Book One of the Merlin’s Gambit Trilogy
Merlin on the Road in Italy
AD 525, Harvest Moon, 17th September, Monday
What day it is is of no immediate importance to me unless it’s the day of a full moon. That’s not to say that the turning of the world in its natural cycles makes no impression on me, for I would be a very foolish wizard indeed not to mark the quarter- and cross-quarter days, and an impetuous presbyter to ignore the liturgical wheel of the Church now layered artfully atop it. But I am not yet ordained into the priestly body, merely aspiring to be, and that not of my own accord, but picking up the reins of duty and obligation thrust upon me by reason of my birth. And when I am it will be within the priestly body of the Roman Rite, not that of our delightfully magical indigenous Church with its mystical liturgy, given us by the hand of the saintly Patrick, some say, on his way from captivity in Ireland. I could, of course, tell the somesayers how this story really fell about, but in my experience it is not wise to separate some from the comforts of their sayings.
Balancing these, some others would say, opposing aspects of my spiritual existence between the old ways and the new is a matter of second nature to me; it’s something I’ve always done, like drinking water from a clear spring when thirsty, and eating fruit from the trees when hungry. Yet full moons are of a different nature still, that nature which informs and instils my magic as much from deep within as from the farthest corners of the Infinite. Nothing, really, to do with church rites and liturgical observance at all, nor even related to the pagan wheel of the seasons and the turning of the world around the sun, and without which I would neither hold nor understand the balance of anything at all. Ah, Mother Moon! A chain so fine, invisible to the untrained eye, binds me to her and she to me; every cycle at her fullest hour she enables in me feats that would not be believed were I to reveal to the world her magic powers within me. It does well for me that I was not born under a braggarts star! Yet, given the story I am about to tell, it would not hurt to inform you of how I am able to travel as I will throughout time, so long as I can see clearly the juncture at which I will arrive, and providing I am quick to catch the very fullest point of Mother Moon’s waxing, indeed the very last moment before she begins to wane.
Tonight she is full, a Harvest Moon, as it is September. I’m seeing her cast her spell over unfamiliar territory, thus the shadows she makes are strange ones which I have to use magic to see into, to see what they may conceal, should I perceive the need. I sit under the cover of a large and, gods be praised, leafy tree which affords me shelter and hiding without having to resort to magic. It’s a little distance away from, and some feet above, the old Roman road, and I have a good view both up and down. The road is a little bumpy and in need of repair but peasants, I’ve seen, keep the verges clear of overgrown vegetation. Their interests are vested, I would suppose, in the stopping of traffic in its various forms to leave offerings at the many mausolea and shrines along the way, which no doubt fatten their meagre income a degree or two above starvation. Who are they robbing? The dead have no need of sacrificial beasts, cooked or otherwise, or libations, and the life-giving force of a meal is a far more potent spirit when measured against their own death. Thus the ever-revolving wheel of life turns on, enabling the Roman legacy yet one more lingering lease of life. Poetic, but I digress.
Let me tell you something of my journey and purpose before I continue with Mother Moon’s plans for me, and mine for her, this particular cycle. Understanding these may give you valuable insights that I would be unwise to deny you at this stage of your perception of me. As I have said already, I am to be ordained. My present destination is indeed Rome, being the place where, one could be forgiven for thinking, the Christian journey of our present time appears to start and finish in its own endless cycle, regardless of its elsewhere origins. And it’s where I shall be given the requisite training before being subsumed into the process of the Roman Church; entering as a chrysalis with all the promise of a brightly coloured butterfly, only to re-emerge as a dun moth, if the process manages to take a hold to the satisfaction of the Holy Roman hierarchy. Note that I do not say to the satisfaction of the Almighty: nothing I’ve seen so far has convinced me that their God, or indeed any god at all is involved in this process, merely men in expensive mantles stepping out in the name of a god they have no understanding of. This might sound unfair, but it is not a process I have much belief in; and, as I have already intimated, this is not a decision I have been allowed to make for myself. But events have a way of falling out as they will around me, despite the input from others who think they control me to their advantage. I shall be far more content with the plans that Destiny has for me than those of mere mortals wishing to use me as a pawn to manipulate events to their own ends, however laudable to their masters those plans may be. So, shall we not just watch and see what befalls on that matter? I have, of course, played one card that turns the situation a few years in my favour, but more of that a little later.
And that brings me to the subject that empties rooms quicker than a spraying polecat, and causes all manner of allusive epithets to spring forth from those brave enough to remain: my parentage! I know all too well who my mother is as she’s never once let me out of her sight for more than a few hours at a time since I was born. How I got her to agree to letting me come all the way to Italy without her is still a mystery to me, she being relatively impervious to all manner of glamours and seeing through false inducements in no time at all. I can only conclude that it is a process in which she has great belief! Her name is Vivienne and, before her conversion to the Christian religion, she held the title of Lady of the Lake, which she gave up and conferred on one of her younger sisters as she took up her cross, although we have still spent every summer on the Isle of Avalon with all of her sisters, as well as the much-vaunted Bard and Druid High Priest, Taliesin, in one happy fusion of cross-pollenated religion all of our own making.
Now, my father is an entirely different proposition. In truth the subject of his identity presents a very tricky matter not often alluded to in more than guarded whispers, one that does not require absolute proof of his identity, more an intimation of acceptance of a set of circumstances worked out many years ago and given to the court rumour machines in only those carefully guarded whispers which could best control the desired outcome. I’ve heard all manner of whispers, my favourite is that an angel came to lie with my mother when she took herself off to live in the convent for Christian instruction. Or was it a demon? Of course, I no more need any other than my own instinct and intuition to know the truth for myself; which is to say that I know without a doubt who my father really is, but also that the thought has never fired itself further than the end of its original synapse, and his identity has never once slipped off my tongue, nor ever will. In this instance it is my father, or at least the man my mother and I visit at his court in Caerleon twice a year, on our way both to and from Avalon, whom the rumour-mongers think I have been subtly persuaded to believe is aptly named so, who has given me the undertaking of Holy Orders. Ambrosius Aurelianus is an ambitious man, and when he sees the need within his household for a priest trained in the Roman Rite, whom he wishes to send to Rome for the purpose, who am I to argue? I understand the concept of long-term political leverage, even if I think it a somewhat foolish one, and it’s time for me to get away from home, see something of the world I live in and prepare myself for whatever my part in its perpetuation might be. One thing Ambrosius does not know is the extent of my magic powers, for all the time that he does not all the better I am at long-term political leverage than he.