Book One in the Twilight of Avalon Trilogy
She is a healer, a storyteller, a warrior, and a queen without a throne. In the shadow of King Arthur's Britain, one woman knows the truth that could save a kingdom from the hands of a tyrant...
Ancient grudges, old wounds, and the quest for power rule in the newly widowed Queen Isolde's court. Hardly a generation after the downfall of Camelot, Isolde grieves for her slain husband, King Constantine, a man she secretly knows to have been murdered by the scheming Lord Marche -- the man who has just assumed his title as High King. Though her skills as a healer are renowned throughout the kingdom, in the wake of Con's death, accusations of witchcraft and sorcery threaten her freedom and her ability to bring Marche to justice. Burdened by their suspicion and her own grief, Isolde must conquer the court's distrust and superstition to protect her throne and the future of Britain.
One of her few allies is Trystan, a prisoner with a lonely and troubled past. Neither Saxon nor Briton, he is unmoved by the political scheming, rumors, and accusations swirling around the fair queen. Together they escape, and as their companionship turns from friendship to love, they must find a way to prove what they know to be true -- that Marche's deceptions threaten not only their lives but the sovereignty of the British kingdom.
In Twilight of Avalon, Anna Elliott returns to the roots of the legend of Trystan and Isolde to shape a very different story -- one based in the earliest written versions of the Arthurian tales -- a captivating epic brimming with historic authenticity, sweeping romance, and the powerful magic of legend.
This pallid, predictable retelling of the Trystan and Isolde myth, taking up the queen's perspective, adds nothing new to the Arthurian canon. Queen Isolde, recently widowed granddaughter of Morgan Le Fay, has inherited Le Fay's second sight but is powerless to control it; horrified and helpless, she watches warriors fight to take her husband's place as head of the Britons' army. The most powerful of them, Marche, takes a shine to Isolde; despite her wishes, even Isolde's closest advisers urge her to marry quickly before she's turned out of her own kingdom. When Isolde makes a connection with a well-informed prisoner, the mercenary Trystan, she discovers that even the castle is no longer safe. After being forced to marry Marche, Isolde flees with Trystan, and they form a cautious bond as mutual enemies of the state. Supernatural elements distract from the political intrigue, and Isolde's clueless na�vet�-even while her informants are dying mysteriously around her-makes her largely intolerable (as well as an ill-suited candidate for queen). Trystan, meanwhile, never manages to crawl out from beneath his own mysterious shadow. (May)
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1 . Great start
Posted February 10, 2012 by Lise , Burlington, VTI really enjoyed the first installment in this series.
May 03, 2009
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Excerpt from Twilight of Avalon by Anna Elliott
The dead man's eyes were weighted with gold. From the chapel doorway, Isolde saw the coins wink and gleam in the light of the candles that burned on the altar above. Payment for the holy women who would ferry him across the waters to the Isle of Glass. Or perhaps only a means to keep the sightless eyes closed; this was a church, consecrated to the Christ-God, after all. The old ways would have no place here.
Isolde stood still, her eyes adjusting to the dimness of the place. Even the chapel at Tintagel smelled of the sea; the stones even here thrummed like a bard's harp with the echo of all the fortress's walls had seen. Of Uther the Pendragon defeating Duke Gorlois and winning the duke's wife Ygraine for his queen. Of the birth of Arthur, Lord of Battles. Arthur, who had ridden out from these walls to drive the Saxons back with blow after crushing blow, and so won peace in Britain, for a time.
And all of that, Isolde thought, ended here, now, with the death of this king. Constantine, Arthur's heir.
She had seen fighting men with spear or sword wounds turned putrid, so far gone that the arm or leg had to be taken off if the soldier's life was to be saved. She'd made the cuts herself, had held the hot knives to cauterize the severed limbs and stop the bleeding. And seen how, for a brief, blessed moment after the glowing metal touched their skin, the men were numb, immune from pain, before they fainted or started to scream.
It was the same with her now.
The autumn dusk was drawing in, carrying with it the salt-laden mist that drifted up jagged cliffs from the ocean below, and the chapel felt dank and chill. And maybe, Isolde thought, the peace was ended long ago, when Arthur himself fell. And all these last seven years have only been part of that same long, crumbling fall.
A shield, likewise bearing the bloodred badge of the Pendragon, rested on the dead man's chest, and on the floor all about the coffin lay the great battle-axes, the knives, the helmet with its royal circlet of gold, and the jeweled and gilded sword that he had once carried into battle. Isolde drew her cloak more closely about her. Then she stepped out of the shadow of the arched lintel above.
Instantly, the armed and helmeted guard to the left of the altar stiffened to attention, his hand moving reflexively to the hilt of his sword. His fellow, the broader, taller man of the two, had been standing at the side of the coffin, his back to Isolde, but at the sound of Isolde's footsteps he whirled to face her, as well. Isolde looked from one man to the other. Neither guard was known to her, but she recognized the emblem of the wild boar blazoned on their shields.
She let the hood of her cloak slip to her shoulders, and saw them relax slightly, as they caught sight of her face. She could remember one of the older serving women telling her, with venomous sweetness, that she was the very image of what her grandmother had been when young.
The harpers' tales spoke of Morgan's fairness. Of raven-black hair and milk-white skin and a beauty to entrap and ruin a man's soul. But it was not for beauty's sake that Isolde was thankful, at times like this, if she was like Morgan, the daughter of Avalon. The grandmother who, for seven years now, had been to her nothing but a name in those same tales.
The guards had dropped their heads in greeting, but now the man who had stood by the coffin straightened and spoke.
"You are alone, lady?"
He was the elder of the two, forty or forty-five, his face hard, scarred with the marks of battle, his hands large and powerful. "You should not have come out without a guard."
A thin prickle rose on the back of Isolde's neck, but she said only, "I wish to keep vigil a time. I require no guard here."
She saw the two men exchange a quick sidelong glance, and then the first man said flatly, "You have a moment to say what prayers you will -- and then we will see you return safely to the women's hall. There is danger everywhere in such times as these."
Isolde stiffened, her brows lifting, and said, before she could stop herself, "Do you tell me so, indeed?" Then her gaze fell once more on the motionless figure beneath the dragon shield, and she drew a slow breath, willing herself to keep the flare of anger from her tone.
"May I know the names of those who keep such careful guard on my life?"
Again she saw the eyes of the two men slide sideways, the candlelight gleaming in the whites of their eyes. Then the elder said, "I am Hunno, lady, and this" -- his head jerked toward his companion -- "is Erbin."
"Very well, then, Hunno...Erbin." She looked from one man to the other. "I thank you -- both of you -- for your concern. But my lord husband and king has been dead but three days. And I would be alone with my sorrow. You are released from your duties here for the evening. You may go."
"Thank you, lady." Hunno's jaw was set, his voice still harsh. "But we have our orders from my lord Marche. We stay."
A chill ran through Isolde at the memory of what it had cost her to get away on her own, even for this brief time. And all for nothing, she thought, if I cannot force them to go.
"Orders?" she repeated. "My lord Marche may be king of Cornwall, but Tintagel is still the domain of the High King, as it has been since the Pendragon took the throne. It is not Marche who gives orders here."
"Is that so, lady?" A sly, ugly light appeared in Hunno's eyes. "Who is it who gives orders, then? As you say" -- he jerked his head backwards toward the coffin and the gleaming weapons of war -- "your husband King Constantine lies dead. Even a king's widow has small power on her own."
The second guard, a slight, dark youth with a thin, nervous face, stirred uneasily at Hunno's words and made to lay a restraining hand on his companion's arm, but Hunno shook him off with an impatient twist and took a step toward Isolde.
"Well, my lady?"
Isolde forced herself to stand without moving. "Have you forgotten, Hunno," she asked softly, "who I am?"
Hunno had started to take another step forward, but now he checked, and she saw a flicker of something that might have been fear stir at the back of his gaze.
Isolde's own eyes moved again to the still figure in the coffin, the hands lying limp against the folds of the crimson lining. Then she drew in her breath, looked up, and said, "Leave me. But before you go, return the ring you took from my husband's right hand."
She heard the younger man, Erbin, catch his breath in a sharp gasp, but Hunno didn't move. Fear pulled tight inside her, and she thought, as she always thought at such times, If, after all, I have guessed wrong...
There was time for her to count seven beats of her own heart while she forced herself to wait, hand extended, keeping her eyes on Hunno's.
And at last, with an angry mutter and a half-sullen, halffearful look from under his brows, Hunno drew something out of his belt and dropped it into Isolde's outstretched hand.
For a moment, his gaze locked with Isolde's, and then he turned to Erbin. "Come on, then." His voice was angry, his tone gruff. "There'll be ale yet a while in the fire hall."
Hunno swung round on his heel, but before following, Erbin took a step toward Isolde and said, in a stammering rush, "Forgive us, lady. We did not mean -- "
Isolde cut him off curtly, her hand tightening about the ring in her palm. "It's not for me to forgive. Make your peace with the king and go." She paused, looking again from one man to the other. Then she added, very quietly, "I will know if you disobey."
Isolde waited until the sound of their booted footsteps died away, then she pressed her eyes briefly closed, feeling a prickle of perspiration on her back, despite the cold. Then, slowly, she turned once more to the open casket. Seven years now, she thought. Seven years that I have fought this battle. But now I am left to fight it entirely alone.
She let out a shaking breath. The stars will still shine tomorrow, whatever happens to me here.
She'd repeated the words so often over the years that they held the same familiar echo as one of the old tales. And now, as always when she thought or spoke them, a vague memory stirred in the shadows of her mind, of someone speaking them to give her courage as she'd done countless times since.
But that was part of a lifetime -- and a world -- that had died on the battlefield when Arthur fought her father, his traitor heir. Seven years ago. When she'd lost both Sight and memory of all that had gone before.
Isolde hadn't intended to move, but somehow she found herself at the edge of the coffin, looking down at the man who lay within and hearing the words she'd spoken seem to echo in the chapel's stillness. Alone with my sorrow, she thought. Alone with my sorrow, when I haven't even been able to cry for Con yet.
She had prepared the body for burial herself. Washed the blood and muck of the battlefield from his skin, anointed it with sweet oils. And seen in his side the blue-lipped, knife-thin wound where the dark heart's-blood had seeped out. But now, surrounded by the gleaming weapons, his head covered by the leather war helm, he seemed all at once frighteningly unreal. A figure from legend or song, remote as the great Arthur himself.
And yet, even now, Con's face looked scarcely older than that of the twelve-year-old boy he had been on the day of their crowning, his brow unlined beneath the wisps of straight, nut-brown hair, his skin smooth, with only a faint stubble of beard shadowing the rounded chin. Almost, she thought, he might be asleep.
Save for the folds of loosening flesh about the gold coins that covered his eyes.
A shudder twisted through her, and Isolde closed her own eyes, trying to summon up a memory of the living Constantine. The memory that came, though, was an older one. Not of the husband -- or even of the man.
They had met only once before they were wedded and crowned. Only once -- in the yard behind the stables of the great fortress of Caerleon, where the ceremonies had been held. Isolde had slipped away from her attendants and ladies to the only place she could be sure of finding a moment's solitude and peace. But instead, amid the muck and straw and broken-down wagons, she'd found Con, twelve years old to her thirteen, his leather tunic torn and streaked with horse dung, his chin blood-smeared, with a purpling bruise over his right eye.
He'd been kicking furiously and aimlessly at the broken spokes of a loose wagon wheel, his face flushed and angry, his jaw set. But there'd been something in his face -- or maybe in the childish, oddly vulnerable curve of the back of his neck as he bent over the wheel -- that had made Isolde speak to him instead of slipping quietly away to be alone as she'd meant.
"I can give you a salve for that, if you'd like."
He'd whirled, startled at the sound of her voice. His face, beneath strands of sweat-soaked brown hair, had still the full-cheeked, rounded look of childhood, though he'd been even then nearly full grown, taller than she herself by more than a foot, the broad planes of muscle along shoulders and back holding a man's strength -- or the promise of it, at least. The look he gave her was guarded, his body tensed as though bracing to attack or to ward off a blow.
"What did you say?"
"Your eye." Isolde gestured toward his right eye, puffy and swollen nearly closed, and with a cut on the brow that had dripped a trail of blood onto temple and lid. "And your mouth, as well." His upper lip, too, was bruised and bloodied, shiny with spittle since it was too swollen to be comfortably closed, and crusted with drying fragments of what looked like mud.
"I don't -- " he'd started to say, but Isolde had stopped him.
"Come up to my rooms. You'll feel better with something on those bruises." She paused, and, half against her will, a note of bitterness crept into her tone. "And we'd best get acquainted if we're to be married at the end of this week."
In the end he'd followed her without speaking, stood, rigid, in the center of Isolde's chambers while she drew out her box of medicines and salves. When she motioned him to sit on a low wooden stool and started to swab his bruises with witch hazel, though, he stiffened, and cast a quick, nervous glance around the room.
"You won't -- " he began. "I mean...they say your grandmother..."
"I know what they say."
A hot flush swept up under the clear, bright skin of his face. "I'm sorry. I didn't mean..." He stammered to a halt again.
Isolde studied him, smearing all-heal salve over the cuts on brow and eye. His hands were clenched tight at his sides, but he'd made no sound, though Isolde knew she must be hurting him a good deal, gentle as she tried to be.
She thought of Morgan -- the grandmother Con had been about to call sorceress or witch, if not something worse -- and an ache of grief rose in her throat. But she'd promised herself, on the road to this place, that she'd not look back anymore. And here, now, was this boy. Frightened and in pain and trying desperately to hide both.
"Do you know any stories?" Isolde asked.
Con looked up, startled, then swallowed heavily, gulping and blinking away the tears that had risen to his eyes. "Stories? How do you mean?"
Isolde turned to her medicine box and drew out needle and thread. "The cut over your eye is deep -- it should be stitched if it's to heal properly. But I can tell you the story of Bran the Blessed and his magical cauldron while I'm stitching it."
A press of tears burned behind her own eyes. No, she thought. No more remembering. The past is a tale. Words. Nothing more.
And already the memory of Morgan's face was fading.
Isolde frowned, deftly clipping off a length of thread and passing it through the needle's eye. "It won't hurt as much if you've something to think about besides the pain."
When at last she was done, Isolde returned the needle and thread to their case, then turned away to dispose of the dirtied linens and swabs.
"How did all this happen?" she asked.
Con had been gingerly touching mouth and eye, running a finger over the row of stitches now set over his brow, and at the question he hesitated. Then, "A horse kicked me," he muttered. "It was my fault. I -- " He stopped. "I startled it. Made it buck and lash out."
Isolde's brows rose. "A bucking horse?" She shook her head. "If I couldn't tell lies better than that, I'd give up trying."
A flush -- of anger, this time -- spread up Con's neck to his face, his head snapping up. "Are you saying I'm a liar?"
Isolde eyes moved to the marks on Con's arm, visible beneath the sleeve of his tunic. The marks of fingers, clear and reddening angrily against the fair skin. "I'm saying, at any rate, that it's a rare horse with a hand to twist an arm behind your back and hold you down on the ground."
Abruptly, the flush faded from Con's cheeks. His shoulders sagged, and his head dropped again. He was silent so long Isolde thought for a moment he wasn't going to respond at all, but then at last he said, in a low, sullen tone, "It was Caw -- he's one of Lord Marche's men."
Isolde nodded. She knew the man -- or boy, rather, however much he might seem a man to Con. A heavyset, ugly boy of fifteen or sixteen, with a pasty, small-eyed face and powerful arms.
Con's eyes were still trained on the floor, and he said, in the same low tone, "We were practicing swordplay in the stable yard, and I got the better of him in the last match. And some of the others laughed and said hadn't he got any better skill than to be beat by" -- his cheeks flushed again -- "by a snot-nosed brat. And Caw got angry at that and said my -- "
Con stopped abruptly, as though he'd recollected where he was and to whom he spoke, and he glanced at Isolde, the flush on his cheeks darkening. "That is...I mean...he said I wouldn't..." He rubbed the back of his neck, seeming to grope for words, then gave up, his eyes falling again as he went on, his voice quick and almost toneless. "He said I'd have no better idea what to do with a wife in bed than a gelded horse would. And I said that I knew well enough -- that I'd seen dogs hump a bitch in heat dozens of times, and breeding stallions serving mares. And he -- "
Con stopped again, hands tight at his sides. "He laughed."
He almost spat the words, his eyes dark with remembered fury. Isolde herself had bitten her lip to hide a brief, unwilling smile of her own, but the smile faded almost at once. She could see the ugly little scene. Con shamed and humiliated in front of his fellows -- the men and boys he would soon lead into battle as their crowned and anointed king.
And whether what Caw said was true or no, she thought, I'll belong to this boy soon enough. Body and spirit and mind, I'll be his, by the law of the land.
Con had gone on, the words coming in an angry rush. "I said at least I'd have a woman instead of fu -- ...of bedding goats and cows because I couldn't get anything else. And he said he'd make me eat horseshi -- ...dirt for that. We fought -- but he got me in a wrestler's hold. One I didn't know. So -- "
Con stopped, the flush on his cheekbones deepening again, his shoulders sagging once more. Isolde, watching him, understood, now, the streaks of filth about his mouth.
Con glanced sideways at her. "I suppose you'll not want to be wedded to me, now you know I lost a fight to a...a swine like him."
And small difference it would make, Isolde thought, if I did not. The flash of angry bitterness ebbed, though, as her eyes met Con's, dark and suddenly anxious, with a childish look of appeal overlaid only slightly by the struggle for indifferent calm. She thought briefly of giving him a soothing lie, then stopped herself. She owed him honesty, at least. And so she said, "I'd sooner wed you than anyone else, I suppose -- if I've got to be wedded at all."
Con's brow furrowed, but then he let out his breath in a sigh and nodded, giving a slight, indifferent shrug. "I suppose that's the way I feel about it, as well." He stopped, then, the flash of anxiety visible once more at the back of his eyes, "You won't -- you won't tell Marche, will you? About what happened today with Caw?" He stopped, then went on, awkwardly, "He...he doesn't know me much, yet. Only from the ride here with the rest of his men. But he's to be my regent. And if he found out, he'd be angry and say I wasn't fit to be king."
So, Isolde thought. You've already learned that much, at least, of Lord Marche. Marche, whose betrayal had cost her father the field of Camlann, and his life, as well. And her grandmother --
If not for Marche, Isolde thought, Morgan of Avalon would be alive still. And I'd not be here now, forced into marriage with this overgrown boy. But Con was watching her, his face still anxious and taut, and she said, "No. I won't tell. But Caw may, you know."
Con shook his head. "No, he won't."
Con's jaw hardened, making his face appear strangely adult, childish no more. "Because after he'd made me eat the horseshit I gave him a couple of good fistings in the balls. It will be a while before he can say anything and not sound like a squeaking girl."
Now, in the silent chapel, Isolde opened her eyes and stared unseeingly straight ahead, the twelve-year-old Con's face vivid in her mind's eye, the rounded, childish planes of his face contrasting so oddly with the slow, grim smile that had stretched his mouth that long-ago day. Only a year younger than she'd been herself, and yet, for all his strength and height, the difference in their ages had seemed greater than that by far. As it always had, even later on. And maybe, she thought, maybe that is why after seven years of marriage, that boy Con seems, tonight, more real to me than the man.
The soft footfall from behind made her whirl, heart jerking hard against her side. Then, as the spare, shadowed figure stepped forward into the circle of candlelight, Isolde let out her breath once more.
Myrddin. He had kept his promise, then, to come.
Myrddin Emrys, sometimes called the Enchanter or the Prophet of Kings, was an ugly man. His face was narrow, with a high, prominent forehead, a crooked nose, and a flowing white beard that nearly covered a wide mouth and jaw. He wore the white robe and bull's-hide cloak of the druid-born, and beneath it his body was bent, gnarled with age, one leg lame and twisted, the right shoulder a little higher than the left.
Only his eyes were beautiful -- his eyes, and his hands, as well. His eyes were a deep, clear gray-blue, the color of the sea where the lost land of Lyonesse was said to lie beneath the waves. And his hands were slender, long-fingered and all but untouched by age, save for the harper's calluses, worn with years of plucking the instrument's strings.
He came toward her now, leaning heavily on the carved oaken staff he carried, the lame leg dragging a little behind. The hair that fell nearly to his shoulders was plaited with dozens of tiny braids, and a raven feather had been bound on a leather thong at the end of one braid, a streak of black against the snowy white.
Isolde knew he'd not meant to hurt her, but all the same the old childhood name brought a sudden, fierce stab of longing, and for a moment Isolde wished, with all her heart, that she could go back. Back to the time before Camlann, before she had been wedded and crowned Britain's High Queen. Back to the time that, for seven years now, she'd not let herself remember at all.
"Thank you for coming, Myrddin."
She had seen him seldom in the years since she and Con had been crowned. He had left the court to wander the lands as a bard, to live in a cave, to journey to the western Isle of Glass, depending on which story you chose to believe. But always he would appear again at Tintagel, to meet with Con and the rest of the king's council before taking his leave once again. And he had arrived two days ago to pay final respects and join in the mourning for the High King.
"Did you doubt that I would?" His voice was slow and deep, with something of the cadence of the western lands where it was said he had been born -- and something, as well, of the hum of a harp, lingering in the air a moment after the words themselves. A brief smile touched the corners of his thin-lipped mouth, just visible beneath the snowy beard. "I heard on the road coming here that I'd run mad and gone to live wild in the forest -- taken to keeping pigs and enchanting them to speak back to me like men."
Then the smile faded as his gaze fell on the coffin. He touched something at his belt that at first glance looked like a strand of yellowed beads, but was, Isolde saw, the skeleton of a snake, strung on another thin leather thong. Myrddin's fingers caressed the yellowing bones, so that they moved almost with the semblance of life. Then, slowly, he raised one hand and made a brief gesture over Con's breast. His skin was papery with age, the hand blue-veined, but beautifully formed even still, the movement graceful and sure.
"There will be tales sung of him, now, in the fire halls," he said. "As well as of Arthur."
It was almost an echo of what Isolde had thought only a moment before. "Arthur, king that was," she said. "King that is. King that shall be. King who lies asleep in the mists of Avalon while his battle wounds heal -- and will come again in the hour of Britain's greatest need."
Myrddin gave a short laugh, a breath of mirth, no more, eyes crinkling above the flowing beard. "I wonder," he said, "what Arthur himself would say if he could hear the tales told of him now. The harpers singing of how he bore a sword forged by the spirits of water and earth and triumphed at Badon by bearing the cross of Christ on his shoulders for three days and three nights."
He shook his head. "Probably the same as I do when I hear the poor fools babbling their tales of the Enchanter's magic and talking swine. Arthur, who bristled at all talk of magic like a dog facing wolves -- and set foot inside a church only once, to my knowledge. And then it was to demand that the priests sell their silver and gold plate from the altar and pay taxes to fund the Saxon war as the common folk do."
Myrddin stopped, and then added in a different tone, "Few of the tales told of those times are true, child. No man -- or woman, either -- is entirely villain or hero, except perhaps in the memories of those who remain."
Isolde started to answer, but, outside, the wind must have shifted to blow from the west. For all at once she heard a voice in the blustering moan about the chapel walls. Soft and indistinct at first, as the voices always were. Then swelling until the sound blotted out all else.
She'd thought, at times like these, that perhaps the loss of the Sight had made her somehow a point of joining between present and past, truth and tale, like the hollow hills where the Otherworld and this one met.
Or maybe it was like the men in her care, who groaned aloud with ghost-pains in an arm or leg months, even years, gone. She'd felt the aching loss of Sight as much, these last seven years, as any amputated limb.
But though Sight was gone, every now and then -- and only on a western wind -- she would catch, briefly, the sound of a voice. The voice of someone who, like her grandmother, was nothing but a name to her now.
My name is Morgan. But men have given me many names besides. Sorceress...witch...whore. And now I am dying.
A voice speaks beside me. The voice is sweet, clear, like the water I cannot swallow anymore, despite my cracked lips and swollen tongue. She is telling one of the old tales. As I taught her, long ago.
"Far away, in Avalon, the holy isle, nine silver apples chime on the tree bough."
I saw my face in the water jar yesterday. Raised myself up and looked when I was alone. I can feel the sores, but it is different to see. To see my face a ruin of blackened, running cankers. Once I might have mourned.
"And nine priestesses tend the Goddess flame," the voice goes on. "And time is a curve, without beginning or end."
I think, if I could feel anything at all, I would be afraid for her. But Arthur is dead. At last. And I am dust and ashes and nothing more.
I even begged Marche to let us leave this place. For her sake -- not mine. I, Morgan, went down, pleading, on my knees. And even that roused in me no feeling. None at all.
Arthur is dead. And far away, on Avalon, the holy isle, nine silver apples chime on the bough.
Not the Sight, for all the voices seemed to echo in the hollow place inside her. The space where once she'd felt the voice of the earth, felt the ties that threaded together all life, and bound her up in the great pattern, as well.
These were only voices. Echoes. She Saw nothing at all.
As the voice now faded, Isolde drew in her breath. For a moment or two she knew -- like a sleeper waking to the vague remembrance of a dream -- that it was her grandmother's voice that the wind had carried this time. But a moment later, even that knowledge was gone. And, as always, the words she'd heard slid through her grasp like water through clenched hands.
Myrddin was watching her, eyes steady and grave, but he gave no sign that he, too, had heard the voice in the wind. Isolde moved her shoulder slightly, and said what she'd begun to say before.
"The tales are a comfort to those who tell them. And in times like these, there are many with cause to wish that Arthur might come again."
Myrddin nodded. "Arthur was a brave man. And a good one, at heart." He paused, then said quietly, looking down at Con's lifeless face and still hands, "As was the young king here."
Something in the old man's quiet tone pierced the numbness as nothing else in these long three days had, and brought the man, the husband Con, a step nearer. The man had struck her only once -- and had cried after he'd done it like a child. Who'd loved her, in his way.
As I suppose, Isolde thought, I must have loved him. It had been so long since she'd let herself think of loving that she'd never allowed herself to put a name to what she'd felt for Con. Friendship...respect...pity. But love must have been there, as well, else she'd not now feel this raw, familiar ache of grief in her chest.
It was a moment before she could speak. Then, "Yes," she said softly, "Constantine was both brave and good. He would have made -- did make -- a fine king."
Myrddin nodded again, and Isolde saw in his high-browed face a look, not of weariness, exactly, or even of age, but of steady, clear-eyed sorrow.
"An evil day for Britain," he said at last. He paused, and when he went on, the Welsh lilt in his voice was stronger. "There is a story from the old times -- the Old Way. A tale of the king of a wasted kingdom, who grew old and was slain that his blood might water the land. That with his death, he and the land he ruled might be healed and born again. But I can see only grief and bloodshed in the wake of this death now."
Isolde studied the lined, ugly face, the steady sea-blue eyes. Then she asked, "Myrddin, do you mind?"
Slowly, Myrddin looked from the coffin to the altar's gleaming cross, and from there round the high-roofed chapel hall. "You mean, do I mind that the old days are past?" he asked. "That doorways to Avalon are closed and Britain will one day be a Christian land?"
He paused, then shook his head slowly, one hand moving to lightly touch the serpent's skeleton once more. "To all under the sun there is an ebb and flow. And perhaps the old ways will not die after all, but only fade into the mists like Avalon itself and sleep with Arthur and his men."
The candlelight played across his face, deepening the shadows about his mouth and brow. His face was suddenly remote and ancient as a carving in stone, and Isolde saw, in that moment, what it was the common folk feared. But then he turned back to her, and the spell was abruptly broken, his face once more his own.
"No, child, I do not mind. The god of the Christ may not be mine, but I do not begrudge him the victory. Nor the priests who serve him in places like these."
His eyes, too, had cleared, and he studied her face a long moment without speaking. Isolde looked away. And how much, she thought, does he guess -- or know?
It was Myrddin who broke the silence. "And now that I am here," he said, "what is it you would have me do?"
Isolde pushed aside the memory that had gathered, feeling as though she pried herself free of some great animal's jaws. "I would ask you to journey to Camelerd, the land I hold in my own right as last of my mother's line. A man called Drustan holds the kingdom for me. He has ruled there in my place since -- "
She stopped. "Since my mother left the world behind. And since I was given in marriage to Con."
She looked up, and Myrddin nodded. "I have heard the name. A good man, so they say, and a strong fighter. Go on."
"I would ask you to carry the news of all that has occurred here to him. Tell him that my husband lies dead."
She broke off once more, her eyes instinctively sweeping the darkness beyond the pool of golden light in which she and Myrddin stood. All was silent and still, save for the distant throb of the sea far below, but still fear crawled over her at speaking the words aloud for the first time.
But if I cannot trust Myrddin, she thought, I can truly trust none.
"Tell Drustan," she went on, with an effort to steady her voice, "that whatever the rumors, Con died not by any blow from the Saxons, but by a traitor's hand."