Daughter of the Morning by Kara Parsons - HTML preview

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He turned and regarded the woman quietly, “Greetings, Morgana. Do you usually drop in unannounced?”
“On occasions such as these, Cernunnos.” Morgana replied. Her jet-black hair was held back by a jewelled headband.
Herne surveyed her figure quietly, “I’m not sure emerald is your colour.”
Morgana laughed and smoothed her pale hands down the front of her velvet dress, “This is old, Cernunnos. But I have not worn it for a thousand years or so.”
Herne sighed, “What do you want, Enchantress?”
“So formal, Cernunnos? I remember when we were lovers. Never have I felt such passion as the years I was in your arms, you were Lord of the Underworld and I loved thee as I have never loved another. Not even my husband.”
“Which one, Morgana?” Herne’s mouth twisted in a smile; “Thou hast had many husbands.”
“Artus.” She replied shortly, her green eyes suddenly hard. She turned away from him and walked across the carpet her jet-black hair flying behind her. She turned just before she reached the chair Cerian had been sitting in and clasped her hands before her, “I came to ask thee to reconsider, Cernunnos. Return with me to thy kingdom, thy subjects ask me daily where their lord is and why he hath departed and I cannot answer them. Come back with me, husband and let us rule our own country.”
Herne stared at her and sighed, “I cannot. You know that, Morgana. I have only this existence now and I am tired beyond imagining.”
Morgana stared at him and then moved across to stand beside him, “My Lord,” she said, her voice had changed subtly to a deeper timbre, “if thou art tired, let me refresh you; return with me, when we are home I shall bathe thy head with cool water and anoint it with scented unguents.” She moved to stand before him and gently reached up a hand and gently touched his antlers, “Your horns need attention, my lord,” she said softly.
Herne cupped her pointed face in his palms, “Would you care for them, wife?”
Morgana’s eyes shone with an iridescent light, “I would polish them daily, Lord. Only return with me and I myself will clean them and polish them until they gleam.”
Her eyes closed as she reached up on tiptoe to kiss his lips, “My Lord,” she murmured, “Cernunnos, Lord of the Underworld, Guardian of the Dead.”
Herne caught her wrist before she could touch his face, “No!” he snarled and his face became almost bestial, “you’ll not snare me that way again, Morgana. I’m proof against that now.”
Morgana’s eyes flashed green fire and she pulled her hand away, “You were never proof against it,” she spat. “And now you’ll put your life and your future in the hands of that mortal.”
“What I do with my future is my choice alone,” Herne replied quietly.
“She’ll break - enough pressure and they all break.”
“Not this one, Morgana, there is fire and steel in her.” Herne turned and Morgana saw the contained rage in his eyes and backed away her emerald eyes suddenly filled with fear. She swallowed as Herne continued, “I know that you broke the others.”
Mortals, pah!” Morgana snarled, “useless creatures. Constantly fearing Death, seeking to evade him at every turn and then running straight into his arms.”
“Yes, they are a paradox.” Cernunnos smiled, “are you finished, Enchantress?”
“You will not yield this foolish idea of release?”
“It is not release I seek,” Cernunnos replied, “if you have not grasped that, Morgana, then you have grasped nothing. Still, I could forgive you that for ‘twas why I first fell in love with you. Your single-mindedness of purpose was inspiring at times. Terrifying at others, but you are still the same Morgana. That is your tragedy, I must try not to let it become mine.” He turned away from her and Morgana stared at his back, she lifted her hand as if with one finger she could consign him to the utter depths of Hell and then her mouth set in a hard thin line.
“I shall have her, Cernunnos. And you – you will watch her break before me.” she turned and walked into the shadows at the room’s circumference.
Herne waited until only the crack and hiss of the fire was audible and then he murmured to himself, “I have no doubt that you will try.”
Herne sighed and walked across to his sleeping quarters, a gentle voice behind him spoke, “You fear for her, Horned One.”
He turned to the bright, shining figure standing behind him, “Yes. She is the last – if she fail, then we all fail.”
“But you principally.”
“Only that I would never find rest.” Cernunnos remarked, “I have not yet told her of her heritage, nor of the dangers she will face. Morgana and her sister are dangerous enemies.”
“But she has the support of the Empress Tethys; and the protection of the Invincible Sun and my assistance too if she should call upon me.”
“She may have to do that old friend,” Herne gestured to a chair, “Sit. Tell me why you came.”
The man sat, placing the centurion’s helmet with its white, transverse crest on the table next to the chair and some of the brightness faded from him. He sat and took the goblet Herne proffered, “The Dark is massing,” he spoke without emotion but there was a tremor in his voice. “They know that a saviour is expected and you must tell her soon who she is, if the Dark tell her before we do, we may lose her.”
“I cannot protect her once she leaves my realm,” Cernunnos looked around, “even if it only consists of this room. She is safe in her own home, both front and back portals are guarded by cold iron, no creature from our world can abide it.”
“Do you miss your Kingdom?”
Herne grinned showing sharp white teeth, “I might as well ask you if you miss being human, Mithras.” He rolled the bowl of the goblet between his palms and sighed, “Sometimes, sometimes when I call the Yell Hounds and we gallop across the sky, I recall that they can return home their kennels and I am exiled. But-“ he looked up at his friend as the beginnings of a smile spread across his face, “I am also obliged to recall that my banishment is self-chosen.”
The other grinned suddenly, “Aye. But what made you come? You had a Kingdom, a Queen and a partner. Why give all that up?”
Cernunnos sighed again and shook his head, “I never had a partner – and I begin to wonder if I ever had a Kingdom; I did not rule it – She ruled it through me. Or perhaps in spite of me.”
“She’s been here hasn’t she?” Herne’s silence was all the assent he needed. “What did she promise this time?”
“The usual, my Kingdom, my throne, my people – with one exception.”
“And that was?”
“She wanted to be my partner again.”
Mithras raised an eyebrow, “Indeed. Then there must be something special about this particular female that worries her.”
“Yes, but what? The others had skills equal to hers, though none were healers. What could she have that would make Morgana so afraid?”
Mithras laughed and laid a hand on the fur-covered limb holding the goblet, “My friend you will have to discover that for yourself.” His face became sombre, “Beware Morgana, Cernunnos, she’s destroyed every other child who might have saved thee; this girl survived because she was hidden from her – if you intend to bring her before the company Morgana will know.”
“Perhaps Morgana will not be as vigilant as all that,” Herne mused, “Cerian must be shown to the Ancient Ones, the meeting place cannot be closed until after the ceremony. We would not want to shut any of the Light from the Glass Island.”
Mithras stood up, “Then I hope that she is well defended.”
“That too remains to be seen,” Herne responded, suddenly looking very old.
Mithras tucked his helmet beneath his left arm and extended his right hand, Herne gripped his wrist fiercely, “May the Invincible Sun protect thee.”
“May He protect thee too,” Mithras replied, “and the Princess.”
“The Princess especially.” Herne nodded. The Hunter set the two goblets on the ledge next to the pool of water and when he turned back the room was empty.

For Cerian, the instant she stepped through the gateway the world spun before her eyes then righted itself and she stood with her hand on the doorknob. She
pushed open the door and Rufus immediately leapt up at her. “Off!” She
commanded, and Rufus dropped to the cork tiles.
Cerian knelt on the floor and ruffled the sandy ears, “Oh Ruf, what am I
going to do?” The dog whined and pawed her leg, Ceri pushed herself off the
floor and said, “I know, Rufus, first I let you out. Come on!”
Cerian began to prepare the evening meal around quarter to five as she
usually did around school holidays; nothing had changed all that much she still
had to do most of the preparations by hand. She reflected as she flaked the fish
for the pie that Herne was probably right and that magic didn’t necessarily
make every task easier.
Dinner was the same as usual although for once Ceri was lost in her own
thoughts. When the dinner plates had been cleared away and her father had a
cup of coffee before him he took Ceri’s hand in both his own, casting a
conspiratative glance at his wife he said, “Your mother and I have some
wonderful news, she went to see the doctor today, we’re going to have a
baby!”
Cerian stared at them both and then suddenly rose to her feet and hugged
them, ”I’m so pleased!” She gasped, “I’ve always wanted a baby brother or
sister!”
“I’m not promising anything,” her mother smiled, “we’ll see if we can give
you a brother. Or aren’t you bothered?”
“Not really,” Cerian laughed, “after all I’ll be fourteen years older than him
or her. I just don’t want to be neglected.”
Her mother pulled Ceri to her and hugged her, “Why should you think that
we’ll neglect you? You are our daughter and we love you very much.” Ceri laughed and felt the dark cloud of loneliness that had begun to
overshadow her melt away with hardly a trace.
She lay awake for a long time before sleep finally claimed her. She jerked awake to see Herne standing over her with a lantern, the same pale cold light
emanating from it.
Cerian sat up and said, “Is it time?”
“Technically we are a thousand years too late, but yes, we ought to depart.” “May I dress and put some shoes on?”
“I have both for you, put a dressing gown on.” Herne responded tightly. Ceri nodded and pulled a crimson wrap over her nightdress, “I’m ready,”
she said quickly.
“Thank you for leaving your window open,” Herne’s voice was flat and
colourless, ”Turn and face the window, Lady, tonight we begin your
instruction.” Cerian did as she was bidden and she felt Herne move to stand
behind her, “Close your eyes and imagine that you are standing in my home,
you can see the crimson carpet, hear the hiss of the fire, now mentally transfer
us from here to there.”
For a moment Cerian felt a brief sense of disorientation and then she opened
her eyes. They stood in Herne’s oak, she raised a hand to touch the one of
Herne’s on her shoulder and said, “I believe we have arrived, Lord.” This time Herne’s voice had regained some of its warmth, “Not quite, you
haven’t yet learn to cut yourself out of time. Put your hand out.”
Cerian reached out and touched something solid; it was as if a pane of glass
separated them from the scene before them.
Herne squeezed her shoulder reassuringly and Cerian felt the room spin
again. When it steadied they stood in exactly the same place. “There is a knack to it,” he said, “but you have done very well. I have taught those who took months to master time and had me tearing out chunks of fur. Everyone
learns.”
“But I haven’t mastered it!” Cerian protested.
“You came very close, you must see yourself as the only real and aught else
as illusory and transient. It will be hard.”
“It has been that already, Cernunnos,” Ceri sighed, “You are saying that it
will get harder.”
“Yes.” Herne’s eyes were pools of such great sorrow that Cerian could not look at them, “Your dress and shoes are waiting in the next room. Go and change and I shall tell you of this feast day.” He held a curtain aside and Cerian
entered the room and felt it drop behind her.
The dress shimmered softly in the light, it had a round neck, and quarterlength sleeves and was shaped to mid-thigh culminating in two tiered frills that
ended just above the knee. The colour was the royal blue of the ocean and it
seemed composed of some light, silken material. Cerian slipped it on over her
head and knew that there was magic in it as it fitted her exactly without seeming
to shrink or expand. She turned her attention to the shoes, at first glance they seemed nothing more than a pair of sandals, she slipped them on and saw that each strap was composed of tiny shells moulded together with mother-of-pearl. She stood up and pushed the curtain back, Herne was standing in front of the fire, his back towards her. Cerian felt suddenly speechless, “I’m ready,” she
finally managed to blurt out.
Herne turned towards her and a smile lit his features, “You look radiant
Princess.”
Cerian was too nervous to absorb the title Herne had conferred on her. She
nodded shakily like a badly manipulated mannequin and Herne said, “There
is a gift from the dryads who greeted you in Windsor Great Park.” He brought forth a necklace of oak leaves with an acorn as the pendant. “It
was their wish that you wear it tonight.”
“It would be a privilege,” Cerian replied, her knees were already
beginning to shake, “would you put it on for me.”
She lifted the hair at the nape of her neck and Herne fastened the necklace
for her. He took her hand and said, “Face me.”
Ceri could not have disobeyed him to save her life, Herne knelt before her
and looked up into her face, “Lady, tonight you come into your true rights -
you are my liege lady for whom I have waited for half a century and I will jump
off the edge of the world if you demand it. From this night forward I dare not
sit without your express permission nor may you call me Lord for you are higher
than I.”
“Herne, please rise. I shall call you Lord, for you deserve the courtesy of
your title and my desire is that you stand beside me, for I must be warrior and
wisdom. I may be your mistress, but I should welcome your support.” “Then it is a privilege I shall not abuse, Lady.” Herne nodded and said,
“Turn around.” Cerian turned slowly and before them stood a great Abbey.
Light blazed from the windows and the sounds of music and merrymaking
floated out on the night air.
“May I escort you inside, Princess?” Herne offered her his arm. “Thank you, Lord,” Cerian replied and laid her hand gently his arm for him
to lead the way. The side door opened easily on smooth hinges and Cerian
looked up at Herne, “Are we expected?” she asked quickly.
“We are indeed,” Herne replied, “Your Hallowe’en. It comes from All
Hallows Even, we Ancient Ones call it The Day of The dead. The last day of the
year when the dead rise from the graves to wander the earth, it is almost
midnight and the dawning of a new year, you call it All Saints’ Day. Once a
year, to celebrate the return of the Sol Invictus the Grail itself is shown to us.
All who live and work in different times try to attend this one night for this too
is a place out of Time.” He smiled tautly, “although parts of this corridor
connect off into different times. Do you understand?”
Cerian shook her head, “Not really, Lord. But I hope comprehension will
dawn with time.”
“Time. Something we may not have too much of.” Herne replied
cryptically. Cerian stepped inside the building and looked around, she stood in what appeared to be a corridor, and it was lit with the same glow that
illuminated Herne’s home. He turned to her, “Would it please you to wait,
Mistress?” He inquired, “I wish to introduce someone to you privately before we
enter the Great Hall in state.”
Cerian held her hand out and Herne took it gravely, “It would be a
pleasure, Lord.”
Herne bowed, ”Thank you Mistress.” He reached the end of the corridor
and turned left disappearing from view.
Cerian looked around; she wondered what surprises were in store for her
and what tests she would have to undergo. She turned around in a full circle and saw the corridor behind her. Once again she was aware of the familiar
sensation of unease that had characterised her entrance into Windsor Great Park,
and yet this time there was a sensation of urgency and then she saw the cowled
figures of monks, one approached her and spoke, “Father Abbot, he is dying.” “He will not die,” a voice, deep and rich spoke from a point near Ceri’s
shoulder, “he waits. He waits for the Princess.”
“And who is she, Father?” the same cowled figure spoke again. “She is the answer to his prayers and his peace. He will not die, yet neither
shall he continue to live, when she comes she will release him.” The voices grew fainter as if they were being blown away by the years between them and
Ceri stood alone in a small corridor.
The same sense of urgency was still present; Ceri took a step forward and
remembered the last words of the Hunter, Parts of this corridor lead off into
different times
. Then she took a deep breath and walked forward. At the end of
the corridor was a small wooden door, slowly Cerian turned the ring, it
opened smoothly to reveal stairs spiralling upwards. Cerian looked up into
blackness and then surveyed the area around her for something to light her way.
Set into a bracket on the wall was the metal holder of an unlit torch; Cerian
lifted it, surprised at how light it was. She pointed it upwards at the glow
illuminating the corridor, taking a deep breath she stared into it and said, “May I
have some light - for I have a dark path to tread and I would welcome it.”
There was a brief click as if something slipped into place and then the torch
flared brightly and Cerian found herself staring at a ball of light exactly like the
ones in the Oak. “Thank you,” she said softly and then holding the torch before her began to walk up the stairs.
The stairway led upwards for what seemed a long and interminable time and soon the slight glow from the corridor was obscured and Cerian’s only surety
was the darkness around her and the staircase leading upwards.
As she rounded the central pillar she saw the faint glimmerings of light ahead and as her footsteps mounted the last few steps she realised that the light came from one of the cells along the corridor. The door stood open and unsure how to proceed Ceri tiptoed forward and looked inside.
She saw a man lying motionless on a bed. The room was furnished with a chest and a worn rug. The stone walls were bare apart from a silver coloured
crucifix above the head of the bed.
The man turned his head towards Ceri and snapped, “Go away! I told the
other brother, I do not wish to join the feast!”
The sight of his face wrenched a gasp from Cerian because she saw that his
eyes were filmed over and she knew that he was blind, “What’s your name?” “Brother Bedwyr,” the man replied grudgingly, and then more curiously,
“yours?”
“Cerian,” Ceri replied, and then feeling that she ought to say something
more added, “why don’t you wish to go to the feast, my lord?”
The man’s harsh laugh made her flinch and he barked, “Lord! Ha! I am no
lord and what I was has passed like the halcyon days of summer.” He paused,
“Cerian - art thou Welsh?”
“I believe so,” Ceri nodded and then felt silly because Bedwyr couldn’t see
her. She noticed the flagon of wine and the goblet sitting on the chest, “Would
you like a drink?”
“Thank you, little Sister, it might ease my passing.” Ceri started at the word
‘Sister’ but poured the wine. She knelt on the worn rung and slid an arm beneath
Bedwyr’s shoulders; he lifted himself slightly and sipped the fragrant, slightly
steaming wine.
“No more,” he gasped and slumped back against Cerian’s arm.
Tenderly she lowered him to the bed and took his hand. She placed the goblet on
the floor beneath the bed and rising from her knees seated herself beside the
prone figure.
“That wine is drugged,” Bedwyr spoke suddenly, “I am dying you see and
the wine is to make that dying less fraught.”
“It might mean a peaceful death,” Cerian murmured doubtfully. “My life has been far from easy,” Bedwyr laughed bitterly, “I do not see
why my death should be so.”
“Care to tell me about it?”
“I may as well - but you cannot absolve me, Sister, you would need to fetch
a priest to do that.”
“I disagree,” Cerian said gently, “I may not be able to absolve you but I can
forgive you. Tell me your story.”
“Once, long ago, I was a Knight of the Round Table. Artus was my best
friend, he chose me to escort his wife, Gwenhwyfar from Lodegraunce to the
newly constructed castle at Camelot. On the journey I fell in love with her.
She was beautiful, her hair was the colour of corn in high summer and her eyes
were the eyes of deer in the forest. She wore her hair plaited and hidden from
view. I did my duty by my King and escorted the Lady Gwenhwyfar to my King. But the love and desire I felt for her did not diminish. One night, Artus
was away and my Lady called me to her, when I entered the room her lady-inwaiting had departed and she was alone. Her golden hair spilled down her back
in a train and when she turned to me I saw the love in her eyes. I could restrain
myself no longer; I took her in my arms and kissed her. Thus I betrayed my
king and I betrayed the trust he bestowed on me.”
“Perhaps it was fated to happen thus?” Cerian mused, “Betrayal takes two,
Bedwyr, she may have wanted you to father a child in Arthur’s name. But even
the bright and shining example of Camelot had to end. ”
“But why with me?” Bedwyr paused and then the words spilled from him like a dam that had been under pressure for too long, “but I did much worse. I
held a position of power in the court and many ladies admired me because I was
a knight - in my arrogance I thought I could even be the one to achieve the
Grail. It was my son, Galahad, by Elaine, whose destiny it was to take the Grail
back to Jerusalem. That was right, now, I know. But what grieves me most is
the wrong I did to one who was little more than a child.”
“Are you sure that you should speak of it to me,” Cerian enquired, “I am
very young, Brother, perhaps I should fetch a priest.”
“Tonight?” Bedwyr shook his head, “they wait for the coming of the
Princess. Tonight - if she passes all the tests the Lady Nimüe will
acknowledge her. She is probably eating and drinking in the Great Hall and I
doubt that she would have the time to listen to a fool like me.”
“I think she would.” Cerian replied firmly.
“You mean if you were her you would. Stay with me, Sister, forgive me if you can, you listen to my most grievous sins and somehow I feel as though a
weight has been lifted from me. What I tell you, Sister, is because I think you
will listen to me without judgment. There was another called Elaine of Astolat,
who told me that she loved me. It was before the Great Tourney that she gave
me her token and bade me wear it for her. I decided that in order to cover
myself with more glory I would enter the lists unrecognised only wearing her
token. This I did and was badly wounded because of it. She sought me out and
for two months nursed me back to health. And I refused her. I told you that I
was arrogant, in my arrogance I did not see that the very day I took her token,
that from the love in her heart I constrained myself to her. I do not think that
God will ever forgive me-” he broke off and Ceri saw the shine of tears on his
cheeks. “I-I did my liege great wrong even if Gwenhwyfar and I did love each
other, for even when she was condemned to death and I rescued her she could
not live with me preferring to end her days in her father’s castle.” Cerian stared at him in a mixture of contempt and horror and then she
looked at the broken man and thought What would it avail to berate him now?
Has he not suffered enough all these years. He knows the wrong he has done
and has been punished accordingly, does he not deserve forgiveness
? And the answer, from within her heart whispered, He deserves all that and more. If you can find it within your heart, then forgive him.
Cerian took both Bedwyr’s hands in her own, “I forgive you Bedwyr, in the name of Queen Gwenhwyfar and Elaine of Astolat.”
And something happened. Two pale transparent figures flickered, wavered and then appeared either side of Ceri, one had long fair hair that streamed down
her back while the other’s hair was raven, but falling to shoulder level. The first
woman reached into Ceri’s hands and Ceri’s grip on Bedwyr’s tightened,
“Bedwyr, I pardon you, I never wanted you to die like this.”
“Elaine?” Bedwyr whispered, “Elaine!”
“Elaine.” The woman confirmed, Ceri’s lips moved but the voice that
emerged was not hers, “you heard me, Bedwyr, the door has been opened and I
may tell you that I forgive you the wrong you did. Adieu, fair knight.” The
figure wavered and then dissolved, the second reached into Ceri’s hands and
Ceri’s fingers uncurled from Bedwyr’s left yet continued to hold his right in her
own, the second voice was rich and deep and belonged to a Queen, “Bedwyr,
forgive me, I never meant this much hurt. At first, because I thought Artus had
no seed I chose you to father a child in his name - and then I fell in love with
you. I did not intend that for it brought shame upon me and upon Artus. I am
truly sorry, Bedwyr.”
Bedwyr’s face lit up, “Gwennie? Gwennie, I had to choose between you and
Artus and even when I chose you - you no longer wished my company and I
could not go back to my King. It broke my heart.”
The figure bent and with transparent fingers gently brushed Bedwyr’s
forehead, “I know. I cry your pardon and forgive you. Fare thee well, my most
beloved knight.”
Cerian felt as if she was coming apart at the seams, part of her was speaking
and the other part was the cold observer who merely watched the events
happening before her eyes. Slowly she released Bedwyr’s hands and the
women’s voices spoke again, this time in unison, “Farewell, sweet knight.” Cerian blinked and Bedwyr spoke sluggishly as if his tongue didn’t belong
in his head, “Sister, thank you. Your forgiveness allowed my Lady
Gwenhwyfar and the Lady Elaine to grant me pardon for my sins.” Cerian nodded and gently laid Bedwyr’s hand on the coverlet and said, “You
can go to God now, Sir Knight. I have an errand I must perform, I have to go and
find the Midwinter Thorn.”
“But it doesn’t bloom at this time of year,” Bedwyr’s forehead creased in a
puzzled frown.
“I know that,” Ceri nodded, “but I have to go and search it out - have you any
idea where it might be?”
“I have not seen the Midwinter Thorn bloom here at Ynys Witrin for many
years,” Bedwyr replied, “if it ever bloomed it may have been within the land of
Listinois - even if the legend says that it thrived here in Glastonbury.” “Wait for me, Bedwyr.” Cerian instructed as she rose to her feet, “I shall return. And then you may sleep in peace.”
The torch lit up as she grasped it and Cerian wondered what magic she possessed and then cleared the thought from her mind and began to move down the stairs. As she felt the darkness close up around her she wondered why it was so important that she find the Midwinter Thorn and discovered that she couldn’t
understand why. It was as if she was becoming two separate people, one who
knew exactly why she was searching for the Midwinter Thorn and the other to
whom everything that was happening was a mystery.
She shook her head to clear it, and walked on, a tiny figure trying to hold the
darkness back.
For the second time that evening Herne’s words floated through her brain,
“Some corridors lead off into different times,” and she looked up into the darkness above her and wondered if she had indeed walked into a different
time.
She found the side door without much difficulty and was about to slip out
into the darkness when a voice said, “Madam, you ought not to venture into the
gardens alone at this time of night.”
She turned and came face to face with a young knight, his face reminded
her in some way of Bedwyr, but she couldn’t place it.
“Sir, I have much on my mind this night and I sought comfort in mine own
company. Therefore I thought that I wouldst walk in the gardens for a spell.” “Mayst I be permitted to accompany thee?” The knight smiled, ”I am
supposed to champion the Princess but she has not yet arrived and as I have
already said, it is not seemly for a lady to walk alone this late in the
evening.”
“Your company would be a pleasure, chevalier,” Ceri replied, then
realising she had not introduced herself, “My name is Cerian. Yours Sir
Knight?”
“Galahad,” the man replied, “at your service, Mademoiselle.” He bowed
stiffly and then offered her his arm, gingerly Ceri accepted it and together they
walked into the cool air of the gardens.
Cerian felt as though she was part of a dream, here she was, a nobody
walking arm in arm with the fairest knight in all Camelot. She wondered what to say to him and then came to a decision, “Sir Knight,” she began slowly, he turned to face her and Cerian came very near to losing her resolve, “I should
tell you the truth - I am no lady - you should return to the Great Hall and wait
for the Princess.”
Galahad regarded her quietly and then a smile touched his lips, “Madam,
you have behaved like a lady, I cannot leave you alone here, there may be those
who would take advantage of your loveliness.”
“But I seek-” Cerian began and then stopped, ahead of them stood an
ancient tree, its green thorny branches stark and bare. Galahad followed her gaze and then he said, “I have heard tell that this is the thorn tree that sprung from the Lord Jesus crown and that Joseph of Arimathea brought from Jerusalem. It only blooms in midwinter on the day of Christ’s birth. However -” his voice broke, “it has not bloomed for the past two Christmastides, perhaps the Light has deserted us.”
“No,” Ceri said softly, “its waiting.”
“For whom?”
Ceri didn’t answer, she stepped to the foot of the tree and took up one of the long thorns that littered the ground beneath it, “For me.” Then without waiting for an answer she drew it across her palm and then stepped forward to
clasp the trunk so that the wound was in contact with the tree. Staring up into
the darkness of the tree, she sent the thought upward, I have come, it has been a
long time, but I have come. Tell me what I must do.

The answer was slow, like the sap pulsing through the trunks of trees with a
steady systolic beat, but the force behind it was the force that sends a shoot
bursting through the earth to seek the sunlight. A Princess of Blood Royal may
clasp the thorns without injury and release the last knight of Camelot.
Art thou such a one?

Ceri’s tongue felt like lead and the assurance she had felt before was
slipping away from her like water, finally she summoned up the strength and
replied, Could one not of Royal Blood touch a wound to you and live? For a moment she thought that she’d lost and then the thorny branches
enclosed and held her and the world went black. Her hands were still in
contact with the trunk but all around her was blackness. A branch curved
around her brow like a circlet and trickles of blood where thorns had
scratched her forehead contrasted starkly with her pale face.
Eventually the darkness around her lightened and the answer came, this
time gentler, Hail Princess! Then you shall be given the power to release
him, God speed, Princess.

She felt the branches uncurl away from her all except the one around her
forehead, she looked up and saw pale flowers burst into existence on the
branches. Finally in place of every thorn on the tree was a small, white, flower.
Cerian reached up and touched the mossy bark gently, almost sorrowfully,
Fare thee well, most beloved of trees.
Farewell, Princess Cerian. Your future lies, as it always will, within
your own hands
. Then the brief contact was gone. She stepped away from the
tree. At that moment a figure stumbled from the shadows and fell heavily on the
thorn-littered grass, he lay groaning, without considering what the cost Cerian
ran across to him, she knelt on a patch of clear grass and carefully examined
him, the thorns had pierced his body and Ceri could see the blood pumping out
of him. Galahad cushioned the man’s head and looked across at Ceri and
carefully shook his head, she reached up to touch the circlet of flowers and for
a moment thought of a man lying alone and unshriven in a bare tower and then made her decision, she reached up and removed the crown. “It is said that in the hands of a healer this can restore a man on the verge of death,” she said quietly, “perhaps it may restore this man.” Carefully she laid the chaplet upon the still figure.
She stood up, “Your helm, Chevalier.”
Galahad removed it from beneath his arm and handed it to her, Ceri walked across to the stream and knelt to scoop up some water, Galahad laid a hand on her shoulder, suddenly a voice said, “You will not need that, Daughter.”
Both turned and in place of the old man stood a middle-aged gentleman with
a circlet of silver on his brow, and in his hands he held the chaplet of white flowers, “Princess. I am Joseph of Arimathea.” Slowly she returned Galahad’s
helm and rose to her feet, as if in a dream she stumbled towards the old man,
Joseph gazed at her, “Few there are who are accorded such honours by this tree,
yet you would give all this up to save the life of an old man. Kneel, my Lady.” Cerian did as he bade her and Joseph said, “I am very proud of you, My Princess. Accept your crown and your power again.” Cerian felt the chaplet
placed on her head and she rose to her feet and curtsied, “My Lord.” Joseph took her shoulders lifted her up, “Nay, Princess, do not kneel to me.”
She turned around and for the first time Galahad saw the brightness of her face
and the chaplet on flowers on her head and dropped to one knee, “Forgive me
Princess,” he murmured. “I should have recognised you.”
“Should you?” Cerian responded feeling more at ease with herself than she had for days, “if I cannot recognise myself - why should you recognise me?
Besides which - it was not only I who was tested this night, it was you also - this
was your test to see if you would behave with all courtesy to any woman, be she
Princess or peasant. You were to test me by leading me to this tree-” she
gestured to the thorn, “for only if I were the Princess would I know what to do.”
She took Galahad’s hands in her own and raised him to his feet, he stood
looking down at the slight figure and bowed his head, ”and I am to serve you
Princess, as your knight.”
“Then I accept your service,” Cerian replied, she turned to Joseph of
Arimathea and said, “Will you excuse us, my Lord, I must needs fulfill a
promise.”
“Go, I have no hold on you now. The last and final test awaits you. Go in
the name of the Light!”
“Yes,” Cerian responded and resisted the impulse to say, ‘Lord’, “Will you
be at the feast?”
A smile curved Joseph’s full mouth and his dark eyes sparkled, ”Of
course!”
“Madam,” Galahad cleared his throat, “may I accompany you?” Cerian turned to him and said slowly, “As far as the Abbey, yes. Beyond that I must go alone, but I thank you for your words. Will you wait in the Abbey for me?”
“It would be an honour,” Galahad smiled, “may I escort you there.” “I would welcome your company, Chevalier.” Cerian replied slowly. As
they entered the Abbey Cerian felt the air - taut with expectancy, Ceri was about
to turn off into the corridor when she heard Herne behind her, “Princess! I
have been searching for you! There is much afoot - the greatest knight of
Camelot has deigned to be presented to you.”
Cerian stepped forward and Herne saw the chaplet of white flowers on her
brow and Galahad’s bulk loomed over her small frame, “My liege,” he
murmured and dropped to one knee.
“Rise, my Lord,” Cerian said, “and escort me to the Hall.”
“At once, Madam.” Herne said quickly. He rose to his feet and Cerian
turned to Galahad, “if you would stand at my left side and guard my heart,
Chevalier.”
“Madam.” Galahad inclined his head and Herne offered her his right arm. “Shall we go in, gentlemen?” Cerian enquired softly.
“As you wish,” Herne replied, “it is just after midnight.”
The hall was filled with people. She heard a herald’s voice announce her
name and the music stopped as suddenly as if cut with a knife. They began to
walk, side by side, towards a dais at the one end of the Abbey. Suddenly
Cerian noticed that the people were dropping to one knee and bowing their
heads. They’re showing fealty to me, I’m not ready-I’m, her thought rose high
and shrill, and then she heard another voice within her mind.
Peace, Princess! The chaplet you wear and the very fact that you have
been twice tested give you the right. Do not fear
.

Her mind probed the sender and a small smile curved her lips, Lord Herne! The same. Be still! This is only the beginning, you may not allow your fear
to show. Too much depends on you
.

Cerian wanted to ask what but they had reached the foot of the dais and
Herne halted and they both turned to face the assembly. A woman detached
herself from the throng and approached the throne, “Princess,” she began
dropping to one knee, “I am Nimüe-”
Suddenly from beyond the hall came the sound of trumpets, the woman
turned and a herald entered, “Make way!” he was calling, “Make way for the
last knight of Camelot!”
A bed was carried in and Cerian’s face blanched as she recognised
Bedwyr. Herne leant across and said, “Madam, this is where times mingle, I
know not what you did while we were apart but you may live to regret it.” The figures standing in the hall seemed to become misty and
transparent, Cerian turned to Galahad at her side only to discover that he was
no longer there and that the entire Abbey had changed, she now stood in front of an altar. The heralds had become monks and the rich bed a shabby pallet
covered with blankets.
For a split second Cerian felt a moment of panic and then she reached up to touch her head and felt the chaplet of flowers, her hands also touched two tiny
cuts made by the thorns.
“Bedwyr,” she said softly, kneeling beside the pallet, “Brother Bedwyr?” “The little sister I spoke with earlier?” Bedwyr’s face lit up, “greetings sister,
I fear that death has overtaken me at the last.”
“Oh Bedwyr!” Cerian reached out and her fingers gently brushed his
eyelids. Bedwyr blinked up at her and then if was as if the film covering his eyes
drained away.
For a long moment they stared at one another and then Bedwyr
whispered, “You restored my sight!” Then cognizance dawned and he
whispered, “You are the Princess?”
Ceri nodded, “It would appear so.”
“I am sorry for what I said earlier-” Bedwyr began, but Ceri’s finger on his
lips silenced him.
“Sssh. I returned to grant you peace. You have done your penance.” Cerian
smiled and as she did so another figure appeared on the other side of the pallet. He was fair-haired and his eyes were the faded blue of cornflowers but his
face was noble, he dropped to his knees.
“Greetings, most worthy knight,” he said slowly.
Bedwyr turned his head slowly and stared up into the face of the stranger,
“My liege!” he gasped. “I-I should rise.”
“My knight, I have waited many years for one of Royal Blood to come and relieve your curse. I have come to take you home - there will be a short sleep
first - will you come?”
“No more grief, or guilt?”
“No, Bedwyr. Your sleep will be deep and dreamless, that I promise you.” “Then I shall come with all my heart, lord. Can you forgive me?” “You were my truest knight and most loyal companion. I forgave you long
ago, you needed to forgive yourself. This child has enabled you to do that.” “Lord,” Cerian said suddenly, “may I?”
The man turned and a smile lit his features as he regarded Cerian, “It is your
right and privilege, Lady.”
Slowly Cerian reached up to the chaplet of flowers that adorned her brow and as she touched them the sweetest smell filled the entire hall, she removed the circlet and as she did so it disintegrated in her hands and a cloud of petals,
like snowflakes fell onto the pallet. That moment seemed to go on forever,
Cerian watched as Bedwyr stared up into the older man’s face and then the man
gripped Bedwyr’s wrist as a man clasps one who is bound closed than friend or brother and then Bedwyr’s eyes filled with light. A smile touched his lips
and as the petals touched the ground there was nothing there. Only an old
pallet with a monk’s habit and inside the habit a hair shirt.
Cerian reached up a hand to her face and found it wet with tears. She stood
up and stepped back and felt a firm hand take her elbow, “That was well done,
my Princess.”
The bed was being carried from the hall and the woman presented herself
again, “Madam,” she began again.
This time Cerian walked forward and raised the woman to her feet, “Do not
kneel to me,” she said softly, “I have not earned the right of rulership.” “I have a gift for you,” the woman said, she turned to one of her ladies in
waiting who held a cedarwood box, “when the sword of power, Caliburn, was
forged long ago, not all the metal could be used. Therefore, the remainder was
used to forge a crown that would be worn by the last of the Ancient Ones and
set with an alexandrine, this is the final test. Lady will you take it?” There was an indrawn gasp of breath as Cerian nodded and knelt before
the woman. “Lady Nimüe, it would be a singular honour if you would crown
me.”
A smile touched the corners of Nimüe’s lips and she replied, “Thank you,
Princess.”
Slowly and with dignity the thin crown was lowered onto Cerian’s head. The
circlet suddenly blazed with a white light, and Cerian suddenly saw the whole
assembly drop to their knees while she could only stand and stare. Then the doors at the end of the Hall flew open and a cup appeared, Cerian
suddenly felt her mouth go dry for this she knew with a startling clarity was
the San Greal, the Holy Grail of legend. A wonderful sweetness pervaded the
Hall and the golden bowl began to move towards her.
Cerian stared at the bowl, it hung before her like a globe, a voice boomed,
“Those who have a measure of Sang real may hold the San Greal for a moment.
Wilt thou hold it and undertake the quest for which thou wast chosen? ” Cerian cleared her throat, “I will.” She reached out her hands and the bowl
settled into them like a bird returning to its nest, “Does thy blood make thee
worthy to hold the Grail?” the voice asked coldly.
“I would say not,” Ceri replied thoughtfully, “my actions make me worthy to
hold the Grail. I hold it now to swear that I will undertake the quest to free the
Hunter and to do the best I can. Is that sufficient?”
Ceri looked up and saw the figure of Joseph of Arimathea standing before
her, “Then thou who wast royal only by birth art now truly Royal and the blood
of Kings flows in thy veins. Give me the cup.” Ceri handed him the Holy Chalice
and Joseph smiled at her before letting it go.
The Grail swept the length of the Hall before disappearing from view
through the huge double doors, Nimüe rose gracefully and gazed at Ceri, “You
have come at last.” She said slowly, and then she knelt suddenly baring her
head, “Hail, Princess!”
Cerian licked her very dry lips and staring at the hall of people and swallowed hard.
Chapter 4

‘The Dark Strikers’

 

M

uch later that same morning a very weary Cerian sat in a highbacked oak chair in front of a blazing fire. She was halfasleep when a gentle hand on her shoulder jerked her awake. she looked up to see Sir Galahad regarding her, contrition

stamped on his features, “Forgive me, Mistress,” he walked around the chair to stand in front of her, “I did not mean to frighten you. I thought a goblet of mulled wine might help to warm you on such a cold night.”

Cerian looked up at the young man thoughtfully and then smiled, “Thank you, Sir Knight,” she replied, then she added, “I also give thee permission to stand in my presence.”

Galahad bit his lip and when he had regained some of his composure he responded, “I meant no disrespect, My Lady.”
“I know that,” Cerian said, “and I was joking, mon chevalier.” She smiled again, “you may always stand in my presence.”
Galahad bowed, “As you say, Mistress.”
Tentatively Cerian sipped the wine and found that it tasted of cloves and cinnamon and something else that lingered on the tongue but to which she could not put a name. She set the drink down on the small table at her feet as Herne entered the room, she half-turned in the chair and started to rise to her feet but Herne’s hand clamped on her shoulder and he said in a soft voice, “Nay, Lady, you rise to no-one save the High King for tonight your royalty has been recognised.”
“I like your choice of tests, Lord Herne,” Ceri remarked, “rather clever that, to begin the test the moment I walked into the Abbey.”
Herne flung back his antlered head and laughed, turning to Galahad he said, ”This one is sharp and her I should be glad to serve, Madam,” he turned back to Cerian, “Had we not tested you thus your behaviour might have been very different - we had to be sure. Madam, the Grail you saw this night is merely a symbol, the true test comes when all the threads of the tapestry of Life have been woven. The Grail is held by The Fisher King, Nacien, until the final meeting of Light and Dark, when the Ancient Ones gather in one place again then our time here is ended and with our passing the world is left to mankind and his descendants. There were three tests and three is important to us, for there are three stages of time, Past, Present and Future. You have dealt in the past tonight, but you also have a part to play in the present and in the future. I am afraid that I have misled you somewhat in my desire to gain your help.”
“I was beginning to realise that, Lord.” Ceri remarked dryly, ”is there anything else you haven’t told me that I should know about?”
Herne smiled tautly, “There are many things,” he began, “some I may tell you about; some you shall find out for yourself and others, others you would not wish to know about in your darkest nightmares.”
Cerian looked up into his face and smiled, “Then I shall just have to be content with that answer. Now - what next, Lord Herne?”
Herne raised his goblet to his lips and drank deeply before answering, “We have a riddle to decipher you and I. We have little time to waste.”
“You’ve said that before too,” Cerian told him, “but how much time is little time.”
“A day, maybe a little longer,” Herne nodded at Cerian’s shocked face, “as soon as the forces of the Dark discover that a new member of Light has been added to our ranks then they begin to amass their armies.”
“Can’t we fight them - raise an army ourselves - I’ll lead them!”
Herne rested a hand on her shoulder and crouched that his eyes were level with hers, “That time may come, Princess and yes, you will lead them but it is not that time yet. At the moment we must work in stealth, and we win allies by trust and friendship and not through betrayal, or blackmail or promise of riches. Now to lighter subjects - Sir Knight!”
“Lord!” Galahad turned swiftly.
“I suspect the Princess would welcome an opportunity to dance. You can dance - can’t you?” he hissed at Cerian.
“Not very well.” Cerian grinned, “but passably.”
“Do your best.” Herne growled.
Galahad bowed and extended a hand to Cerian who took it graciously, meanwhile from somewhere the music of mediæval instruments began. Galahad took her right hand, put his arm around her supporting her back, Cerian’s left hand lay along his arm; slowly they began to waltz.
As Cerian eased herself back into her seat Galahad bowed and said, “Thank you, Princess.”
“It was a pleasure, mon chevalier,” Cerian replied. She sipped the wine again, it was just cool enough to drink. Galahad smiled down at her, “Tired, Madam?”
“Exhausted,” Cerian replied bluntly, “but I’ll be all right in the morning.”
“Would you excuse me one moment,” Galahad said, “I must needs speak with someone.”
“Certainly, Chevalier,” Cerian yawned suddenly, just managing to cover her mouth with her hand, “you have permission to leave us. If we do not see you tonight mayhap we shall be graced by your presence tomorrow.”
Galahad laughed and suddenly knelt before her so that she was looking down at him, “Princess, you have a tongue in your head that would charm the very birds of the air, I am proud to serve you.” He gently kissed the hand resting on the arm of the chair. “Goodnight, Princess.”
“Goodnight,” Cerian said softly and then when his footsteps no longer sounded in the corridors she murmured, “my beloved knight.”
She finished the remainder of her wine, and then curled up as much as possible and gazed into the fire. The dancing flames made the shadows leap and shapes appear in the glowing logs. Cerian yawned again, then her eyes drooped even further, and suddenly she was asleep, her lashes making dark semi-circles on her cheeks.
Two figures walked into the room, Herne bent over Cerian’s quiet form and he said, “She’s sleeping.”
“Did you?” the other figure’s hand went to the hilt of the sword hanging at his waist.
“Put it away Galahad. Of course I didn’t, but it is well for us that she has fallen asleep for we have much to discuss.”
“Such as?” Galahad’s tone was sharp.
“Who she is. What I suspect that she is and the part you both must play in all three times.”
“Begin then,” Galahad demanded.
Suddenly a trumpet sounded and Galahad turned drawing his sword in one swift motion, “Intruders!”
Three black shapes rushed into the room, two seemed shadowy figures trapped between the worlds of fantasy and reality, who could harm but with no real or lasting effect, but between them stood a figure that seemed to ooze darkness itself, a stench of death rose from him and when he spoke it was a voice that was little more than a hiss, “O purest knight,” the sneer was unmistakable, “this is not your quarrel, my desire is the Princess.”
Galahad swallowed hard, “And my desire is that you should not have her!”
“So be it,” the creature laughed and fear began to congeal in Galahad’s gut, “but think that ye can stand against this?”
From a point of darkness near its leg the monster drew a long, pale lance with a bloody tip.
Galahad blanched, “Where did you get that?” he demanded.
“You of the Light never take the trouble to destroy that which could destroy you, this was the lance that killed your Artus, you never made sure that it was destroyed. This weapon will kill any who have Sang real in their veins.”
“Not while I have life and breath!” Galahad’s voice rang true and clear, “for I too drew a sword from a stone and I discovered the Grail.”
“Then we are evenly matched,” the voice replied, “let us begin.”
Out of the corner of his eye Galahad caught sight of Herne, the true Herne, tall and proud blazing light from every pore bombarding the shadows with all his might.
“Aye, let us begin!”
Slowly they began to circle the room, Thrust. Feint. Parry. Thrust. Parry. Galahad crouched like a leopard about to spring, while the other creature shuffled and squelched making the bile rise in Galahad’s throat, it hissed and lunged for him, raising his sword Galahad parried the blow; sparks of blue fire hissed as the two weapons met each other and ran down the sword and into Galahad’s arm, he cried out in pain and pulled his weapon free.
The creature snarled and raised the lance for an attack, Galahad tried to parry, but his sword arm was still numb from contact with such a deadly weapon, the lance pierced his shoulder.
A deathly cold seemed to fill his body, he could feel his legs beginning to give way beneath him and he sank to the floor. Everything seemed to be happening in slow motion, his sight was fading and he could feel the bottomless abyss of darkness sucking him into its depths.
The being leant over him and raised the lance to make a final thrust and suddenly every fibre of Galahad’s being rebelled, summoning up his last ounce of energy, he gasped, “I may succumb to the Dark, but you shall not have my Princess!” and thrust upwards with his sword, it pierced the entity’s rags and light suddenly burst along the blade. it screamed in agony and a noxious smell filled Galahad’s nostrils, he retched and tasted vomit in his mouth, the creature screamed again and Galahad half-raised himself and with the last of his strength gave a final thrust with his sword. The being fell backwards and Galahad slumped to the floor as consciousness left him.
At the first scream of the thing Galahad was fighting the two shadowy figures seemed to shrink slightly and as the creature fell backwards they shrivelled and died. Herne turned to see Cerian sitting bold upright in the chair her blue eyes wide and frightened.
“My Lady-” Herne began, but she was already on her feet and without thinking, or knowing about it had torn away the protective barrier Herne had erected around her. She knelt beside Galahad and began patting her way up his body. His right hand was ice-cold and his shoulder where the lance had entered even colder.
Herne moved to kneel on the other side of Galahad’s figure as Ceri removed the cloak she wore and threw it over Galahad. His face was grey and a thin layer of perspiration was already beginning to bead his forehead.
“Cernunnos,” she said sharply, “fetch attendants immediately, I want this man moved to private quarters where I may have the best physicians to tend him immediately!”
“At once, Highness,” Herne nodded and rising to his feet Cerian noticed that he no longer wore his antlers and coat of fur but seemed to be a middle-aged man.
“Where are the theatrics?” she enquired.
Herne smiled wryly, “This is who I was many times ago, the Hunter has not always appeared as a corporeal form but sometimes as a voice or a vision. Sometimes I wonder if this was how it started - but I shall fetch the attendants.”
“We must talk later.” Cerian said softly and Herne knew it was not a question.
Eventually Galahad lay on a bed in a large room, heated bricks had been wrapped in cloths and set round him in an effort to warm him. Once his eyes opened but they lacked cognizance and Cerian began to weep.
“Come,” Herne said, raising her to her feet, “you must sleep, we will speak in the morning.”
Ceri was too tired to protest, she felt him lift her and lie her down on the bed, his voice seemed miles above her and the words seemed to set up a resonance in her head, “Go to sleep,” she felt him cover her with a blanket, “you’ll feel much better later.” Then darkness claimed her.
Herne looked down at her, he regretted using the sleep-charm but Cerian was his responsibility as much as Galahad. Galahad, he sighed, There was little that could be done except to give him drugs to ease the pain. I fear for his soul, Herne thought, I blame myself - as soon as the ceremony was completed, I should have thrown a barrier around the place. At least I should have checked that the portals were guarded. How could they get in!
Someone was shaking Cerian hard, she opened her eyes and turned her head, a small serving girl was kneeling beside the bed.
“Ma’am,” she whispered, “the Knight, he is much worse and like to die. Please will you come?”
Cerian nodded her mouth suddenly dry. The girl, barely more than a child led her along the corridors and into the large room Galahad had been placed in the night before. Carefully Ceri pushed through the people gathered at the bedside and leant over him. He was even greyer than the night before and his wound was oozing a green pus, a tumescent odour assailed her nostrils and made her gag. Steeling herself she removed the dressings and was almost sick.
“Get me cloths and warm water,” she ordered, “and clean dressings. Have the bricks been changed?”
“Yes Ma’am,” the girl bobbed a curtsy, “but they seem to make no difference. Lord Herne says he is like to die.” Tears began to fill her eyes and Ceri felt her own begin to water in sympathy, “Go and fetch the water and cloths,” she said kindly.
When they arrived she gently cleaned the wound, and placed new dressings upon it.
“Leave us.”
“But Ma’am, Lord Herne said no-one was to leave the Knight.”
“We are staying with him are we not?” something blazed in Cerian’s eyes and the attendants decided to leave. When they were alone, Ceri bent over Galahad’s still form and gently sponged his face, “I am a failure,” she whispered softly, although she knew that he could not hear her, “You’re dying and there is nothing I can do about it.” She gently took his left hand and laid her right on his wound, “Oh Galahad!”
Suddenly her world fragmented, she was standing alone on a plain beneath a panorama of stars. She began to shiver, it was as if she was being examined beneath a microscope. Then the man who knelt beside Bedwyr was standing before her, he took her hands, “Every door may be unlocked if you have the key.”
“But I do not have a key,” Cerian stared at him hopelessly.
His smile became broader, “You do. You dared the wrath of the ages to free a Knight bound in chains of sorrow and guilt, you risked not being able to free that Knight, to save the life of a man you never knew when he was wounded on the old thorns, you made the Midwinter Thorn bloom at Glastonbury, you hold the Key within yourself, no-one but you could do this and you know what power you have if you will only allow yourself to feel it.”
“But what must I do?”
“Do? Oh Princess, you already know, you proved it in the gardens when you risked all. Courage of the heart is very rare; they have a power those who dare. You have more than a courage of the heart, in you the Power rises and flourishes unlike any that I have seen and I too commanded the Old Magic once. You know me of course.”
“Artus.” Cerian replied.
“Look deep inside yourself, Daughter, then you will find what it is that you seek and having found that you may find yourself.”
With those words he was gone and Cerian was back in the Abbey, she stared down at Galahad and thought, Courage, courage to do what? What must I dare?
Suddenly it hit her, I have within me a love of humanity, for despite its tragedy and bitterness and misery; humanity has great potential and all humanity are worthy of love.
She stared down at Galahad and discarded her guilt and bitterness and despair and said delightedly, “I love you, Sir Knight!” The results were almost immediate, a soft glow began to illuminate Ceri’s hands and run up Galahad’s body enveloping him in a cocoon of glowing light, the hand on his wound began to pulsate with a regular rhythm and all at once the glow faded.
Ceri’s head fell and a weak voice whispered, “Princess?”
She looked up, Galahad’s eyes were open and there was the light of reason in them. Slowly she removed the dressings from his shoulder and stared, the great rotting hole in his shoulder had disappeared, there was only a pale, pink scar from a newly healed wound.
“Princess?” Galahad’s voice roused her from her astonishment and she dredged a smile from the depths of her being, “Feeling better, Sir Knight?”
“Have you tended me all this time, Madam?” Galahad’s tone was sharp.
“Not all the time,” Cerian admitted, “just for the past hour or two. How do you feel?”
“Tired,” a weary smile touched the corners of Galahad’s mouth, “will I see you later?”
“Most assuredly,” Cerian replied and watched while his eyes drooped and he fell asleep.
She felt a hand on her shoulder and heard the pride in Herne’s voice as he said, “That was well done. I did not believe that anyone could save him.”
Ceri smiled and raised a hand to lay it on Herne’s, “I did not think I could save him either, My Lord. How long have you known I was here?”
“Half an hour or so,” Herne replied.
Ceri nodded slowly her head feeling as though it was about to come off her shoulders. Dimly she heard Herne’s exclamation and then she was scooped up in his arms.
“We’ll get you to bed,” Herne said quickly.
“No sleep charms,” Ceri ordered drowsily, as Herne laid her down on the bed she was asleep. A maid undressed Cerian and slipped a woollen nightgown over her body. Herne gently laid a hand on Ceri’s forehead before covering her with a blanket and dimming the lamps.
She slept dreamlessly for a while and then suddenly passed from sleep into wakefulness, she lay blinking up at the window watching the dust dancing in the rays of sunlight passing through the narrow window.
The door opened and Herne entered bearing a tray, Cerian sat up in bed as he placed it on her knees, “What time is it?”
“Early afternoon,” Herne replied, “have you slept well?”
“What about Galahad?” Ceri asked quickly, “Is he all right - I-I mean he’s not-” “Galahad’s still fast asleep, snoring his head off in the room above this one, in fact I’m surprised that the floorboards aren’t vibrating. Now eat some breakfast. the kitchen provided oatcakes with goat’s cheese or honey if you prefer and milk.”
Ceri ate hungrily even to the extent of licking her fingers and dabbing up the oat crumbs.
When she had finished, Herne handed her a small basin of water and a towel. She washed the stickiness off her fingers dried her hands and handed the bowl back to him, “Sit down, what did you want to speak to me about?”
“How do you know that I did?” was the reply.
“Because it isn’t your job to serve people.”
“‘Job’,” Herne looked puzzled, “I do not understand the word. My task is to serve you in any capacity I can, but essentially, you are correct. We must needs speak, Madam, and some of it will not be pleasant.”
“Pray continue.” Cerian said slowly.
Herne eased himself onto the bed and said, “As soon as you were recognised in the Great Hall the Dark would’ve known about you. I should have realised that, I did not put the defences up, they must have slipped in after the celebration. You are in less danger now, but the danger is still great even though much of it has passed.”
“Two questions, My Lord,” Ceri responded softly, a slight frown puckering her forehead, “How could creatures from the Dark enter here? And how do we combat them?”
“This place is Sacred to the Light, the Dark could not enter here unless they either came to parley on Sacred ground, or-” Herne paused, the thought was unthinkable, “ or someone of the Light gave them entry.”
“So I may have a traitor to contend with,” Ceri nodded, “fortunately I come from a world where people are generally nasty. I think I can deal with a traitor. What were you going to suggest I do about their attempt to murder me?”
“I was coming to that,” Herne replied, “And I do have a plan, they will expect you to remain in relative safety here and not to have to search elsewhere for you so my suggestion is that I send you back in time and you may continue the search for the solution to my salvation. That way if the Dark seek you here you will be long gone.”
“I hope I can help you,” Cerian replied slowly, “riddles were never my strong point.”
“I will come with you part of the way, but this is your quest and as such you must do this on your own, so the riddle you must decipher alone too.”
“You’re not making this very easy Cernunnos.”
“I never said that it would be easy,” the Lord of the Trees replied, “but you have proved yourself beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are the one chosen to free me. Will you at least try?”
Ceri sighed, “I owe you that much at least. Yes, I shall try. First I shall visit Galahad and then we may depart. Tell me this riddle.”
“Very well. You must trust someone you have only just met; and you must heal someone who doubts you.”
“Full of the joys of spring aren’t we?” Ceri remarked.
“I don’t understand it either,” Herne replied.
“Would you leave us, Lord,” Cerian said, “and I shall dress.”
Herne nodded and vacated the room closing the door behind him. Cerian dressed quickly in a shirt, hose and jerkin. She pulled a pair of soft doeskin boots on her feet.
Slipping out of the room she crept through the corridor and up the stairs. Gently she turned the ring on the door and pushed it open. A bright fire burnt in the grate and the sunlight fell through the narrow slit that formed the window. Galahad lay sleeping and for a moment Cerian watched him her eyes tender, then she kissed the tips of her fingers and touched them to his lips, “Farewell, mon chevalier,” she whispered, “I must depart and I know not when I shall return.”
Herne was waiting for her downstairs, he gave her a cursory glance, “Not quite what I was hoping for but it’ll do. Come, as soon as night falls the Dark will be upon us and you are still vulnerable.” He led her across the courtyard and again the scene shimmered, they stood at the edge of a forest. Herne gazed around and murmured, “These were the days, when forests covered half your country, it was an evil time, but it was also a great time and some men blazed their names across the sky in fiery letters so that England and history has never forgotten them.”
“Why didn’t you stay in this time?” Ceri stared at him curiously.
“Because I cannot die, so I must watch the times of triumph and the times of shame, when you came I finally thought that I might find some vestige of peace.”
“Oh,” Cerian looked around her, “where are we?”
“On the outskirts of Sherwood Forest,” came the reply, “less than five miles from Nottingham,”
The track was dry and fairly clear of weeds and brambles, it soon opened up onto a clear straight road.
“Lady,” Ceri turned to see Herne proffering a small dagger, “there are brigands in these woods, I should like you to have something to defend yourself with should some of them attack us.”
“Thank you,” Ceri said taking the weapon. As they entered another part of the forest the atmosphere seemed to darken, suddenly Ceri felt the hairs on the back of her neck begin to prickle, she turned to see something that looked only half-human charging toward her, she drew her dagger and without thinking almost casually stroked it across his eyes, he screamed and reeled backwards clutching his face, blood oozing between his fingers. The others came in ones and twos and although she thrust and parried, inflicting wounds, eventually one of them knocked her weapon from her hand with a branch and their leader caught her arms roughly and pushed her against the rough bark of a tree.
“Now, my pretty, what’s someone like you doing all alone the forest?”
“I-” she began and then looked around, Herne was nowhere to be seen. “I did not think I would be set upon by thieves,” she sneered.
“I am sure that there is a ransom for you, my pretty,” the man cackled and shivers of fear ran up Ceri’s spine.
“Not to my knowledge,” she replied as coolly as she dared. The man stared at her as if he could not believe his ears and then he laughed, “This one has fire
- I shall keep her as my captive and she shall bear me fine sons!”
Cerian kicked him hard in the groin, he yelped in pain and lurched backwards, she dropped to the ground and scrabbled around finally locating her dagger. Another of the men came towards her and she plunged her dagger to the hilt in his midriff, she twisted it and pulled, it came free with a squelching sound and blood poured from the wound.
Cerian turned and ran, ran for her life through the dark forest, from the crashing behind her she could tell that they were gaining and that they would not be slow to take their revenge on her for injuring their leader. She tripped suddenly and fell headlong and the world turned black.
She was being jolted along rather roughly, it was a most uncomfortable feeling, she struggled to get free. “Hang on,” a voice said, “I think she’s coming round, put her down John.”
The bouncing stopped, she was lifted down from someone’s shoulders, she stared up into a gentle face, roughened by anger and pain. “Sit down,” the same voice said.
Then she saw him, a young man, no more than twenty-five or six, his hair was coal black and his eyes dark as pools of still water. He crouched down and gently pushed the hair back from a cut on her forehead, “Does it hurt?” he enquired gently.
She nodded and then suddenly said thickly, “I think I’m going to be sick-” she retched uncontrollably for some minutes after her stomach had expelled its contents, she was aware of the big man’s hand gently holding the hair away from her face during her retching bout, and then his arm was around her shoulders as she struggled to rise, steadying her, through her still fuzzy vision she saw him proffer a bottle, “It’s only water,” he said quietly, “just to rinse your mouth out.”
She accepted it gratefully and was glad of the cool freshness of the liquid on her sore mucous membranes. She rose to her feet and the dark-haired one came forward again, “Let me put this on the cut,” he said, ”it’ll help it to heal.”
Her vision was starting to clear, although her legs still threatened to give way beneath her. The big man, what was he called, John? Yes, that was it, John, guided her to a place where she could sit with her back against a tree while the dark-haired man gently applied something cool and soothing to the pain in her temple.
Then she was lifted again, only this time with her head on John’s shoulder and they began moving, with time with a more purposeful air. She remembered that journey only in terms of waking and sleeping, sometimes she could see open sky above them, while at other times she remembered looking upwards at the leafy green canopy and wondering how the trees had moved so fast. Afterwards all she could clearly remember was the darkness surrounding her punctuated by little flashes of light, like fires, arms holding her securely, a woman’s voice asking her something and then having to watch a finger moving without turning her head. Then the woman again and something was held to her lips, she drank gratefully, gradually the merciless pounding in her head began to ease and as it did so she fell asleep.
She awoke in the early morning, the breeze stirred the tops of the trees, she sat up and looked around her. The camp was quiet, from the embers of the fire a thin trickle of blue smoke floated slowly upwards. A hand gently touched her shoulder, she looked up to see John looking down at her, “Good morning,” he said softly.
“Good morning,” Cerian replied, “what time is it?”
“About two hours after sunrise, I’m on guard duty today, the others are scouting the London road, I promised I’d look after you. So what’s your name?”

“Cerian,” Ceri said, “Cerian Prichard. I’m very grateful, you must have moved fast in order to stop those bandits from cutting me into small pieces.”
The man sat down and said, “Much spotted them first, he alerted Robin and me and when we moved into position they were gathered around you. A few carefully placed arrows soon made them move.”
“What about the leader?”
“I rather suspect that you took care of him with a swift kick,” the man replied, “My name’s Little John, I came from Hathersage. You’ll meet the others tonight, there’s Much, myself, Will Scarlet, Friar Tuck and of course Marian and Robin.”
Cerian regarded him strangely at the mention of Robin’s name, “Robin. Do you mean Robin of Locksley?”
“I believe that was his title before he was made wolfshead.” Cerian stood up, “I think we ought to go and catch breakfast,” she said quickly.
“There’s no need for that,” John said, he took her hand and led her over to the fire, “I’m afraid its only cold Coney but you don’t mind that do you?”
“I don’t mind anything as long as its food,” Cerian said taking a piece of the rabbit and sinking her teeth into it.
Later they went down to the river and John showed her how to tickle trout, they caught thirteen big ones and as the shadows were beginning to fall John called a halt. “The others will be back by now, come on, I think you should explain yourself to them.”
The camp was alive with people when John and Cerian entered it. Taking the fish she carried John excused himself, “I think Robin will wish to speak to you.”
Cerian was only left for a couple of moments when someone tapped her on the shoulder, she turned to see a young ginger haired youth standing behind her, “Hello,” he said, “I’m Much. I found you yesterday.”
“I’m very glad that you did,” Ceri replied, she smiled again, “I must go, Much, I think Locksley wants a word.”
Robin touched her arm, “Do you remember me?”
“Vaguely,” she said, “you put something on my head I think.”
“That’s right,” Robin smiled tightly, “now I need some answers. You said that your name was Cerian, I can tell from your accent that you’re not from around here.”
“I’m from the future,” Cerian said softly, “I have to speak with Herne.”
Robin’s gaze became sharp, “From the future - prove it!”
“How?” Ceri stared at him, “there’s no way I can prove I’m from the future, the only way I could would be to tell you of your fate, and I think you already know.”
“Tell me of Richard? What happens to him?”
“He dies in France and England passes to John.” Ceri replied slowly, “I need to speak to Herne.”
“What do you know of Herne the Hunter?”
“More than you think,” Ceri replied, “I serve him in the future. May I speak to him?”
“No!” the voice was Scarlet’s. Both Robin and Cerian jumped, Will jumped out in front of them, “Get rid of her Locksley, she’ll bring Gisborne down on top of us.”
“I have no intention of bringing Guy of Gisborne here - like you I have no love for the man, whatever you think, Scarlet.”
“Do they still talk of me in your future?” Robin asked.
“In my future and the futures to come - you are remembered as a man who stood for Justice and Honour. You are remembered when Richard Coeur De Lion is dust.”
“Then I am satisfied,” Robin replied. “You shall be given all courtesy, Lady, and escorted as far as Kirklees Abbey. From thence I trust you will find your own way. My spies tell me that there is a shipment of gold on its way to Nottingham for the Sheriff’s coffers, the poor could use that money better than the Sheriff.”
Cerian said nothing and Robin smiled tightly and bowing departed, Ceri watched as the darkness swallowed him up. Cerian curled up beneath one of the great oaks and pulled the blanket up around her, sleep came eventually and with it, no dreams.
She awoke early, the sun was still low on the horizon, Robin and the others were talking in low voices around the fire. Cerian pushed through the group until she stood before Robin, “I must needs ask you again,” she said softly, “may I have an audience with the Lord of the Trees.”
Robin looked down at her, the earnestness of her face, the white knuckles, heard the tight plea in her voice, “No. If you will not tell me why you need to speak to him-”
“I can’t,” Cerian replied, “I would trust you to lead me into Hell and out again safely and I have known you little less than a day. Can you not trust me the same?”
“Regrettably not, Madam, I have been misled by a pretty face before, I cannot take the risk again. As I have said before, you shall be escorted to Kirklees tonight. Now Lady, if I may be allowed to continue with my previous conversation.”
Her hopes dashed, Cerian turned away, John touched her shoulder, “Is it so desperately important that you see Herne?”
Cerian looked up into Little John’s face and nodded not trusting herself to speak, she swallowed hard and said, “It would help someone in my future if I could speak to him for even a few moments, perhaps I cannot get back home without his help.”
“Then I pity you,” John replied, “because if Robin refuses to take you, you’ll never get to see him.”
She turned and John saw the shine of tears in her eyes, “Thank you for your candour,” she said softly.
All that day Cerian waited in the camp in the hope that she might be able to speak to Robin or any of the other outlaws when they returned to the camp. Thus it was that she saw the other outlaws bearing the body of Scarlet back into the camp. It was impossible to see how badly he was injured as the other men carrying him obscured her view, but through their upright forms she suddenly caught sight of feathers at the end of a shaft and suddenly felt sick. They carried him into one of the huts and Marian went in some little time afterwards carrying some implements wrapped in a blanket. Suddenly Cerian made her decision, she pushed open the door and saw Marian poised to try and cut the arrow out.
“No!” She yelled at the top of her voice, Much made a grab for her but she evaded him easily and dropped to her knees beside Scarlet’s shaking form.
“Get some alcohol,” she ordered. Marian nodded to someone behind her and Cerian heard the door open and close. “Help me sit him up,” she said. Together they eased him into a sitting position and Cerian took Scarlet’s hand, “Will? Will, don’t try to talk, I want you to listen to me, we’re going to have to remove the arrow, I’m going to shorten it and its going to hurt. Can you hear me, Will?”
Scarlet nodded, his face was white as milk and a thin film of perspiration covered his cheeks and his forehead. Slowly and carefully Ceri took the knife and began to cut a deep groove around the arrow, Will moaned and Ceri looked across him at Marian, “Hold his shoulders.”
Marian pushed his shoulders back and looked across at Ceri, “Ready,” she said quickly.
Taking the arrow Ceri pressed both thumbs upwards either side of the groove, the arrow snapped and Scarlet’s scream of agony rent the darkness. She sat back on her heels and wiped the back of her hand across her forehead, it was wet with perspiration.
She took the knife and a heavy, flat stone, “Be ready to pull the arrow out,” she said quickly. Marian nodded, Ceri placed the knife flat against the end of the arrow and picked up the rock. One clean blow she told herself, One, two, three! On three she hit the knife, the arrow slid through Will’s shoulder the point and shaft emerging the other side. He groaned in agony and slumped against Ceri.
“The dressings,” she snapped. Padding the wound, she gently laid her hand upon it and the now familiar tingle began again. Oh Will, you brave irascible idiot! The glow spread all over his body and then just as suddenly dissipated. Marian looked down at Will. He was sleeping and his face was peaceful. She lifted the dressing and saw only a new scar.
Ceri got to her feet and went outside into the cool night air. She leant against an oak and closed her eyes, she felt a familiar hand on her shoulder, “Thank you.”
She opened her eyes to see Robin gazing at her, “It was nothing,” she said. “It was to me and it will be to Scarlet. Remember he suspected that you were working for Gisborne-” he broke off as Ceri started to laugh, “what is it?” “Nothing,” Ceri assured him, “I was just thinking about something someone said.”
“Do you still wish to speak to Herne?” Robin enquired, “if so I shall take you to him.”
Cerian could only stare, speechless with gratitude, then she found her voice, “Thank you, Robin Hood.”
The mist of twilight lay thickly in the hollows and curled around the roots of the trees when Robin shook her awake, “Come, Madam, we must depart.” Ceri followed him down to the river where a small bark lay moored to the bank. Robin helped her board and then began to quant them upriver. Eventually they arrived at a dark cave, Robin bent and said, “Will you close your eyes and keep them closed until I tell you to open them.”
Ceri nodded, she felt the bark glide through the darkness and suddenly was tempted to open her eyes and it was as if she heard Herne’s voice in her mind, You must trust someone you have only just met, and she squeezed her eyes even more tightly shut.
Robin touched her shoulder again, “You may open your eyes now.”
Cerian did so and was amazed, the boat was gliding towards a tiny lit ledge in a subterranean lake. Robin helped her onto the bank and then a figure appeared garbed in fur and wearing a deer’s head on his own. “Who is this stranger you have brought here?” the creature demanded.
“One who asked to come here and even when I refused did me a service by restoring one of my men to health.” Robin replied, “she put herself at risk so I chose to bring her here.”
“I bear a message from the future,” Cerian said, “I was told I am the Hunter’s Salvation. I come to you in the hope that you have the knowledge to save him.”
Herne took her shoulders and regarded her for a long moment, “So you have come at last. I have waited long for you. I do not have the knowledge for my salvation; but I do have another riddle that will lead you part of the way towards it. The line runs thus; You must right him that was wronged; and rescue him who spilt the Crochan.
“I do not understand it, Lord, but I shall consider it .”
“I know.” A smile lit the features of the Hunter and he said, “It is time for you to go home.” He placed an arm around her shoulders and escorted her towards the altar. “Walk forwards and you shall be where you were.”
“One moment,” Ceri said, she walked over to where Robin was standing and took both his hands in her own, “Remember me?”
“Oh - always,” Robin assured her, “Scarlet will be sorry that you’ve gone. I know he would have wanted to say goodbye.”
“Quick good-byes are always better,” Cerian said, “until we meet again, Robin i’th’Hood.”
“Until we meet again, Lady Cerian.”
Herne led her back to the altar and she hugged him before closing her eyes and stepping forward, “Your Gift goes with you, Princess.”
Ceri opened her mouth to thank him but his voice was growing fainter, she hit a grass tussock and dropped to the ground. She opened her eyes, she stood in the orchard, on her right the Abbey loomed over her casting a comforting shadow.
Chapter 5

‘The Moment Of Truth’

 

A

s Ceri gazed at the surrounding forest, Cernunnos took one last look at the Princess he served and slowly disappeared. A few minutes later, he stepped out of the shadows surrounding his room carrying a small object covered by a black cloth. This he laid on one of the side tables

and then sat down himself. He removed the cloth and carefully lifted the glass orb; gently he cradled it in his palms and stared hard into its depths. Gradually the image of a young girl appeared, Cernunnos stared at the blonde hair and blue eyes and thought about this child he had lifted from her own world and her own time. She was running through the forest and as Herne caught sight of her pale, frightened face and flying hair he realised she was in danger. Slowly he replaced the sphere and replaced the cloth. Then he stood up and was about to leave the room when a new voice said, “ So, she is special to you,”

Herne looked up and into the face of Mithras, “Yes, she is special. But she is more than that.”
“You think this one can save you?” He asked.
“I begin to hope so. I cannot stop my friend, I need to contact an old disciple of mine.”
“She’s in danger – from the Dark?” Mithras’s hand went to the hilt of his sword.
“No. Not the Dark, a group of brigands that haunt the outskirts of Sherwood; but if they kill her she will be just as dead – whether in this time or in the twelfth century.”
“Then you must go,” Mithras replied, “I shall wait.”
“Please.” Cernunnos gestured to one of the chairs and Mithras lowered himself into it. He set his helmet with its white transverse crest on the table beside it and turned to Cernunnos. “Go my friend.”
Herne nodded and walked into the shadows, for a moment there was a flicker and then he was gone. Mithras looked around the room and then up at the lamp illuminating the room, “He truly believes that she is the one who will release him.” He murmured softly to himself.
“He has reason,” another voice said, “though he knows it not as yet.”
Mithras turned and saw the figure of his Lord, the Invincible Sun standing behind him, instantly he was kneeling at the feet of his saviour.
“Greetings, most beloved of my disciples,” the voice said softly, “you have some questions I think.”
Mithras stood up, “Yes Lord. Why should she be the one? The others were as she is, no more, no less, they had royal lineage and royal bearing. She may have the lineage but she was never brought up as one of them, she has no understanding of what it is to be royal.”
“My son, even I do not know if she is the one who will save the Hunter,” the being said softly, “that is not given to me to know, nor to thee even if we wished it. And even in the books where this is written it is only one half of the story, if she is to save the Hunter, we will know soon enough, if she does not then Morgana and her sister will triumph.”
“I cannot allow that!” Mithras stormed.
“Do you suppose I wish to allow it, my son,” it sighed and responded, “you know as well as I do that we agreed not to try and discover who was the true Keeper.”
“No, you agreed for me,” Mithras replied and for the first time the anger he had held in check was visible on his face. “You forget that I loved one of those so called pretenders, and when Morgana destroyed her it almost broke my heart. And you refused my petition to search through Time for her – you want me to assist this child without even knowing if she is worthy of the honour we give her.”
Suddenly the Sol Invictus grabbed him, Mithras gasped in pain but the creature held him even tighter, “Do you suppose I wanted those others to be lost?” he snarled, his face inches from Mithras’s, “I cared as much for them as I do for this one, more, for one of them was my true daughter as thou art my true son – but she knew the risks and she knew that I could not look for her. Do you forget the battle we fight?”
Mithras pulled himself free and snapped, “I no longer choose to fight this battle. It has been raging since the beginning of time. Let Humankind handle it, it is their battle, not ours.”
“It will be soon enough,” the Sol Invictus replied. “For the moment it is ours. You knew the choice we made – hast thou forgotten thy humanity?”
Mithras refused to answer and the god spoke again, “Then I cannot convince thee, Mithras. Very well. If I ask you to come to Glastonbury will you come?”
Mithras turned and his eyes were full of tears, “I follow you anywhere,” he replied thickly, “but I follow you because I pledged myself to you – not for some foolish battle for which I no longer see any future.”
For the first time the god smiled, “Then when I summon thee to Ynys Witrin, come.”
Mithras nodded and knelt at the feet of his god, “Yes, my Lord.”
“If she asked for help for one of your own would you assist her?”
“For one of my disciples, yes!” Mithras retorted, raising his head to look into is his deity’s face, “it is her I do not believe in.”
The Sol Invictus laid a hand on his apostle’s head, “Then go in peace my son. Remember, when I call thee to Ynys Witrin, thou art bound to come.”
“I shall remember,” Mithras responded and slowly disappeared. The god was still standing in the same place when Herne returned.
“I thought Mithras would be here,” he said smiling into the face of the divinity.
“He and I have spoken.”
“About the Princess.”
“And of other things. He still blames me for Myfanwy’s loss.”
“No.” Cernunnos walked across the room to stand in front of the roaring fire, “he blames himself for seeing qualities in her that were not there. Myfanwy was a jewel, but she had only passion, she had no strength to carry her through. I think Mithras thought that with his support she could gain those qualities. He forgot that she had to fight the battle alone and without him by her side.”
The Sol Invictus shook his head, “For a being who was once himself a deity you have a rare insight into humanity. Perhaps that is why you were cursed.”
“It is the consequences of the curse that make me despair,” Herne said softly, “the death and grief that I and the Yell Hounds cause and have caused every century.”
The god gently laid a hand on Herne’s shoulder, “Perhaps this girl may indeed save you.”
“I believe she will, Lord.” Cernunnos replied.
“She certainly appears to have something the others did not, are you so afraid of Morgana?”
“I am not afraid of her.” Herne replied with a light laugh, “but I am afraid of what she may do to the Princess.”
“You think she is?”
“I know her history,” Herne replied spreading his hands as if that was all the proof he needed. “However, you are correct, Lord, she has not been tested and she is still a child. She may break.” He sighed and his eyes became far away.
“It is unfortunate that Mithras does not share your belief.”
“He may. There is always time.”
“For us, yes. For you, perhaps. Regrettably not for her. If she is this saviour then time is against her. We can wait for an infinite number of candidates to save you, if you are to be saved.”
“Sounds ominous,” Cernunnos replied, seating himself in the Queen Anne chair and inviting the deity to do the same.
“She must know the truth soon,” the Invincible Sun said, “It was not your fault about the others. Morgana and her sister Morgan seduced them and once seduced it was easy to lure them into the abyss. You have not told her of her Father?”
“No.”
“Or of the real reason for her power?”
Herne looked up at him, “Do you mean-”
“Yes. Have you told her that it is her blood that gives her the power she commands. It has nothing to do with her courage, or her stamina or her belief.”
“I have not. I have not been able to find the words to tell her. She was shocked when I explained about the sacrifices to me, how could I tell her that the real reason she restored Bedwyr’s sight was because of her blood and her lineage?”
“She may be more understanding than you would think.”
“How will she feel when she discovers that I have misled her.”
“Concerning what?”
“Morgana.”
“Ah. You have not explained your involvement with her.”
“How could I? Morgana is the enemy, what would she think if I told her that she was once my spouse?”
“How would she feel if you didn’t tell her?” the being enquired, “and more importantly, my friend, if the Dark discover this, they will use it against her. They could turn what we use for good to evil ends.”
“I know.” Herne sighed, “she will be returning to the Abbey soon and I must speak with her. I shall begin by telling her that her father was a King.”
“You’d best tell her that he was The High King,” the Invincible Sun said, “and one initiated into my Temple.”
“I shall do that, my friend.” Herne smiled, “Did you want something else?”
“I thought that if Mithras talked with her, it might convince him that she is worth his support.”
“He is not that easily convinced,” Cernunnos replied dryly.
“It is worth a try.”
“Very well, Lord.” Herne nodded and together both men walked out of the room.

Meanwhile Cerian flew up the stairs as if there were wings on her heels, she opened the door tentatively. Galahad was sitting up in bed being fed by a young serving maid.

“Enough,” he said wearily, and then he saw Cerian standing quietly beside the door, “Princess!” he gasped.
The maid turned and bowl and spoon clattered to the floor as the girl dropped to her knees in a gesture of submission, “Lady, bless you!”
Cerian said nothing and the girl gathered together the implements and scurried from the room her eyes never meeting Ceri’s. Suddenly Ceri began to feel slightly ridiculous, slowly she walked across the room and sat down on the bed.
Suddenly Galahad leant forward and wrapped his arms around her waist pulling her to him in a fierce hug. “My little Princess!” he murmured and there was such a wealth of affection and pride in his tone that Cerian blushed. She slipped her arms around him and laid her head on his shoulder.
“I was so worried about you,” she whispered softly.
Galahad released her and leant back against the cushions, “I’m fine,” he smiled, ”but Cernunnos insists that I be spoon fed for the next three days. I’m not an invalid!”
“No, Sir Knight, but I did have my reasons,” Cerian turned at the sound of Herne’s voice and then sighed, “I wish you’d stop that corporeal shifting,” she complained, “I never know who you’re going to look like next!”
A smile touched Herne’s lips, “I forgot, Princess.” Cernunnos had changed from an old man to one who bore himself like a general; the eyes were unchanged but his hair was black and luxurious, and his steel breastplate shone, in the centre was an embossed image of a horse. “When believers pray to a god they cast him in a certain image - why do you think there were illustrations of me, because my believers cast me in a certain shape, because of the curse my image has remained much the same. But this image was given me by a devout believer and I enjoy wearing it for it reminds me of her.”
Suddenly Cerian felt Galahad go limp against her arms, she gasped and then Herne was beside her easing him down on the bed and pulling the sheet up around him, “Did you do this?” she demanded turning to him.
“No,” Herne’s voice was tender and very low, “I was about to explain that the reason Galahad may not get up is that he is still recovering. He faced one of the Great Ones of the Dark and very nearly died.”
Will he recover?”
“Yes,” Herne smiled, “in three or four days. You and I must speak, Madam.”
“Yes, we must,” Ceri replied, “but not tonight. Tonight I tend this man, we will speak in the morning.”
Behind her Herne opened his mouth to say something then bowed formally and left the room. Ceri gently turned Galahad so that he lay on his side and with a damp cloth wiped his face. He slept on oblivious, Ceri stayed with him throughout the night. Once he seemed to be in the throes of a nightmare, she gently stroked his forehead and his shuddering ceased and his breathing became less laboured.
The serving girl who had been feeding him when Cerian entered brought a flagon of honey sweetened wine before she went off duty. Ceri hardly noticed her for she moved silently just like a ghost.
As the door closed a quiet voice whispered, “She’s quite a sweet little thing,” Galahad smiled up at her, “she’s been good with me.”
Ceri gently stroked a damp curl of hair back from his temple and said, “Thirsty?”
Galahad nodded, “A little.”
“Let me help you sit up slightly,” Ceri responded, carefully she eased Galahad to a sitting position and held the goblet to his lips. He drank slowly and slumped back again.
“Rest,” Ceri advised, “if Lord Cernunnos says you will be fit in three days, you will be.”
Galahad took her hand, “My delightful Princess,” he murmured, and yawned. Ceri watched as his eyes closed and when she was sure he was asleep she bent and kissed his forehead.
Dawn gilded the horizon orange when Herne entered for the second time, “Madam,” he began, “I regret the intrusion but we must speak - it may wait no longer.”
“Yes, lord.” Cerian replied, “lead the way.”
Cernunnos opened the door and led her up another flight of stairs to the room directly above Galahad’s, this one sparsely furnished with a threadbare carpet and two oak chairs. There was a bright fire burning in the grate and the room was pleasantly warm. Ceri looked around her, “Who did this room belong to, Lord?”
“It is a meeting room, Princess, this room is directly above Galahad’s. In fact the whole tower is isolated from the rest of the Abbey so it was considered an admirable place for parleys to take place. Enemies could sit on neutral ground without fear that they would be attacked because of the single staircase. What is now Galahad’s room would house the contingent of bodyguards.”
“Sit, Lord,” Cerian said suddenly, “I am forgetting my manners. Now I should like an explanation, beginning with why you left me alone in Sherwood.”
Herne looked sheepish, “This is another of the things I thought it best you should not know about, I needed you to meet, Robin i’the Hood because through him you would meet a former incarnation of me.”
Ceri stared at him and said, “If you get me too angry Lord, there is a possibility that I could do you some harm.”
“I am aware of that,” Herne replied, “but I will not lie to you Princess. That is the way of the Dark and we dare not even bend the truth slightly in order not to hurt someone for if we do then the Dark will have already won.”
“It does not make me any happier” Ceri sighed, “The Light is a harsh master, it is like the Blazing sword of Law, or the burning sun, and it doesn’t care much for individuals. But speak, my Lord.”
“My dear Princess-” Herne began.
Ceri’s eyes blazed, “Forget the ‘dear’, you afford me the title Princess so I presume that at least one of my parents was Royal.”
“Both your parents,” Herne confirmed, “but your father held the distinction of being first True High King of all Britain, he united the tribes together under one King. Vortigern killed his father when he was ten and he and his brother fled to King Budec of Brittany.” Herne paused and then continued, “when he was sixteen, King Gorlan of Lanascol took him as his Lieutenant and bade him go to North Wales to bring his new bride home. Her name was Cerian Aurora, she was the daughter of the King of Segontium, Caer’na-fon.” Ceri frowned and then said, “Caernarvon?”
Herne scowled, “Your Welsh is atrocious. Your father’s job was to escort her to King Gorlan. He fell in love with her and she with him, they consummated their love aboard the boat. He even asked her to come away with him. She refused and he had to take the place of her father and give her to King Gorlan.”
“I’d already been conceived, hadn’t I?” Ceri whispered miserably.
“Your mother was a Priestess in the cult of Epona, she came to the shrine in the forest and made sacrifices not knowing it was to me. Therefore it was to me she came when she discovered her pregnancy and told me that the father could not be Gorlan because the night they were to have consummated their marriage a message had come saying that one of the outlying tribes was in revolt and he had gone to quell it. He had hugged her to him and said that there would be another feast when he returned triumphant and that she would bear him many sons. Then he had gone.”
“What did you do?”
“Reached in her mind and saw how she perceived her deity and appeared to her. I told her to pretend that it was Gorlan’s child and to return to the grove every month so that she might not forget her religious duties.” Herne stopped and then began speaking more slowly as if he was remembering, “she went into labour a month before she was due, I always said her hips were too narrow, she begged me to save your life. I transported her to the twentieth century in the hope that its doctors could save her. They could not, she died a little while after giving birth to you. She did not show her pregnancy so nobody knew that she was going to have a child. However both Gorlan and your natural father grieved over her death.”
“Lord, what do you wish me to do?”
“There is someone that I wish you to meet,” Herne said, “he was a good friend who brought me from the Void to the Light. I wondered if you would speak with him.”
“I will try,” Ceri said reluctantly.
“I must leave you,” Herne explained, “My god felt that if you two met alone it might be easier to convince him.”
“I said that I’d try,” Ceri replied, “that doesn’t mean that I’ll succeed.”
“I think that you have more chance of succeeding than I do.” Herne scowled, “Neither my god nor I can convince him that you may be the one for whom we have waited.”
“But if he doesn’t believe-“ Ceri said and then stopped. “That’s it isn’t it? Belief.”
Herne sat down again and looking in her eyes saw comprehension in their depths. He smiled sadly, “That’s part of it. Not just that he believes in you, but that you believe in you.”
“And the other part?” Ceri eyed him warily.
“It is the blood in your veins that gives you your power.” Herne swallowed hard, “remember that I told you about the power that runs through blood. That it is the Lifeforce.”
“So, it is my blood that makes me who I am.” Ceri eyed him thoughtfully. “But I still don’t feel chosen.”
“Who does, My Lady?” Herne sighed, “Mortals seem to think that I actually enjoy riding the sky with the Yell Hounds.”
“But when you ride against the Dark there must be a certain satisfaction in it.” Ceri replied, the hint of a smile playing around her lips.
“Well….yes.” Herne replied reluctantly, “but sometimes the creatures that the Dark employs are too stupid to stay within shelter.”
“Then its not really revenge,” Ceri nodded, “send your-“ she stopped as her brain fought for the word, she considered using colleague, but a part of her felt that the Hunter wouldn’t understand or would pretend not to understand, “Send him in Lord Cernunnos. I promise nothing, but I shall speak with him.”
Herne bowed as a courtier might to a queen and for the first time she realised that she was no longer being treated like a piece of baggage to be carried from place to place. She leant back in the chair and felt the first tendrils of fear curl around her gut. The door opened again and another man entered, “Madam, the Lord Mithras.”
“Please, come in my lord.” Ceri responded, her mouth felt suddenly dry. Where’s a glass of water when you need one? She thought grimly. Outwardly she smiled and gestured with her right hand, “Be seated, Lord. Lord Cernunnos has told me that you wished to speak with me. Would it be imprudent to enquire why?”
The man stood before her and did not smile in return. “I did not request this audience.” He stated bluntly.
“I know that,” Ceri replied gently, “I think that the Hunter thought that we might talk and see if we could find agreement somewhere.”
“Unlikely.” Mithras looked around the room and then appeared to make a decision. “May I speak plainly.”
“Please.” Ceri replied, “and do sit down. You make me dreadfully nervous standing there.”
Mithras sat gingerly in the chair opposite and for a long moment there was silence between them, then he spoke, “I do not believe that you are the chosen.” He said finally. “You have not done enough, you have not led armies into battle, you have no skill in fighting and you’re never rallied an army in your life. How could you be the one who will free Arthur’s Realm.” Silence greeted his words and he looked up to see Ceri smiling at him.
“My Lord, even I do not know if I am the chosen one. The Hunter speaks in riddles even to me. My blood may be the proof of my lineage, but without experience or knowledge, lineage is nothing. I do not ask people to follow me,” Mithras looked up his eyes alight with hope, “yet,” his head fell again and Ceri smiled, “but I do ask them to look at what I do, not what I say. There lies your proof.”
“Brave words,” Mithras replied, “but what deeds have you done that would prove that you are who Herne says you are.”
“What deeds would?” Ceri’s eyes flashed blue fire and looking into them, Mithras saw a core harder than diamond and saw a hint of the fire he’d only ever seen in two other men. “I doubt you would believe even if you could witness the proof.”
“If I witnessed your power, I would know whence that power came, and I would believe.” Mithras replied softly.
“Be careful what you say,” Ceri smiled sadly, “you may witness it and wish that you had not said those words.”
Mithras stood up, “I take my leave of you, Madam. I will not address you as Princess, in my eyes you do not have the knowledge or the lineage to be either.” He turned and walked from the room. Minutes later Herne entered, Ceri smiled up at him, “Where did you meet that friend of yours?”
“Mithras has been to see you.” Herne sighed, “and left still unconvinced.”
“He talked about deeds, Lord Cernunnos.” She paused, “What must I do that he would support me?”
“Vanquish the Dark on its own territory,” Herne mused, “I do not know, Princess. His anger is not directed at you, rather it is me he is angry with. A woman he loved was once one of the Chosen. She had grace, honour, lineage and power, but she fell and Mithras has blamed me ever since.”
“Why did she fall, Lord?”
“I do not know,” Herne replied, “in truth, I do not know. She was like you in all ways. She had the lineage, the bloodline, she certainly had power. But you begin to realise that you must walk this road alone, as all who are of the Ancient Ones walk alone.”
“She didn’t?”
“She had passion, but little strength. And-“ he paused and then continued slowly as if every word was being winched from the depths of his being, “She did not have courage. It takes courage to be what you are, what we are. She did not have that, but I have not told Mithras.”
“Then perhaps you ought.” Ceri frowned, “fighting among ourselves will only achieve the Dark’s purpose. We must be able to trust one another – if we cannot then the Dark will have already won.”
“Sometimes I feel they have.” Herne turned to leave the room.
“Not yet. But is that why you didn’t tell me about Morgana, Arawn?” Herne froze, and the slowly turned back to face her and she saw that his face was white as chalk.
“When did you know?”
“I-I don’t know,” Ceri replied slowly, “I just seem to have made the connection. Cernunnos was your title among the Celts when you were Lord of the Underworld, Herne the Hunter is who you were when you began to haunt Windsor Great Park, but you wore horns as Arawn Pen Annufn, Arawn, Lord of the Underworld. Was Morgana your Queen?”
“I don’t know,” Herne shook his head, “Truly I do not know. It seems as though she wanted to rule in her own right and instead of taking her own realm, chose mine.”
“Why did you leave her?”
“I met the Sol Invictus one morning and he offered me a chance for peace,” Herne smiled at the memory, “your people do not regard death as a part of life, Princess. They see it as something to be feared and something to be avoided for as long as possible. Besides-“ he paused and reseated himself opposite Ceri, “there were things about my own rule that were beginning to disturb me.”
“Concerning Morgana?”
“Concerning Morgana.” He confirmed. “it is difficult to explain, my Lady. Even now with clear sight, I cannot see clearly when I think of her.”
“Perhaps you were bespelled,” Ceri mused.
“I was certainly enchanted,” Herne responded, he sighed and then looked up at his liege lady. “I was dreading having to tell you about Morgana. I thought that you would refuse to help me.”
“Is there reason why I should?” Ceri enquired.
“Perhaps.” Herne paused and then get to his feet, “May I get a drink, Highness?”
“Of course,” Ceri replied. She leant back in the chair and thought, That’s all I need. First I have a meeting which doesn’t go terribly well, Lord Mithras hates me. Now I get to find out that Cernunnos is playing both sides off against one another, just to make life even more interesting.
Herne reseated himself and took a sip from the wooden goblet he held. “Forgive me, Princess. I did not tell you because I was afraid that if I did, you would refuse to assist me in this battle.”
“You felt that you had cause,” Ceri responded. “Something has happened hasn’t it?”
“She appeared to me and offered me my throne if I would renounce this ‘foolish quest’.” Herne smiled gently.
“Do you believe it’s foolish?” Ceri asked quickly. She leant forward and brushed a tendril of fair hair away from her face, her eyes bright with passion.
“I do not know. All these centuries I have waited for the woman who would free me and now when she sits before me I do not know what to say to her."
A slow flush, like the edge of a wave began to creep up Ceri’s face as she realised Herne meant herself, she opened her mouth and said slowly, “I do not know where this Quest is taking me, sometimes I feel that whatever I discover, it will not help you.”
“Perhaps not.” Cernunnos smiled, “but perhaps it is intended to help you.”
“I did not think of that, Lord.” Ceri replied sheepishly. “Will you tell Lord Mithras what you have told me?”
“I cannot,” Herne responded shaking his head, “we have fought over Myfanwy many times and more since your arrival.”
“Myfanwy. My rare one,” she mused. “Shall I tell him?”
“No.” Herne smiled again, “this is my problem, Lady. His too of course, but we will solve it together.”
“The question, my Lord Cernunnos is will he support me in the battle I must fight.”
“He said that he would assist you if one of his own were injured, beyond that I do not think he will go.”
“So I cannot count on his support for me.” Ceri looked thoughtful. “Thank you, Cernunnos. Somehow I must change his mind - and I do not know where to begin.”
“Perhaps it is not your problem.” Herne stood up and crossed the distance between them to lay a comforting hand on Ceri’s shoulder, “you have not the time or the energy to worry about everyone, Princess. You must remain true to the goal of this quest and you must remain strong.” “What do I do now?” Ceri looked up at the creature towering over her and in spite of everything that had happened suddenly felt very young and very afraid.
“Go home, and then we will decide where you will go next and who we must see to accomplish our goal.”
“I’d like to meet my father,” Ceri said softly, as Herne ushered her down the stairs, “I mean it would be nice to know who he was.”
“Can you wait for a little?” Herne enquired, “and I shall tell you who he was with pleasure, but I would rather do so when you have rested and are ready for our next foray into time.”
The fields were still covered in a ghostlike mist, which the dark crimson rays of the sun had not yet managed to pierce. Herne touched the front door of her house and it swung back silently on its hinges.
“Is this farewell,” Ceri asked quietly.
“For a few days. Three at most. Rest my dear Princess. Continue to walk your dog, I shall find you when I need you.”
Cerian pushed open the door and turned around to see Cernunnos striding across the mist as though it were solid ground. She continued to regard his progress until the swirling clouds hid him from view.
The next morning she awoke quite late. She was brushing her hair in the mirror and wondering how she would broach the subject with her adoptive parents when the mirror became hazy and she saw Herne standing behind her, she turned to greet him but there was no-one there. She turned back to the mirror and Herne said softly, “Think you that it will be so easy to renounce your ties with them? They are not your parents by blood but they are your parents nevertheless. They loved you, nurtured you and cared for you, more than that they allowed you your freedom to be who you are. Much of the love you bear must be towards them.”
“But what of my real father?”
“Who is your real father?” Herne asked, “The man who found you and took you into his home and hearth and under whose protection you grew, or the man who took your mother in a wild moment of passion and had he even known of your existence could not have acknowledged you as his daughter. You place too much store by blood, blood has its merits and there may be a day when you must choose between those of your blood and those whom you love. If you are lucky they will be one and the same but most of us of the Light have had a hard choice to make - I cannot think yours will be any easier.”
Ceri smiled, ”I hadn’t thought of it like that, Lord. My parents are those who have loved me all these years. But what of my real father, I thought that you wanted him to acknowledge me?”
Herne nodded, “I do. Your father was the first True High King of all Britain, you are his daughter and the last of the Light. You have a latent legacy that is now becoming apparent.”
“So what do I do?” Ceri demanded.
“For the moment,” Herne sighed, “nothing. However, your final task lies ahead of you and this will be the one that decides your fate.”
“Do you always talk in riddles when you’re not sure?”
Herne laughed suddenly and despite her frustration Ceri could not help but smile, he spoke again. “Very well. You must face your father - not as his daughter but as one of the Light. This is where you must prove your heritage and your ancestry - if you do it properly you will be obeyed as your father was obeyed.”
Ceri stared at the mirror perplexed, “Why?”
“Because only one who had Sang real in her veins would face the forces of the Dark and triumph.” Herne stopped suddenly and then sighed, “I have said it. Lady, you said you wished to meet your father.”
“Lord-” Ceri’s voice died in her throat and she swallowed hard, “Meeting my father face to face is one thing but to face the Dark again - I couldn’t. Those creatures terrified me.”
“You had every reason to be terrified,” Herne said, “but the moment that you were crowned in the Great Hall at Glastonbury it sent shockwaves throughout the Dark. That’s why they sent three of their minions the same night.” Herne’s form wavered and he said, “I have to leave you. In your time Lady, the Dark have no knowledge of who you are. For the moment that is our salvation, but be warned, the moment you come face to face with your father it will send the knowledge spreading from you like ripples in a pond and all times will know who you are.”
“One might think that it would be better that I did not know,” Ceri suggested tentatively.
“You must - not because of who you are, but because you must do something for your father - if there were any other way I would have taken it long ago, but I believe that only you may accomplish this particular task.”
“You won’t help me?” Ceri’s voice quavered on the last two words.
“I didn’t say that,” Herne’s voice was surprisingly soft, “I told you, you are my liege lady, I mean only that you will discover your true gifts when we journey to this time and the decisions will be yours. You hold your destiny in your own hands. Farewell, My Lady.” The mirror went blank and then Ceri was staring only at her own reflection.
I forgot to ask, she thought suddenly, I don’t know when I will be going - or how!
The next few days dragged - on the fourth day the weather was mild so Ceri took a cushion and sat on the front step, This is like the end of term she thought, only its worse - I know that he needs me but I don’t know when or how. Ah hell! She sighed miserably and Rufus came and shoved his nose beneath her hand. Ceri sighed again and rubbed the dog’s silky ears, “You don’t really care who or what I am as long as someone fusses you.” Rufus whined and pawed her leg as her hand stopped moving.
Suddenly the sky darkened, Ceri shivered and looked heavenwards to see the clouds thickening until the light of the sun could barely be seen, flashes of lightning illuminated the clouds and from a distance she could hear the rumble of thunder, “What in-” she began but Rufus whined pitifully and as a lightning flash illuminated the skyline she saw it, a figure garbed in black and carrying a crossbow.
“You are the Princess?” the tone was almost disbelieving, “you are but a child.”
Cerian felt the rain on her body and she said quietly, ”Your masters sent you to kill a child?” By all rights, she should not have been heard above the sound of the rain but the creature took a step back and then laughed.
“Aye, my Masters were right. You are worthy to be called your father’s daughter - this will be a great triumph for the Dark.”
“You knew my father?”
“You do not? This will be even better!” He threw his head back and Ceri saw that the rain was falling around it as if even water was afraid to touch this creature.
“Who was my father?” She demanded.
“Your father was the Duke of the Red Dragon, Count Ambrosius, why else do you think you are a Princess? Your mother was just a King’s daughter, she would have been sold to the highest bidder. Princess, Hah! You’re no more a Princess than I am a knight!”
“That’s not true!” Ceri cried and she couldn’t tell whether the water on her cheeks was because of the rain or her tears.
“Oh but it is.” The being raised the crossbow it carried and fired, she screamed a name, “Galahad!” and suddenly the landscape around her began to melt, afterwards she said that it was like running through an oil painting that had had turpentine splashed onto it and all the colours were running together. She ran and ran, though whether her feet were actually moving afterwards she was never sure - all that passed through her mind was the necessity to evade the bolt from the crossbow.
Suddenly a pair of strong arms caught her and held her, there was a sensation of falling and with it a picture flashed across Ceri’s mind a tall, blue eyed, black haired man sitting astride a black charger and a black arrow coming from nowhere to embed itself in his thigh. Someone was gently rocking her back and forth as she sobbed, great gasping sobs that seemed to wrench at the very soul of her being. Over the sobs she could hear a voice murmuring, “Sssh, my Princess, sssh. It’s all right, there’s nothing to fear any longer. He’s gone. Sssh.”
She pulled herself away and raised a tear-streaked face to see Galahad bending over her, “Mon chevalier,” she said shakily.
Galahad smiled and said gently, “Its not every day I get to comfort a damsel in distress.” He tactfully handed her a handkerchief.
A gleam of mischief lit Ceri’s eyes, “I thought that’s what all you knights of Camelot were meant to do - help damsels in distress.”
“Yes,” Galahad replied, “but the majority of them didn’t fall on my neck the way you did.”
Another figure knelt beside Ceri’s and handed her a cup of something. She smiled wanly as she recognised the antlers, “Lord Cernunnos,” she said softly, “where are we?”
“You have been running through Time,” Herne replied, “you probably aren’t aware of it but when the creature of the Dark fired on you, you screamed Galahad’s name. But by then we were powerless to help you. All we could do was to come to this time and call out to you in the hope that you would hear us and come towards us, and you did.”
Cerian suddenly remembered her vision, “A man - a man was wounded with the arrow meant for me. Who was he?”
Herne nodded, ”The arrow was meant for you, but it would also be attracted to any member of your family-”
“Then that thing that was sent to kill me - he was right?”
“Yes,” Herne sighed, “your father is Count Ambrosius Aurelianus, at present he is being borne back to King Budec’s stronghold. Look into the flames.”
Ceri stared into the fire and slowly a picture formed, she seemed to be standing on the ramparts of a castle or a fort, a group of people were carrying someone on a hurdle. Her vision telescoped and it was as if she too was walking beside the stretcher, she looked down at the face and saw the man who had been wounded, the bolt still protruded from his thigh. She looked up and into the face of another man, this one with russet hair and a beard yet there was something in him that reminded her of the Count. The men laid him down and her peripheral vision caught sight of a young man carrying a cloak of some sort, he covered the Count warmly, Ceri stared at him, he could only have been about twelve but already she could see that the boy was a copy of the wounded man. The Count was lifted and the men set a quicker pace to reach their goal, at the gate stood a cloaked black figure, a smooth, milk-white hand touched the russet-bearded man’s arm, “Lord,” Ceri heard a soft voice that made the hairs on her neck prickle, “I have the skill to save him, wilt thou permit me. I am Gwenwyn.”
“Lady, you have my permission,” the man bowed his head and the image before Cerian’s eyes faded and she was left staring into the flames. “I fear for Count Ambrosius,” she said softly.
“As I,” Herne replied quietly.
“That woman, she’s in the pay of Vortigern!”
“That would not be so bad. Search your heart Princess, she is much more than that.”
Cerian let her mind drift, something about the name, about those milk-white hands, “She is one of the Dark Ones. Great she is and few can stand up to her power, Her name is poison.”
“Good.” Herne said his antlered head nodding, “we must depart. Sir Galahad - I regret that you may not accompany us this time but fear not, we shall have need of you in the future. I shall return thee to the Abbey if thou wilt permit it.”
“Most assuredly, Lord,” Galahad knelt and took Ceri’s shoulders, ”You bear a gift that may do great good, use it wisely My Princess.” He kissed her gently as a brother might and slowly faded from view. Ceri could still feel the pressure of his hands on her shoulders.
How good is your French?” Herne asked, suddenly changing the subject.
“C’est passable, mon seigneur. Mais ce n’est pas Brêton.”
“Well at least your French is better than your Welsh.” Herne looked slightly sheepish again and then said, “I am afraid I lied when I said that I could not make you speak any language, I can of course make you as fluent in Brêton as in English, it is just rather a complicated spell and it only lasts three days. What I will do is enable you to comprehend spoken Brêton, and an ability to speak French as you would speak English. Now - let us see what you can wear.”
Cerian pulled on a long woollen gown of an aquamarine hue, it had a scoop neck and long sleeves. She slipped on a pair of soft leather sandals and Herne pulled a vermillion red gown from somewhere and then he looked at her, “This was your mother’s” he said, holding out the brooch, Cerian took it gingerly, the images were of three horses their legs intertwined, “your father gave it to her, it is how he will know you.” He fastened it at the neck of the cloak.
“I’m not ready,” Cerian said slowly.
“If not now, then when?” Herne took her shoulders and said, “I shall escort you to the stronghold and turn you over to the care of the Warden, you will be all right, my magnificent Princess.”
“But how do I get back?”
“At the moment I should worry about Ambrosius, if he should die then the invasion of Britain dies with him and Artus will never rule a united kingdom.”
Cerian nodded, “Yes my lord Herne.”
Herne nodded curtly as if satisfied, “I shall fetch the horses, drink your mead my lady.”
Ceri stared into the fire, she wondered how she was going to confront her father. For that matter, she thought, how am I going to confront the Dark - I am not so great as Herne thinks. She felt a hand touch her shoulder, “Are you ready, Madam?”
Ceri smiled, “I doubt I’ll ever be truly ready, but ready or not I must face the wrath of the Dark.”
She mounted the chestnut steed Herne had brought her and heard the creak of leather as Herne mounted the other animal behind her. The steed walked forward and Herne turned to her and said, “You must announce yourself as a friend of Ambrosius, I doubt you will be allowed access to him but you will be treated with all courtesy.”
“Who do I ask the answers of?” Ceri enquired.
“This time, Princess, of yourself.” Herne’s dark eyes fixed themselves on the horizon and he spurred his mount forward into a trot. Ceri sat watching him for a moment before digging her heels into her steed’s sides and following him.

Chapter 6

 

‘Duke Of The Red Dragon’

 

C

erian pulled her vermillion cloak more tightly around her as a misty drizzle began to fall. Her fingers brushed against the pewter brooch,
it felt faintly warm and she wondered about her mother. She urged the chestnut into a trot and reined it in next to Herne’s mount,
“Lord-” she began hesitantly.
Herne turned towards her and saw the query in her blue eyes, ”Ask any question of me, Princess, I shall do my utmost to answer it.”
“Do I look like my mother?”
Herne appeared to ponder this for a moment and then he said, “Yes, but your eyes are a legacy from your father. You act very much like him, impetuous, foolhardy, irresponsible-”
Ceri looked away suddenly ashamed of her behaviour.
Herne’s voice became very gentle, “but also compassionate, courageous and noble. Ambrosius would be followed into the jaws of Hell because his men love him so much.”
“You have more faith in me than I,” Ceri remarked, “As whom do I introduce myself?”
Herne was silent for a couple of minutes and then a smile lit his features, “As Lady Cerian Prichard, kinsman of the Duke Of Tintagel, Gorlois.” “Why Gorlois?”
“Because he is far enough away not to arrive unexpectedly and because Gorlois has ever been a staunch supporter of Ambrosius. When all is explained to the satisfaction of everyone then he will understand that you had your reasons.”
“I hope so,” Ceri sighed suddenly and said, “not everybody is going to be pleased to see me. There are those of the Light who have led for centuries
since the age of Arthur, and I fear that I may upset them.”
Herne turned a mild gaze on her and said softly, “I am not upset and part of
the charge to govern the Light has fallen on my shoulders.”
Ceri smiled, “But did you make the choice or was the choice laid upon you,
you see those who chose of their own accord to lead will not be pleased when a
usurper comes along.”
“Do you feel like a usurper?” Herne asked.
“Sometimes,” Ceri admitted, “they won’t follow me just because I prove
myself.”
“On the contrary,” Herne replied, “that is precisely why they will follow you
- you are the last of the Light and there are many tasks ahead of you; not least the one you face at present - they knelt to you at Glastonbury, why should you
not lead them?”
“Why should I?” Ceri replied. “I fear that they knelt to me only because of
who I was, not what I was.”
Herne chuckled softly, “You truly believe that they only knelt to you
because of your title?” His golden eyes held hers and he spoke again, “they
knelt because the Midwinter Thorn has not blossomed for over a thousand years yet it bloomed for you; they knelt because you freed the truest knight that ever
lived and returned him to his king. The power within you ebbs and swells like the tide. You are the chosen one - even if you won’t admit it to yourself.” Ceri fell silent and her fingers touched the brooch again, “Lord,” she
quavered, “I don’t really want to be the chosen one.”
“And Galahad didn’t want to sit in the Siege Perilous, you are evenly matched you both. Be of good heart my Lady, it will not always burden you. When I am free, so will you be.” The lane became a definite track along
which the riders steered the horses. Eventually they mounted the rise and
saw the standing stones beneath them, a mist had risen from the ground giving
the impression that the huge monoliths were floating. They halted the horses
and waited while their mounts snorted and stamped and their breath hung in the
air like white clouds.
“This is a holy place,” Herne said softly, “and you may - one day - discover
why.”
“Why one day?”
“Because the god who inhabits this place is a soldier’s god - a man’s god,
not a woman’s.”
“In my time,” Ceri began slowly, “there are women soldiers.”
“And in this time,” Herne replied, “but they have a goddess of their own.
Make your obeisance to the god of this place for the Count worships Him and
you may need His assistance.”
That sounds like a prophecy, Cerian thought but she said nothing. She stood
up in the stirrups and bowed solemnly.
Herne regarded her approvingly and when she eased herself back into the
saddle he spoke, “That was well done.” He nodded as if in recognition to the
standing stones as if he was greeting an old friend, “come, the night is almost
done and I must be far away by morning.”
“Then I am ready, my lord,” Cerian replied automatically and then
realised she had spoken in French.
“Good,” Herne’s eyes twinkled and Ceri suddenly demanded, “you’ve cast
the spell!”
“But of course,” Herne smiled, “this place is magical and I utilised some of
its magic. The god of this place and I have known each other for some time.” That’s what I thought, but again she said nothing. Herne dismounted and as
he did so his form changed again and he appeared to be clothed in a monk’s
habit and tonsured. He took the chestnut’s bridle and began to lead it
towards the huge gates. The guard stepped forward and demanded their
identities.
Herne smiled and turning to the horse he helped Ceri dismount. Her feet
touched the hard earth and she turned to see Herne regarding her
compassionately, “My Lady,” he bowed solemnly and turned to the guard. “I am
Father Elias,” Herne said softly, “I am escorting a kinsman of the Duke of
Gorlois to the protection of King Budec. May she be admitted?”
The guard looked doubtful and then he said, “Wait here.” He turned to the
other man and said softly, “Watch them.” Then he opened the gate slightly
and slipped inside. Ceri stroked her horse’s nose and patted its neck, “Sssh,
my beauty, ssh.”
The guard reappeared and gestured for them to come through, Herne shook his head, “I must leave, my charge ends here.” He smiled at Ceri and said softly, “Fare thee well, My Lady.”
“Farewell, Father,” Cerian replied and then her lips formed the words, Be careful, my Lord
Herne nodded and then taking his steed’s bridle began to lead it away from the fort. Meanwhile the heavy gate swung back and Ceri led her steed into the
castle.
She stood in a small courtyard of hard-packed earth, she slipped her cloak off and pocketing the brooch she threw the cloak over the chestnut’s withers. The guard came forward to greet her and began to speak in a strangely
formal tone, “Wouldst thou follow me, Lady. My liege doth desire your
presence in the Great Hall and I-”
“I must first stable the horse and groom him. Convey my respects to my liege
and say that I will join him as soon as I am able.”
“Lady,” the guard bowed and exited hurriedly.
Ceri rubbed the chestnut down and made sure that there was hay in the
manger and water in the trough. She removed the saddle and bridle and set them on one of the racks and draped the tack over it. A shadow fell across her and
she turned to see the guard standing behind her, he looked slightly desperate,
“Lady, will you accompany me, please?”
Ceri nodded. “Certainly, would you lead the way.”
Budec was eating in the Great Hall, in the fireplace a huge fire roared and on the walls torches burnt brightly illuminating the enormous room. Budec and the soldiers were eating what appeared to be a hastily prepared meal. The
combined effect gave Ceri the impression that the servants had readied the room
in haste only as Budec arrived.
Why did you not come when I first requested your presence?” Budec’s dark,
almost black eyes surveyed her coldly.
“Forgive me, my liege,” Ceri replied softly, “I was grooming my horse - I did
not mean to offend your liege but I have no possessions of my own save that
horse.”
“You are kin to Ambrosius?”
“Yes, my liege,” Ceri curtsied.
“The Count has been gravely wounded,” Budec said slowly, “I regret that he is unable to offer you hospitality at present but I shall be glad to provide for you until he is well. Be seated lady and I shall have food and wine brought for
you.” Budec nodded to one of the servants. A chair was brought and set next to
his and food was laid on the table.
Ceri sat and using the dagger at her waist cut a piece off her cold venison.
As the wine flowed more readily Budec became more talkative. “Ya shee,” he
said, almost spilling his goblet into Ceri’s lap, “the injury ishn’t sherious, but the offishers shwear that the arrow appeared out of thin air - it’sh black magicsh, thatsh what ‘tis.”
Ceri said nothing and wished that she was somewhere else. Eventually she plucked up the courage to speak, “My lord, your welcome has been most kind in difficult circumstances, is’t possible that I might be excused?”
Shurely,” Budec nodded, “Mayhap the Count will have recovered somewhat by tomorrow, Shleep well, Lady Cerian.” He gestured to one of the
servants and gentle if tentative hands escorted her away from the table. I am Flaptongue,” the man said as he lit an oil lamp and escorted Ceri up the
long dark staircase, “you mustn’t mind King Budec, he’s upset, that’s why he’s
drinking.”
“Are he and the Count very close?”
“He brought them to Less Britain when Uther was but a babe and the Count
himself had just turned ten. He is more worried than he will admit - give him
time, Lady, he is not always this uncouth.”
“Was Ambrosius expected?”
“In five days - yes - there was to be a parley here at Budec’s castle. But
because the Count was wounded so far from his own territory Budec decided to
bring him to his own stronghold. The hall was hurriedly prepared for the
soldiers and Budec himself. That is why I urge you not to judge him too
harshly.”
As they reached the top of the landing a huge man with russet hair and a
beard that matched stalked out of the shadows making Cerian jump in
surprise.
“Flaptongue!” The man bellowed, “where’s Budec! My brother’s condition
worsens!”
“King Budec is drinking himself to oblivion in the Great Hall,”
Flaptongue replied, “ I doubt he is amenable to rational conversation at
present, Lord Uther.”
Ceri stared at the man awe threatening to overwhelm her, Uther was
dressed like a Roman warrior, his breastplate caught and reflected the light of
the oil lamp the servant held. “You’re probably right,” Uther grumbled, “all
right, there’s nothing that may be done tonight, I shall speak with him in the
morning.”
“That was Uther,” Flaptongue said as if that explained everything, “the
Count’s brother. Lady, your room.” He opened the door and Ceri saw a
medium sized room sparsely furnished with a bed, a chest and a table upon
which stood another oil lamp. Flaptongue lit it and turned back to Ceri, “There
are nightclothes in the chest, and a selection of clothes. When Lord Ambrosius
is well he will see you properly furnished with garments.”
“I am certain of that,” Ceri replied, “thank you for your kindness.” “Lady,” Flaptongue bowed and exited. Ceri looked around the room and saw
the window. She walked across the room and opened it carefully, her room overlooked the courtyard and the front gate. A pale golden moon shone down upon the castle. Ceri stared up at it for a long time wondering what she ought to do next.
Eventually she came to a decision and taking up the lamp and her scrip left the room and moved softly down the corridor. Once or twice she heard doors open and Flaptongue’s voice. When this happened she flattened herself against the cold stone and shaded the flame of the lamp until all was silent again. She padded softly down the corridor until she reached a large oriel window through which the rays of the moon shone faintly. To her left was
another passage and to her right a large portal dark with age. Ceri stood before the windows wondering what to do next, finally she closed her eyes and let the
tendrils of thought reach out left and right, yes, it was just a tendril but
something urged her right. She opened her eyes and sighed softly. Picking up
the lamp she turned to the great door and pushed it open.
For a moment she stared in horror at the scene before her, Ambrosius lay
supine on a bed against the wall, his eyes were glassy and over his taut skin was
a layer of perspiration, the creature calling herself Gwenwyn was bent over his
leg and muttering. Ceri felt the hairs on the back of her neck begin to prickle and
the air around her become taut.
“What are you doing?” Cerian gasped.
The creature turned and instead of a face Ceri saw only an endless abyss,
and in that darkness saw a reflection of herself, as others saw her, puny,
ineffectual with powers that were of no use to anyone, erratic, awkward,
useless. She swallowed hard and thought I was right, they’ll never follow me, and
on this thought she saw other images, the great hall at Glastonbury, doubt in the
faces of those who knelt to her, all twisting round and round in her mind. The
lamp dropped from her hand and crashed to the floor. Cerian’s legs buckled as
she pressed her hands to her head. She could sense the creature smiling and
there was nothing she could do.
Princess, Ceri blinked, it was Herne’s voice but it spoke in her mind, All this
is lies, the Dark corrupt all that they touch, what I have told you is the truth,
you are my Princess and the Last of the Light. Stand tall
!
From somewhere within her a spark of defiance flared and Ceri raised her head to stare at the foul creature, “Dark spawn, ally to Vortigern, in the name of
the Light, begone!”
The creature stared and from the blankness beneath the cowl there came an air of puzzlement, as if it could not quite believe what it was hearing, it took a
step back.
Ceri gritted her teeth and whispered, “Help me, Cernunnos!” Suddenly the
pressure on her seemed to ease slightly, Ceri rose to her feet slowly, painfully,
“In the name of the Light,” she murmured and it was as if pure strength poured
down upon her. “Go!” she ordered, “I command you to leave in the name of Epona, in the name of Mithras in the name of the Light!”
The creature laughed, “All your spells and incantations are of no use to you - for once over the threshold the Dark has power over all the inhabitants of a house and Uther gave me entrance-”
“But I did not!” a new voice spoke. “Uther gave you permission to heal Ambrosius, you have not done that, therefore what power you had is void - get thee gone!”
The creature snarled and appeared to fold in on itself, as it disappeared Ceri thought she heard it say, “You have defeated me - but I have already branded
my name in him. You can do nothing!”
She disappeared leaving a wisp of smoke and an oily feel to the air. Cerian
ran forward and gently pulled back the covers, she stared abhorred, the shaft had
been broken off and the arrowhead was still embedded in his thigh. “By Mithras,” a voice whispered beside her and Cerian turned to come face
to face with a young boy of about twelve, she smiled hesitantly and then
turned back to Ambrosius.
She turned quickly and saw Uther standing in the doorway, “My Lord
Uther,” she acknowledged, “your brother is grievously ill and it may take all my
skill to save him. I need a brazier brought in here, some hot water, mulled
wine, and clean cloths.” She caught sight of Uther’s face, “please?” Something in her plea must have moved him because he nodded quickly
and within moments Cerian had everything she had requested.
“I am Myrddin, Myrddin Emrys,” the boy said softly at her elbow, “they call
me Merlin.”
“My name is Cerian, Cerian Aurelia. They call me Ceri. Will you watch
with me this long night Merlin?”
The boy nodded and Ceri began her preparations, she poured a goblet of
the mulled wine and added something from one of the vials in her scrip.
Gently she raised the wounded man’s head and held the wine to his lips. His
teeth chattered on the rim but a little wine slipped down his throat. His eyes
opened and two pairs of blue eyes stared into each other, something flared in
them and Ambrosius put up a shaking hand to push the cup away. He opened
his mouth to speak but Ceri gently laid her finger on his lips, “Rest my lord.”
The dark head fell back the eyes closed.
Ceri carefully removed the glowing dagger from the brazier and bent over
Ambrosius, she looked up quickly at Merlin, “You must hold his shoulders,”
she said softly. Merlin nodded quickly.
Ceri made four deep cuts, rather like the shape of a compass and pus welled
up, a tumescent odour filled the room. Merlin gagged and turned away.
Carefully Ceri drew out the arrow, Ambrosius moaned and tried to struggle
up but the drug Cerian had administered held him. She bound a pad around the
wound and bandaged the thigh. She nodded to Merlin who gratefully
relinquished his hold on his father’s shoulders.
Cerian eased herself into one of the chairs and surveyed Merlin who had collapsed into the other, “I think he will be all right now.” She smiled tiredly as the first rays of the rising sun caught the gold of her hair and turned it to flame. All through that day Ambrosius slept peacefully but as the sun began to sink in the west the symptoms of the fever returned with more severity. Cerian bent
over a writhing Ambrosius. His body was drenched with sweat and his breath rattled in his throat. Cerian examined the bandages and discovered to her
horror that the wound was bleeding again and the blood was almost black. “This is Dark Magic,” Cerian said, “and if we are to save your father’s life -
I must do that which I feared to do. Watch your father - I must speak to Lord
Uther.”
Just roused from sleep Uther stood proud and dark against the window, “I
should not have listened to Gwenwyn.”
“That is past, my lord. I desire a free hand and your blessing.” Uther turned heavily, “And if I give it, will you bring my brother back well
and whole?”
“I do not know my lord, but by Mithras and by Epona I hope so.” Uther gazed at her for so long that Cerian began to become afraid and then
he said, “Tell me what you need.”
Ceri bit her lip nervously, “I will need a fresh litter made of branches and
eight of your men who will speak no word of this night.”
“Granted,” Uther inclined, “what else?”
“Five torches and food and drink for one night,” Cerian replied, ”one last thing, my Lord, the flasks that the wine will be in must be new, the food
freshly prepared and the torches newly made.”
Torches lit the night sky outside the castle, Cerian bent over a shivering Ambrosius and tucked the bearskin around him. Then slowly the strange procession moved off towards the standing stones. Slowly the men carried the litter to the centre of the circle and carefully Ambrosius was lowered to the
ground. The men stepped away from it and retreated to a place outside the
circle.
“Come with me,” Cerian turned to Merlin, “you have the Sight, it may be that you will see something.” Cerian walked forward and raising her arms
above her head sent her thought out, Mithras, God of the Soldier, you are not my
god but I bring one who needs the protection these stones offer and the healing that they may give. Mithras, God of the midnight let us pass
! Nothing happened
and suddenly Ceri was afraid. She swallowed her fear and sent the thought out
again, Mithras, thou art not my god. But I bring thy disciple to this circle for the
protection that it offers. Not for my sake or title, Lord Mithras, but for thy
disciple allow us entrance and sanctuary!

By her side Merlin gasped and then even Ceri saw him. He was dressed as a
soldier, girt as for battle. He wore ankle-length sandals of leather and his kilt and belt were immaculate. His cuirass was burnished to such a sheen that the
reflected moonlight dazzled them both. A crimson cloak was thrown back from
his left shoulder while his right hand rested on the hilt of a sword. Cerian
looked up and saw a noble face beneath a shining helmet and white transverse
crest. Gentle eyes surveyed them and then he spoke, “Ye are welcome here,
Daughter, in this sure buttress of the Light. Enter and be not afraid. From what
do you flee?”
“Not I, lord,” Ceri stepped aside to show an unconscious Ambrosius, “One
of your own, I suspect that the powers of the Dark have been used against
him.”
“Against this no force of Darkness may prevail, you will be safe here. I shall
watch over you.” Mithra regarded her thoughtfully and then said, “Know this,
Lady. If ye bring him here for thine own glory and honour then I shall seek ye
out and before all Ancient Ones will I decry your infamy.”
Ceri nodded speechlessly, and then she said softly, “In some things Lord
Mithras even I am powerless. I brought him here because it is only here in the
presence of his god that he will find the healing he seeks and that which Britain
needs if it is to be united again. He must live for many years yet and form Britain
into a solid whole for his nephew.”
“Then I shall watch over you.” Mithras promised, “Fear not. The Dark shall
not prevail. For this is Holy Ground.”
Ceri nodded, “I thank you my Lord.” She and Merlin then planted a torch at
each corner of the litter, she knelt beside Ambrosius and laid her left hand
against his face and took his right in her own, “Ambrosius Aurelianus,” she said,
the voice was gentle but there was a power behind the words. The deep blue
eyes opened and with difficulty met Ceri’s, the hand against the Count’s face
began to glow softly with a pale golden light. Ambrosius focused on Cerian’s
face, “Cerian,” he whispered urgently, “you came - I thought you dead.” “Rest my lord,” Ceri urged and Ambrosius smiled wearily and closed his
eyes. Ceri felt Merlin wrap one of the cloaks around her shoulders, “Thank you,
Emrys.”
Merlin seated himself opposite Ceri and pulled another of the cloaks
around himself. He poured two goblets of the honey-sweetened wine and
handed one to Ceri, she took it gratefully, taking one of the cloths she wiped the
sweat from the Count’s face. He stirred and opened his eyes. Merlin grasped
his left hand and said in a voice perilously close to tears, “Father!” Ceri held a goblet of the wine to Ambrosius’ lips, he swallowed the potion
and then lay back gazing at the sky. Merlin smiled at her and he said, “By all the
gods that ever were and are, you have a great power, Lady.”
Ceri laughed and in the silent, frosty night the laugh was like bells ringing
out across the landscape, “I’m no lady, Merlin, and I doubt I’ll ever be.” “You’re no serf either, I’ll swear to that.” Both Merlin and Ceri jumped
when they heard the voice of Ambrosius and then suddenly they laughed with
relief. Ceri stood up and stood looking eastwards. A wind had arisen and as Ambrosius lay regarding her it seemed that he beheld another Cerian. She shook her fair hair and let the wind catch it, in the moonlight it looked like a white flag. A strange device fastened the crimson cloak enfolding her slender form, the moonlight gleamed on it, catching the design of intertwined horses. “Cerian,” he said softly.
She dropped to her knees and asked quickly, “Are you in pain, my lord?” “No,” Ambrosius smiled, “I wondered where you got the brooch.” “I was given it by someone who knew my mother.” Cerian unclipped the heavy Epona brooch and placed it in the Count’s hand, ”I was told it belonged to her.” Ambrosius lifted the ornament so that the moonlight sparkled off the pewter. His eyes met hers and then he handed the pin back. Cerian slid the clip back onto the cloak and stood up again. Eastwards the sky was growing paler while a few stars twinkled in the west. The wind was fresher now and Ceri stood, like one of the great monoliths that made up the Giant’s Dance, awaiting the dawn.
As the sun rose Ceri turned to Ambrosius, “My lord, it is time we left this place - can you rise?”
Ambrosius eased himself from the bier gingerly and rose to his feet as if he had never been injured. Cerian’s eyes hurt and all she wanted to do was sleep. The men-at-arms rose sluggishly as Ambrosius approached and stared dumbfounded at him as if he was an apparition, “Destroy the litter and everything on it,” Ceri ordered.
Suddenly she swayed on her feet and would have fallen had Ambrosius not
scooped her up in his arms. Ambrosius gently laid Cerian in the arms of one of the men, quickly he mounted one of the horses that Merlin led forward,
“Give her to me, “ he ordered “I go now to King Budec, do as the Lady commanded, I may speak with you later.” Gently Cerian was passed to him and
he repositioned his arm so that Ceri’s head rested more comfortably and trotted
towards the fort. Merlin spurred his own mount into a trot and followed. Chapter 7

‘A Father Found...

 

A

mbrosius gazed down at the body lying bonelessly quiet in his arms, he noted the shadows of exhaustion beneath her eyes and breathed in sharply through his teeth. Merlin rode up beside him and glanced

across, “She said her name was Cerian. Do you know who she is Father?”

Ambrosius smoothed a lock of blonde hair from Ceri’s forehead and replied softly, “I believe that she may be your sister, though how I cannot understand, her mother said nothing to me about being with child, but that seems to have been my fate,” he smiled at his son, “both women I have loved have fought their own battles preferring to do that than to rely on the strength of any man.”

Cerian stirred in her sleep but didn’t awaken, “Will she be all right?”

“I hope so, Merlin,” Ambrosius replied, “I hope so, she obviously risked much to save my life.”
By this time they had arrived at Budec’s fort, the two horses entered the courtyard of hard-packed earth. Gently Flaptongue took Ceri’s form from Ambrosius and when the Count had dismounted handed her back. “I want the room next to mine prepared,” Ambrosius ordered, “she is to be treated with all honour and courtesy.”
“Of course Lord.” Flaptongue replied. He scurried ahead to prepare the room while Ambrosius marched behind him.
The Count laid Ceri on the bed, Flaptongue spoke softly, “Shall I send the serving maids up, Lord?”
“There’s no need,” Ambrosius replied, “have you brought the nightshirt?”
“Yes, Lord,” Flaptongue nodded, “shall I make the bed?”
“Please.” With the ease of one used to undressing people he carefully divested Cerian of the clothes she wore and slipped the woollen shirt over her head. Laying her on the bed he covered her warmly and eased himself into the chair beside it, “Would you send up a flask of water and two goblets, Flaptongue.”
Ceri woke slowly, she was aware of lying in a warm bed although and here her memory was hazy, she couldn’t remember going to bed the previous evening, someone slid an arm beneath her shoulders as she was lifted easily and a cup was touched to her lips, “Drink slowly,” the voice urged. Ceri forced open her eyelids and stared up into eyes as blue as her own. Their eyes locked for an interminable time and then the man’s eyes dropped to the arm cradling the girl.
“Feeling better?” he queried gently.
“Yes, thank you,” Ceri smiled, “how-how long have I been asleep?”
The man smiled in return, an easy smile that lit his eyes and lips, “Half a day, do you feel like getting up?”
“Yes,” Ceri replied, “thank you, Lord.”
Ambrosius smiled and inclined his head slightly, “You are my guest,” he said quietly, “I shall send Malla up to you with some clothes.”
When he had gone Ceri swung her legs out of bed and sat staring stupidly at the room, she picked up the goblet of water Ambrosius had set down and drained it. After a few moments she felt better and standing up walked across to the window, instead of overlooking the courtyard she was overlooking the Brêton countryside and in the distance she could see the sparkle of sun on water and knew that she was looking at the sea!
There was a soft tap on the door and a young girl, about the same age as Ceri entered the room, over one arm she carried a selection of clothes. They stood gazing at one another for thirty seconds and then Malla said, ”I have brought some clothes, my Lady, would you like to try them on?”
Suddenly Ceri realised that Malla was waiting for her to divest herself of the woollen nightgown and a crimson flush crept up her neck and face. Malla stared at her, surprise etched on her features then she laid the clothes on the bed and walked across to Ceri, “I am sorry, my Lady,” she took both Ceri’s hands in her own, “you did not know that I was to assist you. Lady, we seek to do you honour, not to embarrass you. Let me help you dress, we ought not to keep the Count waiting.”
“No,” Ceri agreed, she pulled off the woollen nightshirt and thrust her arms into the tunic Malla held out for her, Malla fastened a crimson cloak on her shoulders that fell to thigh length and a silver belt was fixed around her waist. The final touches were a pair of red leather sandals and a gold circlet that the servant set upon her hair, she surveyed Ceri and said, “ Now you look like a Princess.”
Cerian looked down at herself and said, “I think we’d better go to Count Ambrosius.”
Malla led her to a spacious room, books and scrolls lined the walls, near the window stood a table upon which another scroll lay, sunlight poured in through the window and fell onto the table, the Count was reading something and the light seemed to form a corona around him, and Cerian was reminded of the gods.
He laid the scroll down and as he walked away from the window the glow faded until she was looking at a man, he gestured to a chair, his eyes flicked up and down her figure and a sudden smile lit his face, “You do indeed look like a Princess,” he said softly.
“You flatter me,” Ceri replied dryly.
“Not without reason,” Ambrosius replied, “Cerian, we must talk. Please, sit down.”
Slowly Ceri eased herself into one of the chairs beside the fire, Ambrosius filled a cup and handed it to her, “It’s only water.”
He poured himself a cup and sat opposite her. He glanced at the girl’s hands holding the neck of the goblet and saw that the knuckles were white. His dark, hawk-like eyes softened and he felt a wave of sympathy for her.
“I owe you a debt,” he began gently.
Cerian looked up from her contemplation of the water and a little smile curved her mouth, she shook her head, “No. No, my Lord, you owe me nothing, you see, it was my fault you were injured.”
Ambrosius smiled again and the smile made her feel a little better, “How can it be your fault?”
Cerian sighed and for a moment her head dropped, then a new courage seemed to infuse her, her shoulders straightened and she raised her head and Ambrosius saw his own eyes gazing back at him.
“I am not what I seem,” Ceri began softly, “my mother was a Princess in her own right, she was a Priestess of a strong religion and she bore a gift of healing. That she passed on to me - her name was-” but Ambrosius had gently laid a palm across her mouth, their faces were very close and Ceri could feel the power emanating from this man.
“Her name was Cerian Aurora,” he said quietly. Slowly he removed his hand and eased himself back into the chair, “How much do you know about your mother?” he enquired.
“I know that she was betrothed to King Gorlan of Lanascol,” Ceri glanced at his face and took a deep breath, “and that you, as his lieutenant, were sent to bring her to him. I know that you fell in love-” her voice died in her throat, Ambrosius’ eyes had become distant, their vibrant blueness dulled by melancholy.
“I loved your mother very much,” he began slowly, “and I believe she loved me. I asked her to come away with me but she refused-” his voice cracked and the lids dropped on his dulled eyes.
Ceri stared at him, seeing the pain etched in his face, placing the cup on the floor she leant forward and laid her pale hand over his weathered one. Ambrosius opened his eyes and Ceri began hesitantly, “My Lord, I know that she loved you, but she was a Princess who had been brought up to understand that when she reached marriageable age, she would be betrothed to a Prince or a King who could best defend the country. If she had not loved you, I doubt she would have wanted me to live.”
Ambrosius caught her hand so tightly that it made her gasp, “How do you know she wanted you to live!” he demanded.
“Because when she went into labour, they said a choice would have to be made between her and the child.” Ceri halted suddenly, “she begged them to save me, instead of her. I know she loved you-Father.”
Ambrosius caught her up in his arms and crushed her to his chest as if he could somehow merge their bodies, he gently set her down on the floor and dropped to a knee so that their eyes were on a level, “You speak very much like she did,” he remarked softly, his arms still encircling Ceri’s waist, “but the eyes are mine. Once I thought that I would die without issue, then a son appeared from Wales, and now a daughter. Welcome home, Daughter!”
“But I have interrupted your story,” he eased himself back into the chair and gestured for Ceri to do the same, “please continue, there is so much I want to know - how did you know of me? Where did you live? Who cared for you?”
Ceri sighed slowly, “Lord-” she began.
“Father,” Ambrosius admonished, “you are after all my daughter, it will soon be time for the Beltane Fires, I should like to celebrate your coming then if I may.”
“I didn’t grow up in this time, Father,” Ceri said softly, ”I am very much afraid that I may be more of a trial to you than you can safely bear. There is so much you do not know and so much that I am afraid to tell you-” she stopped, suddenly unable to go on.
“I know that I will return to Britain,” Ambrosius regarded her silently for a moment and then he said, “and I hope to unite all the tribes under one King and one God whether that god be Mithras, Christ or any other. I also know that my greatest enemies are not those with swords and daggers, but those who use the power of the Dark,” he stopped at Ceri’s thunderstruck face, “did you think that I didn’t know. I am aware that there are powers other than human ones that seek to manipulate the course of human history.” He paused momentarily, “did you think that I wouldn’t understand?”
“Mmmm,” Ceri nodded, “I couldn’t even begin to explain this to my parents-” she halted suddenly as she realised what she’d said.
“Don’t worry,” Ambrosius smiled, “I would expect you to regard those people who raised you as your parents. Your conduct before Budec and Uther and myself has shown your quality.” He laughed softly at Ceri’s astonished visage, “I have spoken with both since my return and both told me of your courtesy. Uther himself told me of your bravery.”
“I am not brave,” Ceri shook her head firmly, “Father, the person who delivered me believed that through me a prophecy to free someone long held in bondage would be fulfilled and because of that the Dark would seek to kill the baby. I was placed somewhere safe for my own protection, but not a place, a time. The future.” She stopped again trying to find the words to say.
“How far into the future?” Ambrosius asked. Ceri didn’t hear him, her eyes had become vacant, faraway as if she was looking inward. Gently Ambrosius posed the question again, then when that received no answer he touched Ceri’s arm, she jumped startled, “What century in the future?”
She half-smiled, “The twentieth.”
He stared at her, shock etched on his features and then they relaxed in a smile, “Do they still speak of me in your Britain?”
“Yes,” Ceri assured him, thinking of all the books in the library that dealt with the subject, “they do indeed, Lord Ambrosius Aurelianus.”
He laughed, a glorious sound, in that enclosed room. “Did the person who took you into the future tell you about me?”
“No,” Ceri shook her head. Taking a deep breath she said, “the Dark finally discovered who I was and then they sent one of their minions to despatch me, the creature of the Dark told me.” She smiled wanly, ”at the moment I never know from one day to the next whether I’ll have any power or not, and when the creature raised its weapon I fled through Time and fell into yours.”
The Count’s forehead creased in a frown, “But if you escaped the minion of the Dark then how can it be your fault if I was injured?”
“The being fired an arrow that would follow me, even through Time, it would also aim for anyone related to me. I think you were closer and the arrow wounded you by mistake. It nearly killed you.”
“But you had the courage to amend the ill you had wrought. Besides -” his eyes softened and he took Ceri’s hands again, “the Dark were waiting for such an opportunity to attack me, perhaps it was fated thus. I am still here - the Dark cannot rid themselves of me that easily.”
The doors to the study opened and a young boy entered, Ambrosius greeted him warmly and Ceri saw how similar they were in appearance, same hair, same eyes, even the set of the jaw was the same and she knew that she was regarding Ambrosius son, “Merlin, I believe you and Cerian have already met.”
Merlin nodded and Ambrosius gestured to another chair, “Join us, my son.”
He sat and poured himself a cup of water, “Are you really my sister?”
“Yes,” Cerian replied, “at least the Count says that I am.”
“I say nothing,” Ambrosius corrected her, “I gave that brooch you wear to your mother on board ship, the fact that you wear it and that you know about your mother is proof enough for me. Besides which-” he paused and then said softly, “you are the image of your mother.”
“I am more concerned about King Gorlan,” Cerian half-smiled, “he would not be best pleased to discover that his wife was pregnant at the time she died.”
Ambrosius smiled in return, “Fourteen years have passed since then,” he said quietly, “I am no longer a lowly lieutenant in Gorlan’s army but a King in my own right, I do not think he will be as displeased as you assume, he barely remembers your mother.”
“But as you say, my lord, I am the image of her, and if he remembers her he will recognise me. Do you not think?”
“We shall see,” was Ambrosius reply.
Suddenly there was a blast of trumpets and Flaptongue entered again, “My lord, King Gorlan has arrived and has been admitted, are you coming to the Council.”
“Aye Flaptongue,” Ambrosius replied, he turned to Cerian, “would you accompany us, daughter, both Uther and Budec will wish to express their thanks to you.”
“What of Gorlan?”
“What of him?” Ambrosius laughed suddenly, “I do not think that you will strike any chord in his memory, it was so long ago. Come.” He held out a hand and gingerly Cerian took it.
The Council was held in the tower room, Ceri noted with mild surprise that it only had one staircase and that the room beneath it was occupied by at least ten soldiers.
“Father,” she said softly, “was the meeting room used for parleys?”
Ambrosius stern face relaxed and he nodded, “How did you know?”
“Because of the single staircase and the room with the soldiers in it, if anyone was to get up the stairs the soldiers would see them before they could act.”
Ambrosius pulled her to him in a massive bear hug, “Never cease to amaze me, Cerian. Promise?”
“If my lord so wishes,” Cerian replied softly.
As they entered the Council chamber, Budec had his back to them and was poring over the map set before them on the table. He stepped back and for the first time Ceri caught a glimpse of the man standing on his left. Their eyes locked, and then he had pushed the men standing next to him aside and dropped to his knees before her.
“Ceri!” he gasped, “how can you be here? I saw your body.”
Cerian felt a gentle hand on her shoulder and realised that Ambrosius was standing behind her, she drew strength from his presence and heard him say, “Cerian, this is King Gorlan of Lanascol, Your Highness,” he surveyed Gorlan, “this is my daughter, Cerian Aurelia.”
Gorlan reached out a trembling hand and nearly touched Ceri’s face, his cheeks were wet, “You are the Count’s daughter?”
Ceri dropped to a curtsey and nodded, “Aye, Your Highness.”
“You look so much like a woman I once loved.” Gorlan mused, “she was named Cerian too. Do you have something to tell me, Lieutenant?”
The use of his old title in Gorlan’s army made Ambrosius start but when he looked down he saw only humour in Gorlan’s eyes, “Your Highness?”
“Come Ambrosius, you are not so foolish as all that,” Gorlan’s eyes were dark, “My wife told me that she was in love with someone else but that she went through with the marriage because of what it meant to the Kingdom. I always wondered who it was, I must admit, however, that I am glad it was you. But perhaps I should have suspected it-” he paused, “after all, you were her escort from Segontium. I always thought it was some peasant lad and that’s why she was killed, because she would not flee with him. Are you her daughter?”
“Aye,” Cerian replied, “she died giving birth to me, sire. The only person who knew of my birth was a woodsman and he saw that I was placed in a loving family. Those I regarded as my parents never told me of my heritage, and when I discovered it I was afraid that you would be angry with my father.”
“Angry?” Gorlan half-smiled, “I would have been furious had my lieutenant told me of this fourteen years ago, but now-” he spread his hands and shrugged, “now I am speaking to an equal. We have been friends for many years, it would be a poor friendship if we let this ruin it.” He regarded Cerian thoughtfully, “I wish that you had been my daughter.” He took her hands, “but perhaps it is better thus. You will always have a place in my heart, Princess.”
Ceri nodded and replied, “Sire, that is the most singular honour I have ever been granted. My thanks.”
Gorlan suddenly flung his head back and laughed, he lifted Ceri as if she had been but a feather and hugged her to him. Carefully he set her down on the floor, “The honour is mine, Princess.” He released her and turned back to Ambrosius, “Gentlemen, let us return to our strategies.”
Ceri seated herself on a chair in the corner of the room and watched quietly. The men were taking no notice of her and she was free to let her mind wander, then she heard Herne’s voice as clear as if he was standing next to her, Liege lady, we must talk
At once, Cernunnos. Give me a moment to take my leave of my father
. There was no answer so she presumed that Herne acquiesced to her request. She rose to her feet and touched the Count’s elbow, “Father?”
He turned to her and whatever he saw in her face softened his expression, “You have to leave?”
“Yes, Father.” Ceri’s voice shook on the words.
“Will you return?”
“I don’t know. Perhaps not for many years in your time, Father. If I do return, Merlin will have become an adult, and I will still be fourteen. It is the nature of what I am, can you understand?”
Ambrosius knelt and it seemed to Ceri that it was only the pair of them in that room and the others had faded into the background, “My darling daughter, I love you. I told you that I thought I had lost everything with the death of your mother - to see her likeness in your face again is more than I could have wished. If perchance we should never meet again I shall remember these two days and know that somewhere in Time you revere my memory. Return if you can, if not I shall remember you.”
“And I you, Father.”
Ambrosius turned to the assembled group who seemed to come to life again, and spoke, his voice seemed to become stronger and deeper, “Hear me now as King, you Kings assembled here. This is my daughter who stands before you, henceforward you shall address her as Princess Cerian, gentlemen behold your Princess!”
With one voice they cheered, “Princess Cerian!” and each one bowed his head and knelt to her. Gorlan looked up and saw Ceri’s pale face, “My Lady,” he said softly, “may I speak?”
“Please, Lord Gorlan,” Ceri replied, “and speak freely.”
“I speak for us all assembled here, Princess. Therefore, to your father and to you we give our fealty, and that of our heirs and successors. If you should ever need our assistance you have only to call on us and we shall come to you - we can raise an army of fifty thousand between us.”
Ceri smiled and replied, “My Kings, please rise, I am not worthy enough that you should kneel to me, and your offer of assistance is most graciously received but there are those who would scorn me for using it.”
“Let them dare!” Budec was on his feet and his sword was half drawn from his sheath, “I’ll kill any man who dares to insult you!”
“Your Highness!” Ceri raised her hands, “please sheathe your sword. I meant that I have other weapons at my disposal and other allies. Battles cost lives, I would wish to spare mothers the grief of seeing the bodies of their sons and warriors the grief of losing comrades if at all possible. It may yet be that a battle is inevitable but I would attempt all other avenues first.”
Budec nodded and then dropped to one knee and took Ceri’s left hand. With absolute solemnity he placed it so that it rested over his heart, “Gorlan has sworn our fealty to you as our Princess and we shall abide by that, but this I swear here and now for myself alone. Princess, you are my liege lady and I shall be your true knight and stand at your side to defend your honour.”
“Thank you,” Ceri said softly, “will you ride at my side if we go to battle?”
“Madam, it would be an honour.” Budec rose stiffly to his feet and bowed. Ceri stood looking at them and then sighed, “My Lords, I regret that I must leave you, my status has been recognised and the Dark know my identity. My fight against them has just begun. Fare thee well!”
The men bowed their heads and Ceri inclined her head to them once and then she was walking out of the door and down the stairs, Ambrosius at her side.
The chestnut steed was already saddled and bridled, Ceri mounted in one fluid motion and gathered the reins up in her left hand. Ambrosius looked up at her, “I hope we shall meet again, Daughter.”
“So do I, Father.” Cerian reached out her hand and Ambrosius grasped her wrist as he would a warrior’s, “I would consider it a poor world if we never saw each other again.”
“As would I.” Ambrosius released her hand, “Open the gates!” He ordered. The huge gates creaked open and then Ceri had urged the horse into a trot. She did not look back.
Herne was waiting at the Giant’s Dance. The horse was stamping impatiently, “What kept you?” He demanded.
“Things,” Ceri replied, “Ambrosius acknowledged me as his daughter. Should I need to Lord Cernunnos I can raise an army fifty thousand strong. The other Kings swore fealty unto the Count and to me, but principally to me. I am sorry I am late.”
Herne noted Ceri’s pale face and nodded gravely, “Forgive me, Lady. I did not mean to reprimand you. Are you happy now?”
A sad smile touched Ceri’s eyes and she replied, “Not really, Cernunnos, I do not wish to leave but I have completed part of what I set out to do. I sense that whatever I must do for my father, I cannot do it yet. I do not even know if there is aught I can do for him.”
Herne said nothing and together they turned their horses and trotted side by side into the night.
Chapter 8

‘...And Lost’