Book One of the Merlin’s Gambit Trilogy
Merlin Meets a Friend
Mother Moon, waxing ever nearer to her fullest hour, shines benignly upon that piece of the world I occupy tonight, and her influence emboldens me to draw her spirit down to Earth, to share her endless bounty with any whom I may encounter. I find it best to contain myself in glorious isolation when her spirit possesses me thus; the end result is usually messy and takes the rest of the new moon cycle, at least, to clear up. But I can see for miles along this part of the Ostian Way and there is no one near, only a muffled howl in my head …
… And the scampering of paws? Large paws at that! Am I so far entranced by my own rites that I’m hearing even stranger things than usual? Like the polite but insistent wuf that comes with a distinctly warm, wet sensation on my outstretched hand?
Bringing myself half out of the hypnotic sphere encircling me, by opening one eye a fraction, to look at my slobbery hand, I see a large, dark, hairy head with bright burning holes in it. Banishing any intention to carry on with my meditations, and opening both eyes fully, it is to see the largest dog I’ve ever met, bigger even than Ambrosius’ wolfhounds, and the moon shines brightly in his eyes as he looks up, not that far up, at me.
“And where did you come from, friend,” I ask him, in my poshest Latin. I think it’s best to be polite, and only hope he speaks the lingo.
“Oh, he’s with me,” says another voice, belonging to a second entity which my senses, dulled by moon-musings as they are, have allowed to approach from the west way past the point that casting an invisibility spell would even be an option. “And he’s nothing like as fierce as he looks, if you were wondering.”
Mother Moon still hangs low and dilated between the treetops on either side of the road going east towards Rome, so I have a clear view of the second entity and his dog. His face is honest and open, his short-clipped Latin vowels, whilst not belying what remains of the Patrician status in the novum populum origins of present day society, do at least point to somewhere high enough on the social scale for influence and according due deference – trust me, I know these things; most things, in fact: I am indeed that annoying know-it-all who really isn’t that annoying once you appreciate that I’m always right, annoyingly so, in fact. But what of this mendicant friar thing he has going on with the ever so lowly clothing and the staff with two entwined dragons around it, I wonder. I’ve seen that before, of course, the two dragons thing.
When I was a boy there was this incident where I had to talk sense to the High King, Vortigern, get him to stop acting like the village idiot over a building project at his castle in Dinas Emrys (you may know it better as Segontium or Caernarvon), which his architects and engineers didn’t seem equipped to handle without the help of a 7 year old boy. Apparently, it had to be a 7 year old not born of an earthly father, so, court rumour-mongers and all that, I fitted the bill perfectly. But they were such dullards, the lot of them. How they couldn’t detect the two fighting dragons in the underground cavern with its lake that kept undermining the foundations night after night I could only but wonder at – dragons are so noisy and smelly, you’d think they’d have guessed something was down there sooner or later. It was clearly a case of understanding geology, and dragons. Made ultimate sense to them all, once they’d listened to me and excavated down to the warring pair, and they forgot all about sacrificing me, the apparent bastard, after that. Some things are just so obvious to me, well, most things really, it’s one of the things I just love about being me. And being able to manipulate the elements at will, that still never gets old.
“I figured as much when the lick failed to become the feasting upon my hand,” I reply, trying to match him clipped vowel for vowel.
“You seemed to be most entranced by the full moon, if I may say so. I hope I do not disturb you in your ruminations?”
“No, no! There are still several hours to go until she swells fullest. She’ll wait awhile.”
“That’s good!” he says, looking most purposeful. “May we sit? I did not find you at the harbour at Ostia Antica as I would have liked, but am glad to have caught up with you now. I have something for you and a story to tell that might impress upon your sensibilities.”
Well, there really is no preamble with this nice old duffer, is there? “Fire away,” I say, most intrigued, if truth be told. Of course, I wonder what he means by not finding me at the old harbour as he would have liked, not to mention why he would have anything for me, but his disposition fills me full of light and something that feels like trust floating on butterfly wings, and that’s so rare a thing that I forget to ask.
“My name is Francisco,” he begins, and immediately I see a hallowed man surrounded by animals of all persuasions, which he embraces lovingly, and almost exactly 700 years in the future, like he’s been transposed there, complete. This is the way my magic happens; I meet a person, pick up an object, go to a place, and see its past, present or future, and sometimes all three at the same time, and suddenly I know everything about it, or them, even what they’re thinking, if I have need to. It’s useful. At least it is now, but it used to be mightily confusing, until my yearly summers with the Ents and the Little People on the Isle of Avalon and on Tor Anda, where they taught me how to filter out the confusion.
In this instance I’m seeing the wider purpose of storytelling, an art that has dwindled shamefully since the destruction of the druids on the Isle of Mona (which you may know as Anglesey) at the hands of that Roman General Suetonius Paulinus, who had not the imagination nor the courage to figure out how to deal with the situation as befits a member of the human race, but that’s another story, not for the telling in the midst of this one. In my experience, myth and legend have a way of using humanity’s remembered and shared experience collectively, so that people have the appropriate guidance, whether spiritual, psychological, or emotional, as they require it; Myth & Legend delivering what is needed at the time when it’s needed most. It’s a wonderful thing, until humanity meddles with it and tries to understand how and why it works, or worse still, tries to harness it for specific purposes not balanced by the energies that rule the Universe. The Storyteller’s art is a gentle one, it bathes the listener in the promise of understanding, creating that most golden of guiding lights, Hope. But its power is easily corrupted if forced in any direction it does not naturally wish to go. And once those doors are open to corruption it can halt the advancement of society, diminishing the true beneficence and dignity of its power to find those answers at the right time. When I look far forward with these thoughts in my heart there is but one word that scorches itself across the canvas of my inner eye. That word is propaganda, and I do not like it. It cheats beneficence, steals dignity, and forces meaning where there is none, whereas the softer art of Myth & Legend explains and provides a truly powerful medium for Understanding & Hope to all individuals it touches.
“But first, would you tell an old man your name and the reason for your journey to Rome, and from so far away?”
I laugh heartily and he looks at me quizzically. “There’s nothing I like better than telling stories about myself,” I assure him. “My name is Myrddin Emrys, if you’re one sort of person, and Merlinus Ambrosius Aurelianus if you’re another,” I say, and we sit ourselves down under my tree in the strangely comfortable niches created by its tangled old roots, the hound lolling it’s head proprietorially upon the old man’s knee. “What makes you think I am come from far away?” I ask, wondering if he’s gifted with other than usual sight as am I, or if he’s just exercising the prerogative of the old to be curious without bounds. I look deeper for a moment and know my answer.
“You are dressed as one from a frontier long gone. At a guess I’d say Brittania. Yet your Latin is pure and unaccented. If you were not high born you have certainly lived so, and been taught by those who understood the meaning of romanitas.” Romanitas? Now there’s a cauldron full of boiled fish heads, if ever I heard one, but I’ll come back to that particular thing a little later on, if I may.
“Your guess is right, I am indeed from Brittania, via Saintes Marie de la Mer where I took ship with a Burgundian trader familiar to me from Less Brittan, where only a narrow channel of water divides the Frankish kingdoms from Brittania. What else do you see, old man?” I ask him kindly, laughing again, this time at his jaunty perspicacity because it warms my heart. I can see into his heart and know him for a brother upon whom I can rely, should the need arise. He is one of the Sainted Souls the Universe sends forth to teach True Love and Compassion through example, which are destined to live many lives in the service of others, animals as well as people, and elevated into sainthood in every one of those sweet-scentedly perfect existences.
“I can see that you are hoping to shock the Roman Catholic brethren with your sharp wit and your Druidic ways.” I must have pulled a face that asked how he could possibly know so much because he raised his hands and laughed back at me. “Maybe I am wise beyond my years, and maybe there aren’t that many people who travel to Rome as you do dressed in a long black frock, pectoral cross resplendent upon your breast, with an equally long black cloak, and that with a gold filigree tassel on the end of its pointy hood, particularly in the balmy days of mid-September.” His eyes become misty here, and his voice seems to be projecting from somewhere far behind him in a raspy whisper that lifts the falling leaves of our tree until they rustle together before settling again on branch and ground as he speaks these next words … “But you’re more than the sum of these parts I have just observed, are you not? You are a wizard! You have been foretold, for your name is known on high and has long been written in the Akashic records. And you will be a great wizard, the greatest there has ever been. And you will be a king maker, for you will be the harbinger of Universal Hope, to the most troubled of all ages in need of such.” … He coughs to clear his throat a little, and with that the spell breaks, the leaves fall flat, and the mood is as normal as it can be for two men as strange as we, sitting by the side of a Roman road in sixth century Italy, in the light of the almost full Harvest Moon.
“Goodness me,” he says, rubbing his hands together vigorously. “I’m ravenous. Would you care to break bread with me, young Myrddin?”
“Only if you’ll share some of this glorious cheese and meat I have here in my pack.”
“I should be delighted, young sir,” he replies, tearing his small round loaf in half. “Would that we had some wine to wash it down with.”
“I have a small flask of mead,” I say. “Will that do? My mother would not let me leave home without it, despite its weight and the awful sticky mess it should make were it to break. I should indeed be obliged to rid myself of the prospect.”
“Then feast we shall,” he declares in triumph. “And I have some titbits for Friend here,” he pats the large hound’s flat and hairy cranium while digging still deeper into his own pack which had so lately yielded the bread, “so he shall think no more of the feast he could make of your erstwhile licked hand.”
And now for the normal bit of post-scene chat (that I left off the last post for some reason):
All comments in the form of constructive criticism or mistakes you’ve noticed that I might not have noticed yet, whether typos, spelling or grammar, will be very gratefully received and appreciated – although I think spelling and grammar ones are most unlikely, but you never know … I’ll post the next scene in a week, and thank you very much for reading.
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