The Merlin Prophecy Book One: Battle of Kings
Why should the worm intrude the maiden bud?
Or hateful cuckoos hatch in sparrows’ nests?
Or toads infect fair founts with venom mud?
Or tyrant folly lurk in gentle breasts?
Or kings be breakers of their own behests?
But no perfection is so absolute
That some impurity doth not pollute.
—SHAKESPEARE, THE RAPE OF LUCRECE
“Daughter?” An angry, masculine voice bellowed from the forecourt of the old villa at Segontium. Disturbed farm birds squawked and squabbled as they scrambled away from the huge horses. “Olwyn! Come out at once! Explain yourself!”
The sounds of nervous horses and a series of shouted orders, all delivered in a stentorian, impatient voice, forced Olwyn to put down her spindle, smooth her hair and woolen robe, and hurry out of the women’s quarters towards the atrium of an ancient house where a tall, grizzled man was stripping off his fine leather gloves and woolen cloak, dropping them negligently over the nearest oaken bench.
His garb was careless, but his leathers, the well-tended furs, and the embossed designs of hawks on his fine hide tunic indicated wealth and power. The heavy golden torc that proclaimed his status and a collection of brass, gold, and silver arm rings, wrist bands, and cloak pins were worn with such negligent grace that Melvig radiated the authority of a king. Even more telling were the disdainful eyebrows, the heavy lines of self-indulgence that drew down his narrow lips and a certain blunt directness in his stare that spoke of a nature accustomed to giving orders. On this particular afternoon, above a greying beard, his eyes were stormy and promised that squalls would soon come to her door.
“Father! How nice to see you. Please, sit and be welcome. May I order the wine you like so much?”
Melvig ap Melwy made a grumpy gesture of assent and threw himself into a casual slouch, his long, still-muscular legs outstretched and his fingers tapping the armrest of his chair with ill-concealed irritation. Olwyn turned to her steward, who was hovering nervously behind his mistress. “Fetch the last of the Falernian wine that came from Rome. And some sweetmeats. I believe my father’s hungry.”
“Hungry be damned, woman! I’m cross. And it’s your infernal brat who’s the cause of my upset. A man ought to be able to ride with his guard to see his daughter without risking assassination.”
Olwyn’s brow furrowed. Her father had always been a tyrant and a blusterer, but she loved him despite his faults. As the king of the Deceangli tribe, he often risked death from impatient claimants to his throne and ambitious invaders. But, so far, he had proved to be an elusive target and a vengeful survivor.
“Idiot woman! It’s that daughter of yours. More hair than brain, I say, and thoughtless to a fault. She ran across the path right under the hooves of my horse. Only good luck prevented me from being thrown . . . and I’m too old to risk my bones.”
Olwyn smiled with relief, noting that her father showed no concern for the health of his granddaughter. Melvig was utterly egocentric.
“You’re not very old, Father. You’re only fifty-two years by my reckoning, and you’re far too vigorous to be harmed by a twelve-year-old girl.”
“Humpf!” Melvig snorted. But he was pleased, none the less, and accepted the fine goblet of wine and ate every sweetmeat on the plate that was offered to him by Olwyn’s fumbling, nervous steward. When he had licked the last drops of honey from his huge mustache and drained the last of the wine in his cup, he fixed his daughter with his protuberant green eyes.
“Olwyn, my granddaughter is near as tall as your steward, but she still runs wild through the dunes with her legs bare where she can be seen by any peasant who cares to look. When did she last have her hair brushed? And when did she last bathe? She’s little more than a savage!”
“You exaggerate, Father. She’s high-spirited, and too young to be cooped up indoors. Would you take her from me? She’s all I have.”
“And whose fault is that?”
But Melvig’s eyes softened a trifle, as much as that dour man was able to express feelings of sympathy. He remembered that Olwyn had lost her husband to a roving band of outlanders in her second year of marriage. Since Godric’s death, she had steadfastly refused to remarry, and preferred to live with her servants and her daughter on the wild stretch of coast below Segontium. In Melvig’s opinion, his daughter was too young at twenty-five summers to have turned her face away from life. She still had all her teeth, her skin was unlined, and she had proved that she was fertile. If she had any loyalty to her clan, he thought with another spurt of temper, she would have given him another grandson years ago.
But Olwyn’s hazel eyes were slick with unshed tears, so Melvig was moved to pat her arm awkwardly to show his understanding of her fears. Although he was an impatient father, this particular daughter had always been a favored child, for in all the details that mattered Olwyn had been obedient and circumspect.
“I’ll not take her from you, daughter, so have done with all this fussing. But you must be aware that she’s as wild as a young filly and as heedless as a foolish coney that dares the hawks to strike. Would you have her stolen and raped? No? Then you must see to her education, Olwyn, because I’ll be searching for a husband for her at the end of winter.”
Olwyn’s heart sank and a single tear spilled from her thick, overlong lashes to roll down her pale cheek. Melvig used his large, calloused thumb to wipe away the salty trail with affectionate impatience.
“May the gods take thee, woman,” he whispered softly. “Don’t look at me as if I steal your last crust of bread. I’ll not take her yet, but the day will come soon, Olwyn, so you’d best be considering how you are to spend the rest of your days. Now, where are my traveling bags?”
Too wise to waste time in fruitless argument, Olwyn saw to the comfort of her father first, and then sent her maid to find her moon-mad daughter.
Segontium wasn’t a large town, but it bore the stamp of the Roman occupation in its small forum, brick and stone buildings, and sturdy wall. Once, over a thousand Roman troops had been quartered in the surrounding fields, allowing Paulinus, and Agricola after him, to smash all resistance by the Ordovice tribes. Above a pebble-strewn shoreline, Segontium looked towards the island of Mona where, forever after, all good Celts would remember the shameful slaughter of the druids, young and old, male and female, as they faced their implacable enemy on the ancient isle of sacred memory. Rome’s predatory legions had known that the druids held sway over the tribal kings. During the rebellion, leaving Boudicca to rage around Londinium, Paulinus had hastened north to rip the living, beating heart out of the Celts on Mona rather than bring the Iceni queen to heel. His desperate plan had succeeded, for few druids had escaped the bloody massacres, and Paulinus had crushed the superstitious, suddenly rootless Celts. In one final insult, the Christian priests had decided to take root on Ynys Gybi, a tiny isle huddled against Mona’s flanks.
Segontium bore its taint of blood, while something heavy remained in the Latin name to cause the least superstitious man to furrow his brow and make the sign to ward off evil. The dark shores in winter, the screams of gulls, and the sea-tainted air that was softened by the earth and trees of Mona warned its neighbors to beware.
Olwyn had come to Godric’s house with joy, in full knowledge that her man had no Roman blood in him. Their ancient home was
cobbled together from a ruin, using stones taken from Roman villas and the conical houses of the Celts, but Olwyn felt no taint in the clean winds that scoured the corridors of fallen leaves and the sand whipped into corners by storms. Situated a little to the south of the shadow of Mona, their snug house suffered the vicious blows of the Hibernian winds, but Olwyn was content. Even the worn floor tiles, with their alien designs of sun, stars, moons, and constellations held no fears for her. Wind, clean sunshine, driving rain, and freezing snow combined to drive any sour humors from the house and purge it of the Roman poison.
But Godric had ridden away to protect his uncle’s fields from tribal incursions, and when he returned he was tied over his horse’s flanks, wrapped in greasy hides and pallid in death. Olwyn had been too numb to weep, even when she had unbound her husband’s corpse and exposed the many wounds made by arrows in his cold, marbled flesh. A stump of shaft protruded from the killing injury over his heart, and Olwyn had been so lost to propriety that she had struggled to tug it free.
Eventually, after she had used a sharp knife to slice the flesh that held the cruel barbs of the arrowhead in place, the small length of shaft had seemed to leap out of Godric’s breast with an ugly, sucking noise. In a daze, she had washed her husband’s flesh, oiled his hair, and plaited it neatly before dressing him in his finest furs and a woolen tunic. Finally, she bent to kiss his mouth, although the faint, sickly odor of death almost made her vomit. Blessedly, her tears began to fall.
All the comforting obsequies of death were observed but only one duty consumed Olwyn’s waking moments. The arrowhead was separated from the remnants of its shaft and Olwyn labored for many hours to drive a narrow hole through the wicked iron barb. Then, after months of toil, she hung the arrowhead round her daughter’s neck by a soft plait of leather.
Melvig, her father, had been repulsed by the gesture, but Olwyn was a strange, obsessive creature who lacked his sturdy practicality, so he said nothing. If he had been honest, Melvig would have confessed
that his stubborn, self-contained daughter frightened him a little with her intensity. Like all her kin, Olwyn was wild and strange. Melvig often wondered why he had taken a black-haired hill woman as his second wife, although her blatant sexuality had certainly stirred his loins. The gods were aware of his frustration when she produced no sons, only daughters, and all of them peculiar!
Melvig ate in a petulant, reflective manner and scorned to use the old Roman divans, choosing instead to experience the solid serviceability of an adze-formed oak bench and table. His daughter served him mead with her own hands, although she wished privately that the Deceangli and Ordovice tribes were still at war so that her father would be forced to stay in his fortress at Canovium to the north. Still, she smiled in that distant fashion that always aggravated her father’s temper. Even as he accepted her excellent wine, he fought a desire to box her ears or to slap her pale cheeks until she cast off her impassiveness to weep and curse him. Anything but that empty face, the old man thought impotently, but managed to save his irritation for the belated appearance of his granddaughter.
Conscious of the gulf between them, Olwyn tried to bridge that yawning space without touching him, which she knew would not be acceptable to the irascible old king.
“How go your borders, Father? I know your friendship with King Bryn ap Synnel is as strong as ever, but the Picts still raid our lands in the spring.” She was conscious that she was gabbling, but that gulf . . . She bridged it in the only way she could, with hurried words, hoping to deflect criticism from her wayward daughter. “I know you are in alliance with the Cornovii king, but the Brigante aren’t very friendly, are they? I do wish you had time for more peaceful pursuits.”
Melvig frowned. He was uncomfortable with woman’s chatter, as he called it, and was unwilling to discuss political matters with anyone, including his son, Melvyn.
He ran his hand through his beard and scratched his chin to cover his awkwardness. As an affectionate but distant father, he had never known how to discuss anything of importance with his daughters,
faring better when he was issuing peremptory instructions in a gruff voice. He patted his daughter’s head clumsily, and tried to deflect any personal revelations.
“You don’t need to worry your head about the Picts, or those Brigante bastards. They’ve got a new king who’s more amenable to reason than his predecessor. It’s the south where the true dangers lie, but there’ll always be someone to keep you safe, girl. You don’t need to be afraid.”
“I’m not afraid, Father. Whatever will happen, will happen. We all stand in the hollow of the Mother’s hand.”
Melvig cleared his throat, and Olwyn knew he was embarrassed by any reference to the Mother, whom all sensible men feared to their very bones. Regretfully, Olwyn patted her father’s shoulder in passing and went to wait for her daughter.
When she finally arrived, the girl came at a run, with scant regard for her wind-torn hair and grass-stained skirts. Melvig noticed that Branwyn’s feet were bare and dirty, and that one sunburned hand clutched her sandals behind her back.
As if he wouldn’t notice!
“So, my young barbarian, you’ve decided to honor us with your presence at last. What do you have to say for yourself, eh? Don’t you realize how foolhardy you are to run across the path of galloping horses? The gods must have protected us both, for you weren’t trampled to death and I didn’t fall from my horse.”
Branwyn stood resolutely before him with her dirty feet slightly apart. Her eyes were cast down modestly, but Melvig wasn’t deceived.
“Are you half-witted, girl? Give me a fair answer, or by my oath I’ll have you locked in your room. And there you will stay for six months, even if I have to leave a guard to enforce my wishes.”
“You’re frightening her, Father!”
“Her?” Melvig snorted derisively, and waved a chicken leg in his granddaughter’s direction. “She’s afraid of too little for her own good.”
The object of his disapproval was a tall, slender girl just approaching womanhood but still possessing all the awkwardness of a young
animal. Her skin was startlingly pale, for Olwyn and Melvig both tanned easily, and were always a warm, golden hue. Her eyes were inherited from Godric, and were brown and lustrous, but they were harder and more willful than those of her noble father. Her mouth was generous and naturally red, but her nose was too long and narrow for feminine beauty, and her lips always appeared to be smiling at something vaguely unpleasant. Her mahogany-brown hair with its highlights of bronze was an odd frame for her pale flesh and dark eyes, and with that imperious nose coupled with brows that rose upward at the outer corners the child possessed an alien, disconcerting sexuality. Melvig felt his palms itch with the desire to slap her pale face. Even Olwyn, a doting mother, was a little repelled by her daughter’s indifference to the opinions of her elders.
“I beg your pardon if I frightened you, Grandfather,” she replied meekly. “But I like the sand and the gulls, and I don’t really notice anything other than where I’m going when I’m freed from my lessons.”
“You’ll discover just how frightened I am, young lady, if you run under the hooves of my stallion again,” Melvig spluttered, but his mouth curled in grudging appreciation. She was a spirited vixen, although she irritated him mightily. “You’ll feel the flat of my hand!”
“Father!” Olwyn protested, her eyes finally registering concern.
“Go to your bed, girl—without your supper,” the king ordered, gazing off into the distance to indicate that he had made an irrevocable decision. “Perhaps a time of fasting will remind you to take more care in future.”
“There’s a storm coming, so all sensible folk will be seeking shelter for the night,” Olwyn added. “You could easily have been caught in the elements of the gods through your foolishness, Branwyn. The storm clouds come from over Mona, where the druids tended the sacred groves. They tell us that the spirits are angry when the winds blow fiercely from the island, so any sensible person knows to pray to their household gods and keep their head down.”
The girl bowed low to her grandfather with a gravity that was totally false. Olwyn saw the girl’s lips quivering with scorn, and felt
a frisson of fear at her daughter’s arrogance. Then the girl was gone, leaving behind the smell of sunshine and seaweed, as well as a small scattering of sand granules.
“Mark my words, Olwyn, that little vixen will bring trouble to your house. Your Godric was a good, decent man, and apart from your failure to remarry for the sake of your family you’ve always been a dutiful daughter. But what can be made of Branwyn? She’s willful, disobedient, and completely unprepared for marriage. That’s your fault, daughter! She’s not even particularly beautiful,” the old man added, combing his beard with irritable fingers. For the first time, he had felt the child’s blatant, unconscious sexuality and he was disturbed by its wild strength. “What is to become of this plain, fractious, and peculiar child?”
Having voiced his opinion, he considered that the discussion was closed. Oblivious of the offended expression of his daughter, he stamped off to his quarters in a much-improved humor, while behind his receding back, Olwyn seethed. She regretted her gender and the intense, inward-looking nature that robbed her of the ability to voice any argument or complaint. Whenever her father invaded her quiet world, she felt impotent, frail, and alone. Olwyn accepted that her daughter was reckless and even heedless of others, but Branwyn was so like her grandfather that the child sometimes overwhelmed her mother.
A distant rumble of thunder intruded into Olwyn’s turbulent thoughts and she moved to the heavy wooden door of the villa. Her manservant was waiting to bolt the doors for the night, and Olwyn felt a surge of guilt that she should keep this good man from his bed. Uncharacteristically, she remained at the entrance to her house after ordering him to retire, because, like her mother before her, Olwyn couldn’t resist the lure of the approaching storm. Wild weather fascinated her and made her believe that real blood raced through her quiet veins.
The storm gradually blotted out the last, numinous light of the long evening. Black clouds marched across the sky in the vanguard of the tempest and were laced with bruised purples and livid greens as if the gods had struck heaven’s face in a jealous rage. Behind the leading edge of the boiling storm clouds came an ominous denseness
that seemed more palpable than air. Periodically, lightning lanced out of the darkness and struck the sea or the island like a crooked staff of incandescent energy. The air smelled of ozone, salt, and the breathless sweat of a dead afternoon.
Olwyn clutched herself and shivered. Something was angry: not the gods, precisely, but something older and more primal that barely deigned to notice, for the most part, the small irritants of humanity. Now, that indefinable “it” had been stirred and, in its sudden temper, was tearing the sea to shreds of foam and eliminating the stars that had filled the sky.
Superstitiously, Olwyn backed through the wooden doors and slammed them shut behind her. As she lowered the heavy bar into place, she heaved a sigh of relief that the villa was locked against whatever sought to smash it into fragments of brick, wood, and tile.
“When Poseidon pounds his trident and Zeus throws his thunderbolts, all sensible people cover their heads and pray that they will see morning,” the steward, Plautenes, told the cook, a fellow transplanted Greek who was shivering with fear in their narrow bed. “Don’t fret, Crusus. The gods have no use for men like us. As the old saying goes, they’ve got other fish to fry.”
Perhaps Plautenes was right, for the villa was shaken to its strong foundations by peal after peal of rolling thunder. Tiles were dislodged by the wild, gusting winds and several trees in the orchard were ripped out of the ground.
Throughout the terrifying evening, only two people in the villa were completely at peace. Melvig slept soundly, for he was a hardheaded realist who refused to fear the demons of the air that existed only in the imaginations of the foolish. Under the fine linen covers of his pallet, he slept dreamlessly, to wake at dawn without any memory of the storm or the dangers it had presented.
After prayers to the Mother and an invocation to Grannie Ceridwen to save her household, Olwyn fell into the dreamless, untroubled sleep of the truly innocent, trusting that her mistresses would save her from the terror of the darkness.
In her small room, before a narrow, shuttered window, Branwyn gloried in the havoc that played out before her wondering eyes. In the face of such elemental power, she found herself unable to be frightened when the pyrotechnics of sheet and forked lightning limned her narrow and limited view of Mona with lurid color.
“It’s wonderful!” she whispered to the storm with a childlike glee. “Tomorrow anything might happen, for the gods have wrought the sea and the air anew. How exciting it is!”
When she finally fell asleep in a wild tangle of long limbs and unbrushed hair, the stillness that descended over the villa held no fears for her. Branwyn, daughter of Olwyn and grandchild of Melvig ap Melwy, had yet to learn the smell and taste of terror.