The Mists of Avalon: Avalon Book 7 | Chapter 55 of 81

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

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Morgaine knew that she dared make this journey only if she made it one step at a time, one league at a time, one day at a time. Her first step, then, was to Pellinore’s castle; bitter irony, that her first mission was a kindly message to Lancelet’s wife and his children.

All that first day she followed the old Roman road northward through rolling hills. Kevin had offered to escort her, and she had been tempted; the old fear gripped her, that she would not find the way to Avalon this time either, not dare to summon the Avalon barge; that she would wander again into the fairy country and be lost there forever. She had not dared go after Viviane’s death. . . .

But now she must meet this test, as when she had first been made priestess . . . cast out of Avalon alone, with no test save this, that she must be able somehow to return . . . by her own strength, not Kevin’s, she must win entry there again.

Still she was frightened; it had been so long.

On the fourth day she came within sight of Pellinore’s castle, and at noon of that day, riding along the marshy shores of the lake which now bore no trace of the dragon which once had lurked there (though her serving-man and woman shivered and clung together and told each other horrible tales of dragons), she caught sight of the somewhat smaller dwelling which Pellinore had given to Elaine and Lancelet when they were wedded.

It was more villa than castle; in these days of peace there were not many fortified places in that countryside. Broad lawns sloped down toward the road, and as Morgaine rode up toward the house, a flock of geese sent up a great squawk.

A well-dressed chamberlain greeted her, asking her name and business.

“I am the lady Morgaine, wife of King Uriens of North Wales. I bear a message from the lord Lancelet.”

She was taken to a room where she could wash and refresh herself, then conducted to the great hall, where a fire burned and wheat cakes were set before her, with honey and a flask of good wine. Morgaine found herself yawning at the ceremoniousness of this—she was, after all, a kinswoman, not a state visitor. After a time, a small boy peered into the room, and when he saw that she was alone, came in. He was fair, with blue eyes and a splashing of golden freckles on his face, and she knew at once whose son he was, though he was nothing like his father.

“Are you the lady Morgaine that they call Morgaine of the Fairies?”

Morgaine said, “I am. And I am your cousin, Galahad.”

“How do you know my name?” he asked suspiciously. “Are you a sorceress? Why do they call you Morgaine of the Fairies?”

She said, “Because I am of the old royal line of Avalon, and fostered there. And I know your name, not from sorcery, but because you look like your mother, who is also my kinswoman.”

“My father’s name is Galahad too,” said the child, “but the Saxons call him Elf-arrow.”

“I came here to bear your father’s greetings to you, and to your mother, and to your sisters too,” Morgaine said.

“Nimue is a silly girl,” said Galahad. “She is a big girl, five years old, but she cried when my father came and would not let him pick her up and kiss her, because she did not recognize him. Do you know my father?”

“Indeed I do,” said Morgaine. “His mother, the Lady of the Lake, was my foster-mother and my aunt.”

He looked skeptical and frowned. “My mother told me that the Lady of the Lake is an evil sorceress.”

“Your mother is—” Morgaine stopped and softened the words; he was, after all, only a child. “Your mother did not know the Lady as I did. She was a good and wise woman, and a great priestess.”

“Oh?” She could see Galahad struggling with this concept. “Father Griffin says that only men can be priests, because men are made in God’s image and women are not. Nimue said that she wanted to be a priest when she grew up, and learn to read and write and play upon the harp, and Father Griffin told her that no woman could do all these things, or any of them.”

“Then Father Griffin is mistaken,” said Morgaine, “for I can do them all and more.”

“I don’t believe you,” Galahad said, surveying her with a level stare of hostility. “You think everyone is wrong but you, don’t you? My mother says that little ones should not contradict grown-ups, and you look as if you were not so much older than I. You aren’t much bigger, are you?”

Morgaine laughed at the angry child and said, “But I am older than either your mother or your father, Galahad, even though I am not very big.”

There was a stir at the door and Elaine came in. She had grown softer, her body rounded, her breasts sagging—after all, Morgaine told herself, she had borne three children and one was still at the breast. But she was still lovely, her golden hair shining as bright as ever, and she embraced Morgaine as if they had met but yesterday.

“I see you have met my good son,” she said. “Nimue is in her room being punished—she was impertinent to Father Griffin—and Gwennie, thank Heaven, is asleep—she is a fussy baby and I was awake with her much of the night. Have you come from Camelot? Why did my lord not ride with you, Morgaine?”

“I have come to tell you about that,” Morgaine said. “Lancelet will not ride home for some while. There is war in Less Britain, and his brother Bors is besieged in his castle. All of Arthur’s Companions have gone to rescue him and put down the man who would be emperor.”

Elaine’s eyes filled with tears, but young Galahad’s face was eager with excitement. “If I were older,” he said, “I would be one of the Companions and my father would make me a knight and I would ride with them, and I would fight these old Saxons—and any old emperor too!”

Elaine heard the story and said, “This Lucius sounds to me like a madman!”

“Mad or sane, he has an army and claims it in the name of Rome,” Morgaine said. “Lancelet sent me to see you, and bade me kiss his children—though I doubt not this young man is too big to be kissed like a babe,” she said, smiling at Galahad. “My stepson, Uwaine, thought himself too big for that when he was about your size, and a few days ago he was made one of Arthur’s Companions.”

“How old is he?” asked Galahad, and when Morgaine said fifteen, he scowled furiously and began to reckon up on his fingers.

Elaine asked, “How looked my dear lord? Galahad, run away to your tutor, I want to speak with my cousin,” and when the child had gone, she said, “I had more time to speak with Lancelet before Pentecost than in all the years of our marriage. This is the first time in all these years that I have had more than a week of his company!”

“At least he did not leave you with child this time,” said Morgaine.

“No,” said Elaine, “and he was very considerate and did not seek my bed during those last weeks while we waited together for Gwen’s birth—he said that I was so big, it would be no pleasure to me. I would not have refused him, but to tell the truth I think he cared not at all . . . and there’s a confession for you, Morgaine.”

“You forget,” said Morgaine with a grim little smile, “I have known Lancelet all my life.”

“Tell me,” Elaine said, “I swore, once, I would never ask you this—was Lancelet your lover, did you ever lie with him?”

Morgaine looked at her drawn face and said gently, “No, Elaine. There was a time when I thought—but it came never to that. I did not love him, nor did he love me.” And to her own surprise, she knew the words were true, though she had never known it before.

Elaine stared at the floor, where a patch of sunlight came in through an old, discolored bit of glass that had been there since Roman days. “Morgaine—while he was at Pentecost, did he see the Queen?”

“Since Lancelet is not blind, and since she sat on the dais beside Arthur, I suppose he did,” Morgaine said dryly.

Elaine made an impatient movement. “You know what I speak of!”

Is she still so jealous? Does she hate Gwenhwyfar so much? She has Lancelet, she has borne his children, she knows he is honorable, what more does she want? But before the younger woman’s nervously twisting hands, the tears which seemed to hang on her eyelashes, Morgaine softened. “Elaine, he spoke with the Queen, and he kissed her in farewell when the call to arms came. But I vow to you, he spoke as courtier to his queen, not as lover to lover. They have known one another since they were young, and if they cannot forget that once they loved in a way that comes not twice to any man or woman, why should you begrudge them that? You are his wife, Elaine, and I could tell when he bade me bear you his message, he loves you well.”

“And I swore to be content with no more, did I not?”

Elaine lowered her head for a long moment, and Morgaine saw her blinking furiously, but she did not cry, and at last she raised her head. “You who have had so many lovers, have you ever known what it is to love?”

For a moment Morgaine felt herself swept by the old tempest, the madness of love which had flung her and Lancelet, on a sun-flooded hill in Avalon, into each other’s arms, which had brought them together again and again, until it all ended in bitterness . . . by main will she forced away the memory and filled her mind with the thought of Accolon, who had roused again the sweetness of womanhood in her heart and body when she had felt old, dead, abandoned . . . who had brought her back to the Goddess, who had made her again into a priestess . . . she felt bands of crimson rising in quick successive waves over her face. Slowly, she nodded. “Yes, child. I have known—I know what it is to love.”

She could see that Elaine wanted to ask a hundred other questions, and she thought how happy it would be to share all this with the one woman who had been her friend since she left Avalon, whose marriage she had made—but no. Secrecy was a part of the power of a priestess, and to speak of what she and Accolon had known would be to bring it outside of the magical realm, make her no more than a discontented wife sneaking to the bed of her stepson. She said, “But now, Elaine, there is something more to speak of. Remember, you made me a vow once—that if I helped you to win Lancelet, you would give me what I asked of you. Nimue is past five years old, old enough for fostering. I ride tomorrow for Avalon. You must make her ready to accompany me.”

“No!” It was a long cry, almost a shriek. “No, no, Morgaine—you cannot mean it!”

Morgaine had been afraid of this. Now she made her voice distant and hard.

“Elaine. You have sworn it.”

“How could I swear for a child not yet born? I knew not what it meant—oh, no, not my daughter, not my daughter—you cannot take her from me, not so young!”

Again Morgaine said, “You have sworn it.”

“And if I refuse?” Elaine looked like a spitting cat ready to defend her kittens against a large and angry dog.

“If you refuse,” Morgaine’s voice was as quiet as ever, “when Lancelet comes home, he shall hear from me how this marriage was made, how you wept and begged me to put a spell on him so that he would turn from Gwenhwyfar to you. He thinks you the innocent victim of my magic, Elaine, and blames me, not you. Shall he know the truth?”

“You would not!” Elaine was white with horror.

“Try me,” Morgaine said. “I know not how Christians regard an oath, but I assure you, among those who worship the Goddess, it is taken in all seriousness. And so I took yours. I waited till you had another daughter, but Nimue is mine by your pledged word.”

“But—but what of her? She is a Christian child—how can I send her from her mother into—into a world of pagan sorceries . . . ?”

“I am, after all, her kinswoman,” Morgaine said gently. “How long have you known me, Elaine? Have you ever known me do anything so dishonorable or wicked that you would hesitate to entrust a child to me? I do not, after all, want her for feeding to a dragon, and the days are long, long past when even criminals were burnt on altars of sacrifice.”

“What will befall her, then, in Avalon?” asked Elaine, so fearfully that Morgaine wondered if Elaine, after all, had harbored some such notions.

“She will be a priestess, trained in all the wisdom of Avalon,” said Morgaine. “One day she will read the stars and know all the wisdom of the world and the heavens.” She found herself smiling. “Galahad told me that she wished to learn to read and write and to play the harp—and in Avalon no one will forbid her this. Her life will be less harsh than if you had put her to school in some nunnery. We will surely ask less of her in the way of fasting and penance before she is grown.”

“But—but what shall I say to Lancelet?” wavered Elaine.

“What you will,” said Morgaine. “It would be best to tell him the truth, that you sent her to fosterage in Avalon, that she might fill the place left empty there. But I care not whether you perjure yourself to him—you may tell him that she was drowned in the lake or taken by the ghost of old Pellinore’s dragon, for all care.”

“And what of the priest? When Father Griffin hears that I have sent my daughter to become a sorceress in the heathen lands—”

“I care even less what you tell him,” Morgaine said. “If you choose to tell him that you put your soul in pawn for my sorceries to win yourself a husband, and pledged your first daughter in return—no? I thought not.”

“You are hard, Morgaine,” said Elaine, tears falling from her eyes. “Cannot I have a few days to prepare her to go from me, to pack such things as she will need—”

“She needs not much,” said Morgaine. “A change of shift if you will, and warm things for riding, a thick cloak and stout shoes, no more than that. In Avalon they will give her the dress of a novice priestess. Believe me,” she added kindly, “she will be treated with love and reverence as the granddaughter of the greatest of priestesses. And they will—what is it your priests say—they will temper the wind to the shorn lamb. She will not be forced to austerities until she is of an age to endure them. I think she will be happy there.”

“Happy? In that place of evil sorcery?”

Morgaine said, and the utter conviction of her words struck Elaine’s heart, “I vow to you—I was happy in Avalon, and every day since I left, I have longed, early and late, to return thither. Have you ever heard me lie? Come—let me see the child.”

“I bade her stay in her room and spin in solitude till sunset. She was rude to the priest and is being punished,” said Elaine.

“But I remit the punishment,” said Morgaine. “I am now her guardian and foster-mother, and there is no longer any reason to show courtesy to that priest. Take me to her.”

         

         

They rode forth the next day at dawn. Nimue had wept at parting with her mother, but even before they were gone an hour, she had begun to peer forth curiously at Morgaine from under the hood of her cloak. She was tall for her age, less like Lancelet’s mother, Viviane, than like Morgause or Igraine; fair-haired, but with enough copper in the golden strands that Morgaine thought her hair would be red when she was older. And her eyes were almost the color of the small wood violets which grew by the brooks.

They had had only a little wine and water before setting out, so Morgaine asked, “Are you hungry, Nimue? We can stop and break our fast as soon as we find a clearing, if you wish.”

“Yes, Aunt.”

“Very well.” And soon she dismounted and lifted the little girl from her pony.

“I have to—” The child cast down her eyes and squirmed.

“If you have to pass water, go behind that tree with the serving-woman,” said Morgaine, “and never be ashamed again to speak of what God has made.”

“Father Griffin says it is not modest—”

“And never speak to me again of anything Father Griffin said to you,” Morgaine said gently, but with a hint of iron behind the mild words. “That is past, Nimue.”

When the child came back she said, with a wide-eyed look of wonder, “I saw someone very small peering out at me from behind a tree. Galahad said you were called Morgaine of the Fairies—was it a fairy, Aunt?”

Morgaine shook her head and said, “No, it was one of the Old People of the hills—they are as real as you or I. It is better not to speak of them, Nimue, or take any notice. They are very shy, and afraid of men who live in villages and farms.”

“Where do they live, then?”

“In the hills and forests,” Morgaine said. “They cannot bear to see the earth, who is their mother, raped by the plow and forced to bear, and they do not live in villages.”

“If they do not plow and reap, Aunt, what do they eat?”

“Only such things as the earth gives them of her free will,” said Morgaine. “Root, berry and herb, fruit and seeds—meat they taste only at the great festivals. As I told you, it is better not to speak of them, but you may leave them some bread at the edge of the clearing, there is plenty for us all.” She broke off a piece of a loaf and let Nimue take it to the edge of the woods. Elaine had, indeed, given them enough food for ten days’ ride, instead of the brief journey to Avalon.

She ate little herself, but she let the child have all she wanted, and spread honey herself on Nimue’s bread; time enough to train her, and after all, she was still growing very fast.

“You are eating no meat, Aunt,” said Nimue. “Is it a fast day?”

Morgaine suddenly remembered how she had questioned Viviane. “No, I do not often eat it.”

“Don’t you like it? I do.”

“Well, eat it then, if you wish. The priestesses do not have meat very often, but it is not forbidden, certainly not to a child your age.”

“Are they like the nuns? Do they fast all the time? Father Griffin says—” She stopped, remembering she had been told not to quote what he said, and Morgaine was pleased; the child learned quickly.

She said, “I meant you are not to take what he says as a guide for your own conduct. But you may tell me what he says and one day you will learn to separate for yourself what is right in what he says, and what is folly or worse.”

“He says that men and women must fast for their sins. Is that why?”

Morgaine shook her head. “The people of Avalon fast, sometimes, to teach their bodies to do what they are told without making demands it is inconvenient to satisfy—there are times when one must do without food, or water, or sleep, and the body must be the servant of the mind, not the master. The mind cannot be set on holy things, or wisdom, or stilled for the long meditation which opens the mind to other realms, when the body cries out ‘Feed me!’ or ‘I thirst!’ So we teach ourselves to still its clamoring. Do you understand?”

“N-not really,” said the child doubtfully.

“You will understand when you are older, then. For now, eat your bread, and make ready to ride again.”

Nimue finished her bread and honey and wiped her hands tidily on a clump of grass. “I never understood Father Griffin either, but he was angry when I did not. I was punished when I asked him why we must fast and pray for our sins when Christ had already forgiven them, and he said I had been taught heathendom and made Mother send me to my room. What is heathendom, Aunt?”

“It is anything a priest does not like,” said Morgaine. “Father Griffin is a fool. Even the best of the Christian priests do not trouble little ones like you, who can do no sin, with much talk about it. Time enough to talk about sin, Nimue, when you are capable of doing it, or making choices between good and evil.”

Nimue got on her pony obediently, but after a time she said, “Aunt Morgaine—I am not such a good girl, though. I sin all the time. I am always doing wicked things. I am not at all surprised that Mother wanted to send me away. That is why she is sending me to a wicked place, because I am a wicked girl.”

Morgaine felt her throat close with something like agony. She had been about to mount her own horse, but she hurried to Nimue’s pony and caught the girl in a great hug, holding her tight and kissing her again and again. She said, breathlessly, “Never say that again, Nimue! Never! It is not true, I vow to you it is not! Your mother did not want to send you away at all, and if she had thought Avalon a wicked place she would not have sent you no matter what I threatened!”

Nimue said in a small voice, “Why am I being sent away, then?”

Morgaine still held her tight with all the strength of her arms. “Because you were pledged to Avalon before you were born, my child. Because your grandmother was a priestess, and because I have no daughter for the Goddess, and you are being sent to Avalon that you may learn wisdom and serve the Goddess.” She noted that her tears were falling, unheeded, on Nimue’s fair hair. “Who let you believe it was punishment?”

“One of the women—while she packed my shift—” Nimue faltered. “I heard her say, Mother should not have sent me to that wicked place—and Father Griffin has told me often I am a wicked girl—”

Morgaine sank to the ground, holding Nimue in her lap, rocking her back and forth. “No, no,” she said gently, “no, darling, no. You are a good girl. If you are naughty or lazy or disobedient, that is not sin, it is only that you are not old enough to know any better, and when you are taught to do what is right, then you will do so.” And then, because she thought this conversation had gone far for a child so young, she said, “Look at that butterfly! I have not seen one that color before! Come, Nimue, let me lift you on your pony now,” she said, and listened attentively as the little girl chattered on about butterflies.

Alone she could have ridden to Avalon in a single day, but the short legs of Nimue’s little pony could not make that distance, so they slept that night in a clearing. Nimue had never slept out of doors before, and the darkness frightened her when they put out the fire, so Morgaine let the child creep into the circle of her arms and lay pointing out one star after another to her.

The little girl was tired with riding and soon slept, but Morgaine lay awake, Nimue’s head heavy on her arm, feeling fear stealing upon her. She had been so long away from Avalon. Step by slow step, she had retraced all her training, or what she could remember; but would she forget some vital thing?

At last she slept, but before morning it seemed that she heard a step in the clearing, and Raven stood before her. She wore her dark gown and spotted deerskin tunic, and she said, “Morgaine! Morgaine, my dearest!” Her voice, the voice Morgaine had heard but once in all her years in Avalon, was so filled with surprise and joy and wonder that Morgaine woke suddenly and stared around the clearing, half expecting to see Raven there in the flesh. But the clearing was empty, except for a trace of mist that blotted out the stars, and Morgaine lay down again, not knowing if she had dreamed, or whether, with the Sight, Raven knew that she was approaching. Her heart was racing; she could feel the beat of it, almost painful inside her chest.

I should never have stayed away so long. I should have tried to return when Viviane died. Even if I died in the attempt, I should have made it. . . . Will they want me now, old, worn, used, the Sight slowly going from me, with nothing to bring them . . . ?

The child at her side made a small sleepy sound and stirred; she shifted her weight slightly and moved closer into Morgaine’s arms. Morgaine put an arm round her, thinking, I bring them Viviane’s granddaughter. But if they let me return only for her sake it will be more bitter than death. Has the Goddess cast me out forever?

At last she slept again, not to waken until it was broad daylight, misty drizzle beginning to fall. With this bad start the day went badly; toward midday Nimue’s pony cast a shoe, and, although Morgaine was impatient and would have taken the child up to ride before her—she herself was the lightest of burdens for a horse, who could have carried two her size without trouble—she did not want to lame the pony, so they must turn aside for a village and a blacksmith. She did not want it known or rumored in the countryside that the King’s sister rode for Avalon, but now there was no help for it. There was so little news in this part of the land that whatever happened here seemed to fly on wings.

Well, it could not be helped; the wretched little animal was not to blame. They delayed and found a small village off the main road. All day the rain fell; even though it was high summer, Morgaine was shivering, and the child was damp and fretful. Morgaine paid little attention to her fussing; she was sorry for her, especially when Nimue began to cry softly for her mother, but that could not be helped either, and one of the first lessons of a priestess in the making was to endure loneliness. She would simply have to cry until she found her own comfort or learned to live without it, as all the maidens in the House had had to learn to do.

It was now long past noon, although the overcast was so thick that they could get no hint of the sun. Still, at this time of year, the light lingered late, and Morgaine did not want to spend another night on the road. She resolved to ride as far as they could see their way and was encouraged to see that as soon as they began to ride again, Nimue stopped whimpering and began to take an interest in what they rode past. Now they were very near Avalon. Nimue was so sleepy that she swayed in her saddle and at last Morgaine lifted the little girl from her pony and held her in front of her on the saddle. But the child woke when they came to the shores of the Lake.

“Are we there, Aunt?” she asked, as she was set on her feet.

“No, but it is not far now,” Morgaine said. “Within half an hour, if all goes well, you will be ready for supper and bed.”

And if all does not go well? Morgaine refused to think of that. Doubt was fatal to power, and to the Sight. . . . Five years she had spent, laboriously retracing her steps from the beginning; now it was as it had been before, cast out of Avalon, with no test save this, Have I the power to return . . . ?

“I don’t see anything at all,” Nimue said. “Is this the place? But there is nothing here, Aunt.” And she looked fearfully at the dismal dripping shore, the solitary reeds murmuring to the rain.

“They will send us a boat,” said Morgaine.

“But how will they know we are here? How can they see us in this rain?”

“I will call it,” said Morgaine. “Be quiet, Nimue.” Within her echoed the fretful child’s cry, but now, when she stood at last on the shores of home, she felt the old knowledge welling up, filling her like a cup overrunning its brim. She bent her head for an instant in the most fervent prayer of her life, then drew a long breath and raised her arms in invocation.

For an instant, heartsick with failure, she felt nothing; then, like a slowly descending line of light running down her, it struck through her, and she heard the little girl at her side gasp in sudden wonder; but she had no time for that, she felt her body like a bridge of lightning between Heaven and Earth. She did not consciously speak the word of power, but felt it throbbing like thunder through her whole body . . . silence. Silence, Nimue white and dumb at her side. And then in the dim, dull waters of the Lake there was a little stirring, like mist boiling . . . and then a shadow, and then, long and dark and shining, the Avalon barge moving slowly out of the patch of mist. Morgaine let her breath go in a long sigh that was half a sob.

It glided noiseless as a shadow to the shore, but the sound of the boat scraping on the land was very real and solid. Several of the little dark men scrambled out and took the horses’ heads, bowing low to Morgaine, saying, “I will lead them by the other path, lady,” and vanishing into the rain. Another drew back so that Morgaine could first step into the boat, lift the staring child in after her, give a hand to the frightened servants. Still in silence, except for the muttered words of the man who had taken the horses, the boat glided out into the Lake.

“What is that shadow, Aunt?” Nimue whispered, as the oars shoved out from shore.

“It is Glastonbury church,” said Morgaine, surprised that her voice was so calm. “It is on the other island, the one we can see from here. Your grandmother, your father’s mother, is buried there. Someday, perhaps, you will see her memorial stone.”

“Are we going there?”

“Not today.”

“But the boat is going straight toward it—I have heard there is a convent on Glastonbury too—”

“No,” said Morgaine, “we are not going there. Wait and see, and be quiet.”

Now would come the true test. They might have seen her from Avalon, with the Sight, and sent the boat, but whether she could open the mists to Avalon . . . that would be the test of all she had done in these years. She must not try and fail, she must simply arise and do it, without stopping to think. They were now in the very center of the Lake, where another stroke of the oars would take them into the current which ran toward the Isle of Glastonbury. . . . Morgaine rose swiftly, the flow of her draperies around her, and raised her arms. Again she remembered . . . it was like the first time she had done this, with a shock of surprise that the tremendous flow of power was silent, when it should blast the sky with thunders . . . she dared not open her eyes until she heard Nimue cry aloud in fear and wonder. . . .

The rain was gone, and under the last brilliance of a setting sun, the Isle of Avalon lay green and beautiful before them, sunlight on the Lake, sunlight striking through the ring stones atop the Tor, sunlight on the white walls of the temple. Morgaine saw it through a blur of tears; she swayed in the boat and would have fallen, except for a hand laid on her shoulder.

Home, home, I am here, I am coming home. . . .

She felt the boat scrape on the pebbled shore and composed herself. It seemed not right that she should not be wearing the garb of a priestess, though beneath her gown, as always, Viviane’s little knife was belted close around her waist. It seemed not right . . . her silken veils, the rings on her narrow fingers . . . Queen Morgaine of North Wales, not Morgaine of Avalon . . . well, that could be changed. She lifted her head proudly, drawing a long breath, and took the child by the hand. However she had changed, however many the years that lay between, she was Morgaine of Avalon, priestess of the Great Goddess. Beyond that Lake of mists and shadows, she might be queen to an elderly and laughable king, in a country far away . . . but here she was priestess, and born of the old royal line of Avalon.

She saw without surprise, as she stepped on land, that before her stood a line of bowing servants and behind them, awaiting her, the dark-robed forms of priestesses . . . they had known and had come to welcome her home. And through the line of priestesses, she saw a face and form she had seen only in a dream, a tall woman, fair-haired and queenly, her golden hair braided low on her forehead. The woman came to Morgaine quickly through the line of the other priestesses, and took her into an embrace.

“Welcome, kinswoman,” she said softly. “Welcome home, Morgaine.”

And Morgaine spoke the name she had heard only in dreams till Kevin spoke it to her, confirming the dream. “I greet you, Niniane, and I bring you Viviane’s granddaughter. She shall be fostered here, and her name is Nimue.”

Niniane was studying her curiously; what had she heard, Morgaine wondered, in all these years? But then she looked away and stooped to look at the little girl.

“And this is Galahad’s daughter?”

“No,” said Nimue, “Galahad is my brother. I am the daughter of the good knight Lancelet.”

Niniane smiled. “I know,” she said, “but here we do not use the name the Saxons gave your father, and he has the same name as your brother, you see. Well, Nimue, have you come to be a priestess here?”

Nimue looked around at the sunset landscape. “That is what my aunt Morgaine told me. I would like to learn to read and write and play the harp, and know about the stars and all kinds of things as she does. Are you really evil sorceresses here? I thought a sorceress would be old and ugly, and you are very pretty.” She bit her lip. “I am being rude again.”

Niniane laughed. “Always speak out the truth, child. Yes, I am a sorceress. I do not think I am ugly, but you must decide for yourself whether I am good or evil. I try to do the will of the Goddess, and that is all anyone can do.”

“I will try to do that, if you will tell me how,” Nimue said.

The sun dropped below the horizon, and suddenly the shore was all grey twilight. Niniane signalled; a servant holding a single torch reached out to another, and the light passed swiftly from hand to hand until the shore was all ablaze with torchlight. Niniane patted the little girl on the cheek. She said, “Until you are old enough to know her will for yourself, will you obey the rules here, and obey the women who have you in charge?”

“I will try,” Nimue said, “but I am always forgetting. And I ask too many questions.”

“You may ask as many questions as you want to, when it is the proper time for such things,” Niniane said, “but you have been riding all day and it is late, so for tonight the first command I give you is to be a good girl, and go and have supper and a bath and go to your bed. Say farewell to your kinswoman, now, and go with Lheanna to the House of Maidens.” She gestured to a sturdy, motherly looking woman in the dress of a priestess.

Nimue sniffled a little and said, “Must I say goodbye now? Won’t you come and tell me goodbye tomorrow, Aunt Morgaine? I thought I would be with you here.”

Morgaine said, very gently, “No, you must go to the House of Maidens, and do what you are told.” She kissed the petal-soft cheek. “The Goddess bless you, darling. We will meet again when she wills it.” And as she spoke she saw this same Nimue grown to tall womanhood, pale and serious with the blue crescent painted between her brows, and the shadow of the Death-crone . . . she swayed, and Niniane put out a hand to support her.

“You are weary, lady Morgaine. Send the babe to her rest, and come with me. We can talk tomorrow.”

Morgaine printed a final kiss on Nimue’s brow and the little girl trotted away obediently at Lheanna’s side. Morgaine felt a darkening mist before her eyes; Niniane gave her an arm and said, “Lean on me. Come with me to my quarters where you can rest.”

Niniane brought her to the dwelling that had once been Viviane’s, and to the little room where the priestesses in attendance on the Lady of the Lake slept in their turn. Alone, Morgaine managed to collect herself. For a moment she wondered if Niniane had brought her to these quarters to emphasize that she, not Morgaine, was Lady of the Lake . . . then stopped herself; that kind of intrigue was for the court, not for Avalon. Niniane had simply given her the most convenient and secluded of the rooms available. Once Raven had dwelt here, in her consecrated silence, so that Viviane might teach her. . . .

Morgaine washed the grime of travel from her weary body, wrapped herself in the long robe of undyed wool which she found lying across the bed, and even ate some of the food they brought, but did not touch the warmed and spiced wine. There was a stone water jar at the side of the fireplace, and she dipped out a ladleful, drinking, with tears in her eyes.

The priestesses of Avalon drink only water from the Sacred Well. . . . Again she was the young Morgaine, sleeping within the walls of her own place. She went to bed and slept like a child.

She never knew what woke her. There was a step in the room, and silence. By the last flicker of the dying firelight and the flooding light of the moon through the shutters, she saw a veiled form, and for a moment she thought that Niniane had come to speak with her; but the hair that flowed over the shoulders was long and dark and the dark face beautiful and still. On one hand she could see the darkened, thickened patch of an ancient scar . . . Raven! She sat up and said, “Raven! Is it you?”

Raven’s fingers covered her lips, in the old gesture of silence; she came to Morgaine’s side, bent over her and kissed her. Without a word, she threw off her long cloak and lay down at Morgaine’s side, taking her in her arms. In the dimness Morgaine could see the rest of the scars running up along the arm and across the pale heavy breast . . . neither of them spoke a word, then, nor in the time that followed. It seemed that the real world and Avalon had both slipped away, and again she was in the shadows of the fairy country, held close in the arms of the lady. . . . Morgaine heard in her mind the words of the ancient blessing of Avalon, as Raven touched her slowly, with ritual silence and significance, and the sound seemed to shiver around her in the silence. Blessed be the feet that have brought you to this place . . . blessed the knees that shall bend before her altar . . . blessed be the gate of Life. . . .

And then the world began to flow and change and move around her, and for a moment it was not Raven in the silence, but a form edged in light, whom she had seen once, years before, at the time when she crossed the great silence . . . and Morgaine knew that she too was glowing in light . . . still the deep flowing silence. And then it was only Raven again, lying close to her with her hair perfumed with the herbs they used in the rites, one arm flung over her, her silent lips just touching Morgaine’s cheek. Morgaine could see that there were long pale streaks of white in the dark hair.

Raven stirred and raised herself up. Still she did not speak, but she took from somewhere a silver crescent, the ritual ornament of a priestess. Morgaine knew, with a catch of breath, that it was the one she had left on her bed in the House of Maidens on that day when she had fled forth from Avalon with Arthur’s child in her womb . . . silent, after a gasp of half-voiced protest, she let Raven bind it about her neck; but Raven showed her briefly, by the last glint of the setting moon, the flash of a knife blade bound about her own waist. Morgaine nodded, knowing that Viviane’s ritual knife would never again while she lived leave her side; she was content that Raven should bear the one she herself had abandoned until one day she saw it bound about Nimue’s waist.

Raven took the little razor-sharp knife, and Morgaine watched, stilled into a dream, as she raised it; so be it, even if she wishes here to shed my blood before the Goddess I tried to flee . . . but Raven turned the knife toward her own throat; from the breastbone she pricked a single drop of blood, and Morgaine, bowing her head, took the knife and made a slight cut over her heart.

We are old, Raven and I, we shed blood no longer from the womb but from the heart . . . and wondered afterward what she had meant. Raven bent to her and licked the blood away from the small cut; Morgaine bent and touched her lips to the small, welling stain at Raven’s breast, knowing that this was a sealing long past the vows she had taken when she came to womanhood. Then Raven drew her again into her arms.

I gave up my maidenhood to the Horned One. I bore a child to the God. I burned with passion for Lancelet, and Accolon created me priestess anew in the plowed fields which the Spring Maiden had blessed. Yet never have I known what it was to be received simply in love. . . . It seemed to Morgaine, half in a dream, that she lay in the lap of her mother . . . no, not Igraine, but welcomed back into the arms of the Great Mother. . . .

When she woke she was alone. Opening her eyes into the sunlight of Avalon, weeping with joy, she wondered for a moment if she had dreamed. Yet over her heart was a small stain of dried blood; and on the pillow beside her lay the silver crescent, the ritual jewel of a priestess, which she had left when she fled from Avalon. Yet surely Raven had bound it about her throat. . . .

Morgaine tied it around her neck on its slender thong. It would never leave her again; like Viviane, she would be buried with this about her neck. Her fingers shook as she knotted the leather, knowing this was a reconsecration. There was something else on the pillow, and for a moment it shifted and changed, an unopened rosebud, a blown rose, and when Morgaine took it into her hand, it was the rose-hip berry, full and round and crimson, pulsing with the tart life of the rose. As she watched, it shrank, withered, lay dried in her hand; and Morgaine suddenly understood.

Flower and even fruit are only the beginning. In the seed lies the life and the future.

With a long sigh, Morgaine tied the seed into a scrap of silk, knowing that she must go forth again from Avalon. Her work was not completed, and she had chosen the place of her work and her testing when she fled forth from Avalon. One day, perhaps, she might return, but that time had not yet come.

And what I am must be hidden, as the rose lies hidden within the seed. She rose then and put on the garments of the queen. The robe of a priestess should be hers again one day, but she had yet to earn again the right to wear it. Then she sat and waited for Niniane to summon her.

         

         

When she came into the central room where she had faced Viviane so often, time swooped and circled and turned on itself so that for a moment it seemed to Morgaine that she must see Viviane sitting where she had so often sat, dwarfed by the high seat and yet impressive, filling the whole room . . . then she blinked, and it was Niniane there, tall and slight and fair; it seemed to Morgaine that Niniane was no more than a child, sitting in play in the high seat.

And then what Viviane had said to her when she stood before her, so many years ago, suddenly rushed over her: you have reached a stage where obedience may be tempered with your own judgment . . . and for a moment it seemed to her that her best judgment was to turn aside now, to say to Niniane only such words as might reassure her. And then the surge of resentment came over her at the thought that this child, this foolish and ordinary girl in the dress of a priestess, was presuming to sit where Viviane had sat and to give orders in the name of Avalon. She had been chosen only because she was of the blood of Taliesin. . . . How does she dare sit here and presume to give orders to me . . . ?

She looked down at the girl, knowing, without being certain how, that she had taken upon herself the old glamour and majesty, and then, with a sudden surge of the Sight, it seemed to her that she read Niniane’s thoughts.

She should be here in my place, Niniane was thinking, how can I speak with authority to Queen Morgaine of the Fairies . . . and the thought was blurred, half with awe of the strange and powerful priestess before her, and half with simple resentment, if she had not fled from us and forsworn her duty, I would not now be struggling to fill a place for which we both know I am not fit.

Morgaine came and took her hands, and Niniane was surprised at her gentle voice.

“I am sorry, my poor girl, I would give my very life to return here and take the burden from you. But I cannot, I dare not. I cannot hide here and shirk my given task because I long for my home.” It was no longer arrogance, nor contempt for the girl who had been thrust, unwilling, into the place which should have been hers, but simple pity for her. “I have begun a task in the West country which must be completed—if I leave it half done, it were better it had never been begun. You cannot take my place there, and so, may the Goddess help us both, you must keep my place here.” She bent and embraced the girl, holding her tight. “My poor little cousin, there is a fate on us both, and we cannot escape it . . . if I had stayed here, the Goddess would have worked with me one way, but even when I tried to flee my sworn duty, she brought it upon me elsewhere . . . none of us can escape. We are both in her hands, and it is too late to say it would have been better the other way . . . she will do with us as she will.”

Niniane held rigidly aloof for a moment, then her resentment melted and she clung to Morgaine, almost as Nimue had done. Blinking back tears, she said, “I wanted to hate you—”

“And I, you, perhaps . . .” Morgaine said. “But she has willed otherwise, and before her we are sisters. . . .” Hesitantly, her lips reluctant to speak the words which had been withheld for so long, she added something else, and Niniane bent her head and murmured the proper response. Then she said, “Tell me of your work in the West, Morgaine. No, sit here beside me, there is no rank between us, you know that. . . .”

When Morgaine had told her what she could, Niniane nodded. “Something of this I heard from the Merlin,” she said. “In that country, then, men turn again to the old worship . . . but Uriens has two sons, and the elder is his father’s heir. Your task then is to make certain that Wales has a king from Avalon—which means that Accolon must succeed his father, Morgaine.”

Morgaine closed her eyes and sat with bent head. At last she said, “I will not kill, Niniane. I have seen too much of war and bloodshed. Avalloch’s death would solve nothing—they follow Roman ways there now, since the priests have come, and Avalloch has a son.”

Niniane dismissed that. “A son who could be reared to the old worship—how old is he, four years old?”

“He was so when I came to Wales,” said Morgaine, thinking of the child who had sat in her lap and clung to her with his sticky fingers and called her Granny. “Enough, Niniane. I have done all else, but even for Avalon, I will not kill.”

Niniane’s eyes flamed blue sparks at her. She raised her head and said, warning, “Never name that well from which you will not drink!”

And suddenly Morgaine realized that the woman before her was priestess, too, not merely the pliant child she had seemed; she could not be where she was, she could never have passed the tests and ordeals which went into the making of a Lady of Avalon, if she had not been acceptable to the Goddess. With unexpected humility, she realized why she had been sent here. Niniane said, almost in warning, “You will do what the Goddess wills when her hand is laid upon you, and that I know by the token you bear . . .” and her eyes rested upon Morgaine’s bosom as if she could see through the folds of the gown to the seed which lay there, or to the silver crescent on its leather thong. Morgaine bent her head and whispered, “We are all in her hands.”

“Be it so,” said Niniane, and for a moment it was so silent in the room that Morgaine could hear the splash of a fish in the Lake beyond the borders of the little house. Then she said, “What of Arthur, Morgaine? He bears still the sword of the Druid Regalia. Will he honor his oath at last? Can you make him honor it?”

“I do not know Arthur’s heart,” Morgaine said, and it was a bitter confession. I had power over him, and I was too squeamish to use it. I flung it away.

“He must swear again to honor his oath to Avalon, or you must get the sword from him again,” said Niniane, “and you are the only person living to whom this task might be entrusted. Excalibur, the sword of the Holy Regalia, must not remain in the hands of one who follows Christ. You know Arthur has no son by his queen, and he has named the son of Lancelet, Galahad by name, to be his heir, since now the Queen grows old.”

Morgaine thought, Gwenhwyfar is younger than I, and I might still bear a child if I had not been so damaged in Gwydion’s birth. Why are they so certain she will never bear? But before Niniane’s certainty she asked no questions. There was magic enough in Avalon, and no doubt they had hands and eyes at Arthur’s court; and indeed the last thing they would wish would be that the Christian Gwenhwyfar should bear Arthur a son . . . not now.

“Arthur has a son,” said Niniane, “and while his day is not yet, there is a kingdom he can take—a place to begin the recapture of this land for Avalon. In the ancient ways, the king’s son meant little, the son of the Lady was all, and the king’s sister’s son was his heir . . . know you what I mean, Morgaine?”

Accolon must succeed to the throne of Wales. Morgaine heard it again, and then what Niniane did not say: And my son . . . is the son of King Arthur. Now it all made sense. Even her own barrenness after Gwydion’s birth. But she asked, “What of Arthur’s heir—Lancelet’s son?”

Niniane shrugged and for a moment Morgaine wondered, horrified, whether it was intended to give Nimue the same hold on Galahad’s conscience that she had been given on Arthur’s.

“I cannot see all things,” said Niniane. “Had you been Lady here—but time has moved on and other plans must be made. Arthur may yet honor his oath to Avalon and keep the sword Excalibur, and then there will be one way to proceed. And he may not, and there will be another way which she will prepare, to which end we each have our tasks. But whether or no, Accolon must come to rule in the West country, and that is your task. And the next king will rule from Avalon. When Arthur falls—though his stars say he will live to be old—then the king of Avalon will rise. Or else, the stars say, such darkness will fall over this land that it will be as if he had never been. And when the next king takes power, then will Avalon return into the mainstream of time and history . . . and then there will be a subject king over the western lands, ruling his Tribespeople. Accolon shall rise high as your consort—and it is for you to prepare the land for the great king from Avalon.”

Again Morgaine bowed her head and said, “I am in your hands.”

“You must return now,” said Niniane, “but first there is one you must know. His time is not yet . . . but there will be one more task for you.” She raised her hand, and as if he had been waiting in an anteroom, a door opened and a tall young man came into the room.

And at the sight Morgaine caught her breath, with a pain so great that it seemed for a moment that she could not breathe. Here was Lancelet reborn—young and slender as a dark flame, his hair curling about his cheeks, his narrow dark face smiling . . . Lancelet as he had been on that day when they lay together in the shadow of the ring stones, as if time had slipped and circled back as in the fairy country. . . .

And then she knew who it must be. He came forward and bent to kiss her hand. His walk was Lancelet’s too, the flowing movements that seemed almost a dance. But he wore the robes of a bard, and on his forehead was the small tattoo of an acorn crest, and about his wrists the serpents of Avalon writhed. Time reeled in her mind.

If Galahad is to be king in the land, is my son then the Merlin, tanist and dark twin and sacrifice? For a moment it seemed she moved among shadows, king and Druid, the bright shadow who sat beside Arthur’s throne as queen, and herself who had borne Arthur’s shadow son . . . Dark Lady of power.

She knew anything she said would be foolish. “Gwydion. You are not like your father.”

He shook his head. “No,” he said, “I bear the blood of Avalon. I looked once on Arthur, when he made a pilgrimage to Glastonbury of the priests—I went there unseen in a priest’s robe. He bows overmuch to the priests, this Arthur our king.” His smile was fleeting, feral.

“You have no reason to love either of your parents, Gwydion,” said Morgaine, and her hand tightened on his, but she surprised a fleeting look in his eyes, icy hatred . . . then it was gone and he was the smiling young Druid again.

“My parents gave me their best gift,” Gwydion said, “the royal blood of Avalon. And one more thing I ask of you, lady Morgaine.” Irrationally she wished he had called her, just once, by the name of Mother.

“Ask, and if I can give, it is yours.”

Gwydion said, “It is not a great gift. Surely not more than five years hence, Queen Morgaine, you will lead me to look on Arthur and let him know that I am his son. I am aware"—a quick, disturbing smile—"that he cannot acknowledge me as his heir. But I wish him to look on the face of his son. I ask no more than that.”

She bent her head. “Surely I owe you that much, Gwydion.”

Gwenhwyfar might think what she liked—Arthur had already done penance for this. No man could be other than proud of this grave and priestly young Druid. Nor should she . . . after all these years, she knew it . . . feel shame for what had been, as now she knew she had felt it all these years since she fled from Avalon. Now that she saw her son grown, she bowed before the inevitability of Viviane’s Sight.

She said, “I vow to you that day will come, I swear it by the Sacred Well.” Her eyes blurred, and angrily she blinked back the rebellious tears. This was not her son; Uwaine, perhaps, was her son, but not Gwydion. This dark, handsome young man so like the Lancelet she had loved as a girl, he was not her son looking for the first time on the mother who had abandoned him before he was weaned; he was priest and she priestess of the Great Goddess, and if they were no more to each other than that, at least they were no less.

She put her hands to his bent head and said, “Be thou blessed.”

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

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