Saturday, February 16, 2008

MORGAN! Chapter One


“You will teach me.”
- Morgan

Merlin decided it was time for a rest. They had been steadily climbing the hill, and for a considerable length of time. Although the long trek had become an almost daily occurrence, it was obvious that some in this aggregation were far more physically gifted than others – more than one, certainly.

“Children … children!”

As a teacher, the white bearded mage was having a bad day – worse than usual, if such a thing was possible.

“Here you will find one of the last bastions of Roman rule. A fortress taken not in battle, but within. As it were.”

No one was listening. It appeared his students had decided now was the appropriate time for their daily screaming competition. They hadn’t bothered to inform their reluctant teacher, rightly concluding that eventually he’d figure it out for himself.

“One day staffed fully, the next …”

He felt a tug on the sleeve of his robe. It was one of the more odious and grubby children. Squirming. “Teacher, I got t’ go.”

“… the next, uh, taken because the Legion was recalled to defend the heart of the Empire …” Ignore the child. Mayhaps it will fall into a deep crevasse somewhere.

“I got to go BAD!”

“Over there, over there.” Merlin pointed, and watched with bemused detachment as the child scurried toward a stand of what he sincerely hoped was poison oak.

Decisions. All his life Merlin had been forced to make decisions – those that had been both personal and painful, and those that had impacted people around him. It had seemed more than advantageous for him to leave his father’s small farm and join the Druid priesthood. It had been his decision, in hot heartfelt guilt, to continue his love affair with one of the handmaidens dedicated to the gods. And what had eventually and inevitably become of her … that had been his decision as well.

Decisions. As the acknowledged high priest of the Druids (not a high priest, the high priest), it had been his decision to throw the full weight of the priesthood behind the one who could unite the Britons and drive out both the Romans and the growing clans of Christians. And when that worthy effort failed – not his fault – it had been Merlin’s decision to hide (craven coward that he considered himself), in the guise of a simple teacher of children. And, while most of the civilized world – men of Cornwall, men of Pendragon, the Romans, the Christians, and – truth be known – remnants of the priesthood – were searching for him everywhere and with impassioned hunger, it had been his decision that the best hiding place would be to camp literally just outside the gate of his old enemy’s stronghold.

All of these decisions had seemed logical and correct at the time. But today, at this very moment, he was faced with doubt. On the one hand, he could give himself over to angry men who would rip him apart. On the other hand, he could continue teaching these children. Not for the first time he wondered if he had made the right decision.

“Now, the… uh, the …” Back to business.

“Did the Romans have any children?” Was this the same child? Or another? They all looked alike.

“Yes. Of course they did. They do. Rome still …” Merlin felt himself on solid ground here, at least for the moment.

“I never saw any.”

“In all probability you are descended from one.” Dear child. Sweet child. Not for the first time Merlin regretted his vow to eschew turning people into lizards.

“What does “ ‘scended’ mean?”

For a brief moment the old man searched for an answer that might conceivably be understood. ”Descended means …” He had waited far too long. Mentally and physically the child was gone.

“I see a butterfly!”

“Descended’ means…” Merlin was talking to the sight of children disappearing into the underbrush.

“Children! Children! I want you to …!” Going …

“… see who among you can find the most …” Going …

“… unusual flower, and we … can …” Gone.

The former high priest sighed, but inwardly he smiled. It was always the same. Some time before dark he would gather them together, herd them back to the village, and receive just enough food and grain to keep him alive for another day.

In the meantime, Merlin now had a few hours for his own pursuits.

Wrong again. One child remained. Perhaps if he pretended he hadn’t seen her, she’d go annoy someone else. It was a good thought. For a few moments Merlin inspected a greasy spot on the ground without actually looking at it. Was she still there? Of course she was. Try a different approach.

“Why have you not gone, as well?”

No response. She continued to stand at a distance, staring at him. He took an unintentional step in her general direction. Like a wary animal, she backed away.

“I beg your pardon.” Merlin found a convenient outcropping of granite, and reclined in as non-threatening a position as he could manage.

“Is this better?”

There was still no response – not even a reaction. Almost against his will, Merlin studied the young girl. He couldn’t help himself – curiosities always fascinated him.

First of all: this child, in fact, appeared to be female. It wasn’t always easy to tell. She was perhaps ten years old, tall for her age, and thin. Although her hair was as matted as every other child he’d seen in the area, it was still thick and black. This fact should have put Merlin on his guard. Almost all of the villagers in the area spouted hair that was dirty mouse brown in color.

The girl was wearing a shapeless robe, tied at the waist. Patched and thread bare in places, the garment was patterned in the now decimated Cornwell clan colors. Initially, this had given Merlin a twinge. He had been an unwilling participant in the fall of the house of Cornwall. Unreasonably, those few surviving clan members considered him, Merlin, to be the only man yet living who was directly responsible for the massacre. They had expressed a great interest in remedying that situation. Still, Merlin recalled, there had been much in the way of looting following (and during) the siege, and Cornwall colors had therefore appeared in most unexpected places.

Having reached what he considered a reasonable conclusion based on the evidence, Merlin relaxed. The girl was, after all, a girl, and therefore no threat. Or, if she was a threat, she had no weapon … that he could see. Or, if she had a weapon, he could likely outrun her if his life depended on it. Or, if his life depended on it, he could most certainly outrun her.

“Hello? Can you understand me? Do you speak? Would you say just a word for a bit of cheese?” He opened his knapsack, and made a show of placing an incrusted wedge of cheese on a square of cloth. “M-m-m. Good. M-m-m. Fills the tummy.”

“You are a fool.”

“Probably,” he replied, taking note that the child had the ability to both hear and speak.

“And the worst teacher I’ve ever seen.”

“It’s not a position I covet.” Merlin was beginning to regret that he had encouraged conversation. “Are you hungry? The offer was made …”

“I don’t want your stinking cheese.” The bitterness in the child’s voice carried well beyond the subject of food.

If she was trying to provoke him into some form of rash verbal combat, he was equally determined to disappoint her. “Really not too bad. If you hold your nose.” To prove the point, he swallowed a dollop of cheese. Whole. Without chewing. Also without gagging. Barely.

The girl hesitated, unsure. Her voice softened slightly. “Who are you?”

Instantly Merlin detected the change in tone. “For the now, your teacher … more the pity to us both.”

“Who WERE you, then?”

Now she had him. To lie was not his inclination. To tell the truth, however, was to potentially sacrifice his carefully crafted façade. All things considered, it was an easy decision to make.

“At one time, I was advisor to the high king Uther Pendragon, if that means anything to you …”

He detected a look of fear, perhaps mixed with loathing, briefly cross the young girl’s face.

“… and I see it does.”

And as quickly, the mask was once more in place. “Not at all,” she stated flatly, “You be the one I seek. The one called Merlin.”

“Who I be,” the Druid priest matched her tone for tone, “depends upon who seeks, and for what purpose. Do I know you?”

“I am no one.”

Merlin smiled. Her answer had come just a bit too quickly. “I might believe that, but ‘tis obvious you do not. Well. It matters little. In these – shall we say unsettled – times, a man’s business is his own.”

The old man forced himself to appear casual, relaxed. He wasn’t at all sure his performance was being fully appreciated. “Although I will admit,” he decided to try a lighter approach, “many pretend to be someones they are not, and someones who be, claim to be not.”

He smiled. Alone. “A jest. You might smile, at least. A courtesy.”

“I’ll smile when it’s funny.”

“Who are you?” He had blurted this out, and immediately regretted it. “No, no. Since we both would have answers, I suggest a small sport. I ask a question, and then you ask one.”

“What sport is in that,” the child questioned. The voice was still level, the eyes again revealed nothing. Merlin began to wonder if the small person before him was entirely human.

“We must both answer in the absolute truth. Well? What say you?”

Now the child smiled. “How do I know you won’t lie?”

Merlin returned the smile. “Because I never lie. That was your first question. Now, my turn. Who are you?”

“I told you. No one.”

“An evasive answer doesn’t count.” Once again he felt at least marginally in charge of the situation.

“What are you,” she asked.

“What am I? A curious question. What do you see?” Merlin was genuinely interested in her answer to this.

“A man. Old.”

For the first time one of her responses pleased him. “Then that’s what I must be.”

She appeared to have read his mind. “That’s what I see. It’s not what you are.”

Merlin leaned toward her. This time she didn’t back away. “You tell me, then. What am I?”

The sudden confidence in her answer surprised him. There was no hesitation, no hint of questioning in her voice, only the security of absolute knowledge.

“I’ve been told you be a mage. The greatest of your race, maybe the last of your race. I perceive age, aye, but age unlike the span of allotted years. And at the same time, a clouding, a disturbing … mayhaps you be not old at all – as though the word has meaning to you only in regard to others.”

She stopped to take a breath. Merlin had stopped breathing altogether.

“Child,” he worked to control his voice, “your imagination tends to run romantic …”

“Then I ask again. What are you?”

This time Merlin was prepared. “No, my turn.” He had a queasy feeling in the pit of his stomach. Something – a familiarity – long forgotten, was emerging just on the edge of his memory. “Why have you come to me? You are obviously versed in the fundamentals. By your very speech you acknowledge high birth.”

She almost spat out the words. “I want you to teach me.”

“Teach you?” The conversation had taken a different turn, and the former high priest was again surprised that the girl was yet capable of surprising him. “Teach you what?”

“Everything you know,” came the answer.

Now Merlin scoffed. “Everything I know – you won’t live long enough to learn everything I know.”

“In time I’ll surpass you.”

“The affront of the child.” In frustration, he had addressed this rebuke to a convenient clump of trees.

She was neither impressed nor intimidated. “I’m here because I’m sworn to walk the secret paths only you have trod. And you will guide me, because you’re obligated to do so.”

“I never saw you before in my life.” (And he fervently hoped that was true.)

“Shall I recount the tale for you,” she began. “It’s well known – of a woman enchanted one night into thinking another was her lawful wedded husband? Of the birth resulting from that enchantment? Of the lord who died, defending his honor? Of his house which fell, shamed and disgraced?”

He laughed, but lacking in amusement. “Enchantment! Ha! A convenient excuse for any embarrassing issue.”

Everything she had been holding back was suddenly alive in her eyes. Years of passionate hatred welled through tears in narrow slits. “She was Igraine, who bore the son of Uther Pendragon! I am MORGAN, eldest daughter and heir to the Duke of Cornwall!”

Was this even possible, Merlin wondered. He was almost positive none of the immediate family had survived to this day. He tried, almost desperately, to bring into focus the blur of events that had haunted his memory. Could she actually be the one she claimed to be? That night came back to him, as it so often did, in a flood. He could still hear the sounds of swords clanging, the screaming, and the oaths from dying men. He could still smell the acid stench of burning pitch eating through the walls of the keep, not all that far from where he now stood. He could still see the … yes! The girl had been telling the truth. He had seen it in her eyes. Those familiar eyes. Those same eyes that had pierced the armor so carefully fashioned around his soul. The same eyes. But in another face.

“What say you now? Do you yet claim no obligation to me … sorcerer who enspelled my mother?” She spoke softly, her fury spent.

Merlin had waited years to tell someone … not to shirk his own responsibility – certainly not! But … circumstances, and the lust of others … It had happened so quickly. No one had understood him, not even one. Perhaps, in the same fashion as a master mason constructed a worthy barricade, perhaps if he carefully placed one word beside another …

“When a man – any man – would support … another man, and would acknowledge him … King, would avow him Sovereign Lord, then … the first man is constrained to follow the dictates of the second. In all matters. He … cannot … obey one edict and ignore the next, as it pleases him. He obeys all, even when he knows … No! I owe you nothing! Lay claim against Uther Pendragon if you will!”

“Uther Pendragon is dead!”

“And with him, that which might have been, alongside what was.” So far as Merlin was concerned, this conversation was over. Done! Finished! If her intention had been to irritate, berate, pour hot guilt through one of the few chinks in his emotional barricades, then, he was forced to admit, she had admirably succeeded. “Go away,” he demanded. “My memories are bitter enough without the burden of yours as well.”

Morgan stood directly in front of him. “After you teach me what I must learn,” she stated. Conviction had returned to her demeanor.

“For what purpose? So you may …” Merlin chose not to complete his thought. Rather, he fought to regain a measure of composure. “You do me too great an honor. I am no more a mage – no more! If you want an adept in the sacred arts, seek elsewhere – else WHEN!”

She was still blocking his path.

“You will excuse me,” he stated. I’m reminded I must do that which keeps bread on my table.” To emphasize the point, he called out, “Children!”

“You ARE a mage,” she demanded, “and you WILL instruct me!”

“I REMIND you,” he countered, “I give instruction in letters, numerals …”

Merlin considered physically brushing the child Morgan aside, but then thought better of it. Instead, he attempted to simply go around her, and this was his undoing. With one step off the path, Merlin realized the heavy underbrush on the hill concealed a much greater incline than he had anticipated. Before he had even time to react, his feet went out from under him. Still clawing the air, he hit the ground with something less than grace and dignity. Worse, he found himself sliding, face first, in a great tangle of weeds, wild bushes, and mud, down the hillside. One ankle caught in the giant root of an ancient tree. In the process of wrenching himself free, and allowing himself one great editorial “whoop,” he now pitched backwards, rolling through a patch of briars, and landing solidly against the side of a slime incrusted boulder.

From somewhere up the hill he could hear her. “All your craft – your art. Every bit I will learn.”

“Never,” he croaked as he willed himself to stand.

He staggered, more carefully now, in the literal path of least resistance – down the hill. As he lowered himself from tree trunk to tree trunk, he thought with longing about the other children. Almost desperately he wanted to be in the company of others – many others. Even these.

With his many distractions, Merlin had forgotten that the path he had ascended circled around the very grove of trees through which he was now descending. As a result, when at last he crashed through the downside of stunted trees and underbrush, there she was. On the path. Arms crossed. Patiently waiting.

He was limping, his robe was covered in mud and brambles, he was scratched and bleeding in a quite respectable number of places, and twigs entwined his hair. Had Merlin wished to present himself as a drooling senile idiot, he couldn’t have come up with a better plan.

“Would a mage as clever as you say I am, be reduced to this?” That was his only comment as he hobbled down the rough path.

If Morgan had been less than impressed near the top of the hill, her capacity for sympathy was no stronger near the bottom of it. “Here’s what I would first learn – don’t walk so fast! I can’t keep apace!”

The path had led the teacher behind a large outcropping of crumbling rock. Whatever else she had to say was lost in the indignity of pain and the sound of his own labored breathing.

1 comment:

Lutheran Lucciola said...

I like your writing, too!