyed green, that looked very old. Did any of them know what they were watching, or see the incongruity of the priest’s procession, following them, two boys in black carrying candles and crosses, and the priest intoning the prayers in his bad Latin; Morgaine spoke better Latin than he!

These priests hate fertility and life so much, it is a miracle their so-called blessing does not blast the fields sterile—

It was like an answer from her own mind when a voice spoke softly behind her. “I wonder, lady, if any here save ourselves truly know what they are watching?”

Accolon took her arm for a moment to help her over a rough clump of the plowed land, and she saw again the serpents, fresh and blue along his wrists.

“King Uriens knows and has tried to forget. That seems to me a worse blasphemy than not to know at all.”

She had expected that would make him angry; had, in a way, been inviting it. With Accolon’s strong hands on her arm, she felt the strong hunger, the inner leap . . . he was young, he was a virile man, and she—she was the aging wife of his old father . . . and the eyes of Uriens’ subjects were on them, and the eyes of his family and his house priest! She could not even speak freely, she must treat him with cold detachment: her stepson! If Accolon said anything kind or pitying, she would scream aloud, would tear at her hair, at her face and flesh with her nails. . . .

But Accolon only said, in a voice that could not have been overheard three feet away, “Perhaps it is enough for the Lady that we know, Morgaine. The Goddess will not fail us while a single worshipper gives her what is due.”

For a moment she looked round at him. His eyes were dwelling on her, and although his hands on hers were careful, courteous, detached, it seemed that heat ran upward from them into her whole body. She was suddenly frightened and wanted to pull away.

I am his father’s wife and of all women I am the one most forbidden to him. I am more forbidden to him, in this Christian land, than I was to Arthur.

And then a memory from Avalon surfaced in her mind, something she had not thought of for a decade; one of the Druids, giving instruction in the secret wisdom to the young priestesses, had said, If you would have the message of the Gods to direct your life, look for that which repeats, again and again; for this is the message given you by the Gods, the karmic lesson you must learn for this incarnation. It comes again and again until you have made it part of your soul and your enduring spirit.

What has come to me again and again . . . ?

Every man she had desired had been too close kin to her—Lancelet, who was the son of her foster-mother; Arthur, her own mother’s son; now the son of her husband . . .

But they are too close kin to me only by the laws made by the Christians who seek to rule this land . . . to rule it in a new tyranny; not alone to make the laws but to rule the mind and heart and soul. Am I living out in my own life all the tyranny of that law, so I as priestess may know why it must be overthrown?

She discovered that her hands, still tightly held in Accolon’s, were trembling. She said, trying to collect her scattered thoughts, “Do you truly believe that the Goddess would withdraw her life from this earth if the folk who dwell here should no longer give her her due?”

It was the sort of remark that might have been made, priestess to priest, in Avalon. Morgaine knew, as well as anyone, that the true answer to that question was that the Gods were what they were, and did their will upon the earth regardless of whether man regarded their doing one way or the other. But Accolon said, with a curious animal flash of white teeth in a grin, “Then must we make it sure, lady, that she should always be given her due, lest the life of the world fail.” And then he addressed her by a name never spoken except by priest to priestess in ritual, and Morgaine felt her heart beating so hard she was dizzy.

Lest the life of the world fail. Lest my life fail within me . . . he has called on me in the name of the Goddess. . . .

“Be still,” she said, distracted. “This is neither the time nor the place for such talk.”

“No?” They had come to the edge of the rough ground. He let go of her hand and somehow her own felt cold without it. Ahead of them the masked dancers shook their phallic wands and capered, and the Spring Maiden, her long hair buffeted and tangled by the breeze, was going around the circle of the dancers, exchanging a kiss with each—a ritualized, formal kiss, where her lips barely touched each cheek. Uriens beckoned Morgaine impatiently to his side; she moved stiffly and cold, feeling the spot on her wrists where Accolon had held her as a spot of heat on her icy body.

Uriens said fussily, “It is your part, my dear, to give out these things to the dancers who have entertained us this day.” He motioned to a servant, who filled Morgaine’s hands with sweets and candied fruits; she tossed them to the dancers and the spectators, who scrambled for them, laughing and pushing. Always mockery of the sacred things . . . a memory of the day when the folk scrambled for bits of the flesh and blood of the sacrifice. . . . Let the rite be forgotten, but not mocked this way! Again and yet again they filled her hands with the sweets, and again and again she tossed them into the crowd. They saw no more in the rite than dancers who had entertained them; had they all forgotten? The Spring Maiden came up to Morgaine, laughing and flushed with innocent pride; Morgaine saw now that although she was lovely, her eyes were shallow, her hands thick and stubby with work in the fields. She was only a pretty peasant girl trying to do the work of a priestess, without the slightest idea what she was doing; it was folly to resent her.

Yet she is a woman, doing the Mother’s work in the best way she has ever been told; it is not her fault that she was not schooled in Avalon for the great work. Morgaine did not quite know what was expected of her, but as the girl knelt for a moment before the Queen, Morgaine took on the half-forgotten stance of a priestess in blessing, and felt for an instant the old awareness of something shadowing her, above her, beyond . . . she laid her hands for a moment on the girl’s brow, felt the momentary flow of power between them, and the girl’s rather stupid face was transfigured for a moment. The Goddess works in her, too, Morgaine thought, and then she saw Accolon’s face; he was looking at her in wonder and awe. She had seen that look before, when she brought down the mists from Avalon . . . and the awareness of power flooded her, as if she were suddenly reborn.

I am alive again. After all these years, I am a priestess again, and it was Accolon who brought it back to me. . . .

And then the tension of the moment broke, and the girl backed away, stumbling over her feet, and dropping a clumsy curtsey to the royal party. Uriens distributed coins to the dancers and a somewhat larger gift to the village priest for candles to burn in his church, and the royal party went homeward. Morgaine walked sedately at Uriens’ side, her face a mask, but inwardly seething with life. Her stepson Uwaine came and walked beside her.

“It was prettier than usual this year, Mother. Shanna is so lovely—the Spring Maiden, the daughter of the blacksmith Euan. But you, Mother, when you were blessing her, you looked so beautiful, you should have been the Spring Maiden yourself—”

“Come, come,” she chided the boy, laughing. “Do you really think I could dress in green with my hair flying, and dance all round the plowed fields that way? And I am no maiden!”

“No,” said Uwaine, surveying her with a long look, “but you looked like the Goddess. Father Eian says that the Goddess was really a demon who came to keep the folk from serving the good Christ, but do you know what I think? I think that the Goddess was here for people to worship before they were taught how to worship the holy mother of Christ.”

Accolon was walking beside them. He said, “Before the Christ, the Goddess was, and it will not hurt if you think of her as Mary, Uwaine. You should always do service to the Lady, under whatever name. But I would not advise you to speak much about this to Father Eian.”

“Oh no,” said the boy, his eyes wide. “He does not approve of women, even when they are Goddesses.”

“I wonder what he thinks of queens?” Morgaine murmured. Then they had arrived back at the castle and Morgaine had to see to King Uriens’ travelling things, and in the confusion of the day, she let the new insights slide into the back of her mind, knowing that later she would have to consider all this most seriously.

Uriens rode away after midday, with his men-at-arms and a body servant or two, taking leave of Morgaine tenderly with a kiss, counselling his son Avalloch to listen to Accolon’s counsel and that of the queen in all things. Uwaine was sulking; he wanted to go with his father, whom he adored, but Uriens would not be troubled with a child in the party. Morgaine had to comfort him, promise some special treat for him while his father was away. But at last all was quiet, and Morgaine could sit alone before the fire in the great hall—Maline had taken her children off to bed—and think of all that had befallen her that day.

It was twilight outside, the long evening of Midsummer. Morgaine had taken her spindle and distaff in her hand, but she was only pretending to spin, twirling it once in a while and drawing out a little thread; she disliked spinning as much as ever, and one of the few things she had asked of Uriens was that she might employ two extra spinning women so that she would be free of that detested task; she did twice her share of the household weaving in its stead. She dared not spin; it would throw her into that strange state between sleep and waking, and she feared what she might see. So now she only twirled the spindle now and again, that none of the servants would see her sitting with her hands idle . . . not that anyone would have the right to reproach her, she was busy early and late. . . .

The room was darkening, a few slashes of crimson light from the setting sun still brilliant, darkening the corners by contrast. Morgaine narrowed her eyes, thinking of the red sun setting over the ring stones on the Tor, of the priestesses walking in train behind the red torchlight, spilling it into the shadows . . . for a moment Raven’s face flickered before her, silent, enigmatic, and it seemed that Raven opened her silent lips and spoke her name . . . faces floated before her in the twilight: Elaine, her hair all unbound as the torchlight caught her in Lancelet’s bed; Gwenhwyfar, angry and triumphant at Morgaine’s wedding; the calm, still face of the strange woman with braided fair hair, the woman she had seen only in dreams, Lady of Avalon . . . Raven again, frightened, entreating . . . Arthur, bearing a candle of penitence as he walked among his subjects . . . oh, but the priests would never dare force the King to public penance, would they? And then she saw the barge of Avalon, draped all in black for a funeral, and her own face like a reflection on the mists, mirrored there, with three other women draped all in black like the barge, and a wounded man lying white and still in her lap—

Torchlight flared crimson across the dark room, and a voice said, “Are you trying to spin in the dark, Mother?”

Confused by the light, Morgaine looked up and said peevishly, “I have told you not to call me that!”

Accolon put the torch into a bracket, and came to sit at her feet. “The Goddess is Mother to us all, lady, and I acknowledge you as such. . . .”

“Are you mocking me?” Morgaine demanded, agitated.

“I do not mock.” As Accolon knelt close to her, his lips trembled. “I saw your face today. Would I mock that—wearing these?” He thrust out his arms, and by a trick of the light, the blue serpents dyed on his wrists seemed to writhe and thrust up their painted heads. “Lady, Mother, Goddess—” His painted arms went out around her waist, and he buried his head in her lap. He muttered, “Yours is the face of the Goddess to me. . . .”

As if she moved in a dream, Morgaine put out her hands to him, bending to kiss the back of his neck where the soft hair curled. Part of her was wondering, frightened, What am I doing? Is it only that he has called on me in the name of the Goddess, priest to priestess? Or is it only that when he touches me, speaks to me, I feel myself woman and alive again after all this time when I have felt myself old, barren, half dead in this marriage to a dead man and a dead life? Accolon raised his face to her, kissed her full on the lips. Morgaine, yielding to the kiss, felt herself melting, opened, a shudder, half pain half pleasure, running through her as his tongue against hers shot waking memories through her whole body . . . so long, so long, this long year when her body had been deadened, never letting itself wake lest it be aware of what Uriens was doing. . . . She thought, defiant, I am a priestess, my body is mine to be given in homage to her! What I did with Uriens was the sin, the submission to lust! This is true and holy. . . .

His hands trembled on her body; but when he spoke, his voice was quiet and practical.

“I think all the castle folk are abed. I knew you would be here waiting for me. . . .”

For a moment Morgaine resented his certainty; then she bowed her head. They were in the hands of the Goddess and she would not refuse the flow that carried her on, like a river; long, long, she had only whirled about in a backwater, and now she was washed clean into the current of life again. “Where is Avalloch?”

He laughed shortly. “He is gone down to the village to lie with the Spring Maiden . . . it is one of our customs that the village priest does not know. Ever, since our father was old and we were grown men, it has been so, and Avalloch does not think it incompatible with his duty as a Christian man, to be the father of his people, or as many of them as possible, like Uriens himself in his youth. Avalloch offered to cast lots with me for the privilege, and I had started to do so, then I remembered your hands blessing her, and knew where my true homage lay. . . .”

She murmured half in protest, “Avalon is so far away . . .”

He said, with his face against her breast, “But she is everywhere.”

Morgaine whispered, “So be it,” and rose. She pulled him upright with her and made a half turn toward the stairs, then stopped. No, not here; there was not a bed in this castle that they could honorably share. And the Druid maxim returned to her, Can that which was never made nor created by Man, be worshipped under a roof made by human hands?

Out, then, into the night. As they stepped into the empty courtyard, a falling star rushed downward across the sky, so swiftly that for an instant it seemed to Morgaine that the heavens reeled and the earth moved backward under her feet . . . then it was gone, leaving their eyes dazzled. A portent. The Goddess welcomes me back to herself. . . .

“Come,” she whispered, her hand in Accolon’s, and led him upward to the orchard, where the white ghosts of blossom drifted in the darkness and fell around them. She spread her cloak on the grass, like a magic circle under the sky; held out her arms and whispered, “Come.”

The dark shadow of his body over her blotted out the sky and the stars.

         

Morgaine speaks . . .

         

Even as we lay together under the stars that Midsummer, I knew that what we had done was not so much lovemaking as a magical act of passionate power; that his hands, the touch of his body, were reconsecrating me priestess, and that it was her will. Blind as I was to all at that moment, I heard around us in the summer night the sound of whispers and I knew that we were not alone.

He would have held me in his arms, but I rose, driven on by whatever power held me now at this hour, and raised my hands above my head, bringing them down slowly, my eyes closed, my breath held in the tension of power . . . and only when I heard him gasp in awe did I venture to open my eyes, to see his body rimmed with that same faint light which edged my own.

It is done and she is with me. . . . Mother, I am unworthy in thy sight . . . but now it has come again. . . . I held my breath to keep from breaking out into wild weeping. After all these years, after my own betrayal and my faithlessness, she has come again to me and I am priestess once more. A pale glimmer of moonlight showed me, at the edge of the field where we lay, though I saw not even a shadow, the glimmer of eyes like some animal in the hedgerow. We were not alone, the little people of the hills had known where we were and what she wrought here, and come to see the consummation unknown here since Uriens grew old and the world had turned grey and Christian. I heard the echo of a reverent whisper and returned it in a tongue of which I knew less than a dozen words, just audible where I stood and where Accolon still knelt in reverence.

“It is done; so let it be!”

I bent and kissed him on the brow, repeating, “It is done. Go, my dear; be thou blessed.”

He would have stayed, I know, had I been the woman with whom he had come into that garden; but before the priestess he went silent away, not questioning the word of the Goddess.

There was no sleep for me that night. Alone, I walked in the garden till dawn, and I knew already, shaking with terror, what must be done. I did not know how, or whether, alone, I could do what I had begun, but as I had been made priestess so many years ago and renounced it, so must I retrace my steps alone. This night I had been given a great grace; but I knew there would be no more signs for me and no help given until I had made myself, alone, unaided, again the priestess I had been trained to be.

I bore still on my brow, faded beneath that housewifely coif Uriens would have me wear, the sign of her grace, but that would not help me now. Gazing at the fading stars, I did not know whether or no the rising sun would surprise me at my vigil; the sun tides had not run in my blood for half a lifetime, and I no longer knew the precise place on the eastern horizon where I should turn to salute the sun at its rising. I knew not, anymore, even how the moon-tides ran with the cycles of my body . . . so far had I come from the training of Avalon. Alone, with no more than a fading memory, I must somehow recapture all the things I had once known as part of myself.

Before dawn I went silently indoors, and moving in the dark, found for myself the one token I had of Avalon—the little sickle knife I had taken from Viviane’s dead body, a knife like the one I had borne as priestess and had abandoned in Avalon when I fled from there. I bound it silently around my waist, beneath my outer garments; it would never leave my side again and it would be buried with me.

I wore it thus, hidden there, the only memory I could keep of that night. I did not even paint the crescent anew on my brow, partly because of Uriens—he would have questioned it—and partly because I knew I was not, yet, worthy to bear it; I would not have worn the crescent as he wore the faded serpents about his arms, an ornament and a half-forgotten reminder of what once he had been and was no more. Over these next months and as they stretched into years, one part of me moved like a painted doll through the duties he demanded of me—spinning and weaving, making herbal medicines, looking to the needs of son and grandson, listening to my husband’s talk, embroidering him fine clothes and tending him in sickness . . . all these things I did without much thought, with the very surface of my mind and a body gone numb for those times when he took brief and distasteful possession of it.

But the knife was there to touch now and again for reassurance as I learned again to count sun tides from equinox to solstice and back to equinox again . . . count them painfully on my fingers like a child or a novice priestess; it was years before I could feel them running in my blood again, or know to a hairline’s difference where on the horizon moon or sun would rise or set for the salutations I learned again to make. Again, late at night while the household lay sleeping round me, I would study the stars, letting their influence move in my blood as they wheeled and swung around me until I became only a pivot point on the motionless earth, center of the whirling dance around and above me, the spiraling movement of the seasons. I rose early and slept late so that I might find hours to range into the hills, on pretext of seeking root and herb for medicines, and there I sought out the old lines of force, tracing them from standing stone to hammer pool . . . it was weary work and it was years before I knew even a few of them near to Uriens’ castle.

But even in that first year, when I struggled with fading memory, trying to recapture what I had known so many years ago, I knew my vigils were not unshared. I was never unattended, though never did I see more than I had seen that first night, the gleam of an eye in the darkness, a flicker of motion out of the corner of my eyes . . . they were seldom seen, even here in the far hills, anywhere in village and field; they lived their own life secretly in deserted hills and forests where they had fled when the Romans came. But I knew they were there, that the little folk who had never lost sight of Her watched over me.

Once in the far hills I found a ring of stones, not a great one like that which stood on the Tor at Avalon, nor the greater one which had once been Temple of the Sun on the great chalk plains; here the stones were no more than shoulder-high even on me (and I am not tall) and the circle no greater than the height of a tall man. A small slab of stone, the stains faded and overgrown with lichens, was half-buried in the grass at the center. I pulled it free of weed and lichen, and as I did whenever I could find food unseen in the kitchens, left for her people such things as I knew seldom came to them—a slab of barley bread, a bit of cheese, a lump of butter. And once when I went there I found at the very center of the stones a garland of the scented flowers which grew on the border of the fairy country; dried, they would never fade. When next I took Accolon out of doors when the moon was full, I wore them tied about my brow as we came together in that solemn joining which swept away the individual and made us only Goddess and God, affirming the endless life of the cosmos, the flow of power between male and female as between earth and sky. After that I went never unattended beyond my own garden. I knew better than to look for them directly, but they were there and I knew they would be there if I needed them. It was not for nothing that I had been given that old name, Morgaine of the Fairies . . . and now they acknowledged me as their priestess and their queen.

I came to the stone circle, walking by night, when the harvest moon sank low in the sky and the breath of the fourth winter grew cold on the eve of the Day of the Dead. There, wrapped in my cloak and shivering through the night, I kept the vigil, fasting; snow was drifting out of the sky when I rose and turned my steps homeward, but as I left the circle I turned my foot on a stone which had not been there when I came thither, and, bending my head, I saw the pattern of white stones arranged.

         

         

         

         

I bent, moving one stone to make the next in sequence of the magical numbers—the tides had shifted and now we were under the winter’s stars. Then I went home, shivering, to tell a story of being benighted in the hills and sleeping in an empty shepherd’s hut—Uriens had been frightened by the snow, and sent two men to seek me. Snow, lying deep on the mountainsides, kept me within doors much of the winter, but I knew when the storms would lift and risked the journey to the ring stones at Midwinter, knowing the stones would be clear . . . snow lay never within the great circles, I knew, and I guessed that it would be so here in the smaller circles, where magic was still done.

And there at the very center of the circle I saw a tiny bundle—a scrap of leather tied with sinew. My fingers were recapturing their old skill and did not fumble as I untied it and rolled the contents into my palm. They looked like a couple of dried seeds, but they were the tiny mushrooms which grew so rarely near Avalon. They were no use as food, and most folk thought them poison, for they would cause vomiting and purging and a bloody flux; but taken sparingly, fasting, they could open the gates to the Sight . . . this was a gift more precious than gold. They grew not in this country at all, and I could only guess how far the little folk had wandered in search of them. I left them what food I had brought, dried meats and fruits and a honeycomb, but not in repayment; the gift was priceless. I knew that I would lock myself within my chamber at Midwinter, and there seek again the Sight I had renounced. With the gates of vision thus opened I could seek and dare the very presence of the Goddess, begging to repronounce what I had forsworn. I had no fear that I would be cast forth again. It was she who sent me this gift that I might seek again her presence.

And I bent to the ground in thanksgiving, knowing that my prayers had been heard and my penance done.

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

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