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First Chapter
Arthur is no fit king Uther’s bastard, Merlin’s pawn, he is lowborn and a fool. He is wanton and petty and cruel. A glutton and a drunkard, he lacks all civilized graces. In short, he is a sullen, ignorant brute.
All these things and more men say of Arthur. Let them.
When all the words are spoken and the arguments fall exhausted into silence, this single fact remains: We would follow Arthur to the very gates of hell and beyond if he asked it. And that is the solitary truth.
Show me another who can claim such loyalty.
“Cymbrogi,” he calls us: companions of the heart, fellow countrymen.
Cymbrogi! We are his strong arm, his shield and spear, his blade and helm. We are the blood in his veins, the hard sinew of his flesh, the bone beneath the skin. We are the breath in his lungs, the clear light in his eyes, and the song rising to his lips. We are the meat and drink at his board.
Cymbrogi! We are earth and sky to him. And Arthur is all these things to us and more.
Ponder this. Think long on it. Only then, perhaps, will you begin to understand the tale I shall tell you.
How not? Who, besides the Emrys himself, knows as much as I? Though I am no bard, I am worthy. For I know Arthur as few others do; we are much alike, after all. We are both sons of uncertain birth, both princes unacknowledged by our fathers, both forced to live our lives apart from clan and kin.
My father was Belyn, Lord of Llyonesse. My mother was a serving woman in the king’s house. I learned early that I would receive nothing from my father’s hand and must make my own way in the world.
I was little more than a boy when Myrddin agreed to make me his steward, but I have regretted not one day. Even through those long years of his madness, when I searched the hidden ways of wide Celyddon alone, I desired nothing but to be once more what I had been: servant and companion to Myrddin Emrys, Chief Bard in the Island of the Mighty.
I, Pelleas, prince of Llyonesse, will tell all as I have seen it And I have seen much indeed.
“Are you certain, Myrddin?” Arthur whispers, anxiously. “Everyone is watching. What if it will not work?”
“It will, as you say, ‘work.’ Just do as I have told you.”
Arthur nods grimly and steps up to the great keystone where the sword stands, its naked blade stuck fast in the heart of the stone.
The yard is mostly empty now. Those going in to Urbanus’ mass have done so. It is cold, the day dwindling towards dusk. A few small snowflakes drift out of the darkening sky, to fall on the flagged stone pavement at our feet. Our breath hangs in clouds above our heads.
It is the eve of the Christ Mass, and the lords of Britain have come to Londinium to hold council as they do nearly every year to essay who among them might become High King.
Fifteen years have come and gone since the sword was first placed there. Now the once-fine steel is rusted, the stone weathered and stained. But the eagle-carved amethyst in the hilt still glows, its imperial fire undiminished.
Macsen Wledig’s sword it is. The Sword of Britain. Emperor Maximus once owned the sword and Constantine, Constans, Aurelius, and Uther after him, each in his turn High King of Britain.
Yes, fifteen years have come and gone since that first council. Fifteen years of darkness and unceasing strife, of dissent, disappointment, and defeat. Fifteen years in which the Saecsens have grown strong once more. Fifteen years for a boy to grow to manhood.
A young man now, he stands grim-faced gazing at the sword thrust deep into the stone hesitant, uncertain.
“Take it, Arthur,” Merlin tells him. “It is your right.”
Arthur reaches slowly for the bronze hilt. His hand shakes. Cold? Fear? A little of both, perhaps.
He grasps the hilt and glances at Merlin, who nods silently. He drops his eyes and draws a breath, taking courage, steeling himself for whatever will happen.
Arthur’s fingers tighten on the silver-braided hilt: See how naturally it fits his hand! He pulls.
The Sword of Britain slides from its stone sheath. The ease with which this is accomplished shines in the wonder in Arthur’s eyes. He truly cannot believe what he has done. Nor can he comprehend what it means.
“Well done, Arthur.” Merlin steps to the stone beside him, and Arthur, without thinking, offers the sword to him. “No, son,” he says gently, “truly, it is yours.”
“What should I do?” Arthur’s voice is unsteady, rising. “Myrddin, you must tell me what to do! Else I am lost.”
Merlin places a calming hand on Arthur’s shoulder. “Why do you fear, my son? I have ever been with you. God willing, it will always be so.” They turn together and walk into the church.
Yes, we have ever been with him, it is true. I cannot remember a day when we were not. Even so, it is difficult to believe that the young man standing on the threshold of the church has not simply stepped full-grown from out of a hollow hill, or an enchanted pool in Celyddon Forest.
That Arthur has not always existed seems odd to me. Like the wind on the moors and the wild winter stars, surely he has always lived and always will.
Arthur, with his keen blue eyes and hair of burnished gold, his ready smile and guileless countenance. Wide and heavy of shoulder, long of limb, he towers above other men, and though he does not yet know the power of his stature, he is aware that smaller men become uneasy near him. He is handsomely knit, in all; fair to look upon.
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