Leryn knocked on Merlin’s bedroom door.
“Come in. Don’t just stand there, you fool!”
Leryn entered, and sat at the table beneath the high window. Spreading his notes and uncorking his ink jar, the bard glared at his mentor. “You’re looking exceptionally grumpy today, even for you.”
“I’m going mad here. I’m bored, and that isn’t helping me get any better.” Merlin broke off, succumbing to a coughing fit. Once he had gotten his breath back, he cursed violently, ending with, “I have no stamina. How are we going to face Mordred, if just walking to the privy lays me out? I can’t imbue the orb with magic, not the way I am now.”
“I’ll do it.”
“You’ll have to, but you can’t control your gift well enough to do it on your own. I’m languishing here at Polcock’s mercy when I should be in my own home. I absolutely have to be there to make sure you don’t blow up my tower.”
“I’m not that dismal at magic anymore, and besides, Bramblestein and Janet feel you’re safer here.” Leryn shrugged. “At the tower, you’re in danger of killing yourself with all those stairs.”
“They should be in Londown, keeping an eye out for trouble, not babysitting me. You have much to learn, and we need to create that orb. Without it, we won’t have a triumvirate, and won’t be able to defeat Mordred. He will have two powerful dark mages with him—Jason Tenneriff and Geoffrey Devere. While they lived, they were both minor magicians, but they were banished to Hell, as was Mordred, who understands the Rule of Three as well as we do.”
“I know about that rule, remember? You’ve beaten it into my skull. But, if they’re dead and their souls are in Hell, what is the problem?”
“Where do you think Mordred has been for the last 400 years? He’s had ample opportunity to train the souls of his two henchmen. Tenneriff is no longer human, and Devere was a vampire when he was sealed away.” Merlin’s gaze turned inward. “Mordred chose these two for a particular reason—they both hate me. When the Demon Knight came to Bleakbourne two winters ago, what did he do?”
Leryn thought back. “He tricked me into entering Tenneriff’s keep, and then forced me to tell him what the runes binding Lord Tenneriff were.”
Merlin nodded. “And then what happened?”
“He stole the Devere Talisman and forced William Smith to bind it into his sword.”
“Exactly. So now, Mordred knows precisely where the physical bodies of Jason Tenneriff and Geoffrey Devere are.” Fretful, Merlin plucked at his coverlet. “While we’ve been occupied, scrambling to get the needed items to create an orb for Bramblestein to focus his magic with, you can bet that Mordred has been just as busy.”
Leryn didn’t know what to say to ease his mentor. “Look, I know you’re feeling pressured, but Bramblestein swears there is still time.”
“Is there? The dwarf has only minor magic, which is why he must have that orb. His alchemy is great, but alone he is no match for the Demon. That much I can guarantee.”
“You promised you would tell me what the root of this is. I’m not stupid, so I know some of it, but I’m curious as to how the Demon Knight is related to the Pendragon.” Leryn lifted his pen and began taking notes. “Tell me about Mordred. Galahad claim’s he is the Pendragon’s Heir, but I don’t really know how that is possible.” He saw unwillingness in Merlin’s drawn features. “All I know about Arth Ur Pendragon is that he conquered the six lands, and his rule is remembered as the Black Years.”
“Who is to say what is possible, and what isn’t?” Merlin seemed troubled by the memory. “I was too young and full of myself. I didn’t realize I was creating a monster until it was too late, and then we were all caught up in it, and I couldn’t stop him.”
“How did it begin?”
“The Romani intended to add Albyonne to their empire. I was court wizard to Uthyr Pendragon, my first job as a wizard. He was intent on uniting all the warring kingdoms of the Albyonne Isles, believing the Romani could never conquer a united Albyonne. But he was mortally wounded, and on his deathbed, he named me as his infant son’s guardian. Igerna had died giving the boy life. He begged me to see that Gurthyr unified Albyonne and fended off the Romani.
“I educated the boy as befitted a prince. Gurthyr was a brave warrior, and so fierce in battle he was given the name Arth Ur, which meant Bear King. This is the name by which he is remembered. But, when he heard about the blade, Caliburn, and the prophecy that the man who could wield it would become the High King of all Albyonne, he was determined to have it. He didn’t understand that ‘cursed’ meant ‘dangerous to own.’ It was a blade that destroyed men’s souls.” The gravity in Merlin’s voice was unfeigned, and convinced Leryn the wizard spoke the truth. “It was after he had drawn the cursed sword from the stone, that he began to change.
Leryn said, “It’s rumored that Arth Ur murdered his wife, Gwenevere to marry the Elven Queen, Morgaine.”
“Gwen did die suddenly and conveniently. I was away when it happened, and only know what Arth Ur deemed I should hear.” Sadness nearly overwhelmed Merlin, as sharp as if it had just happened. “Morgaine was his captive, and he desired her. To bargain a better fate for her people, she agreed to become his mistress. When she became pregnant, Arth Ur had Gwenevere murdered. Morgaine gave birth to his only child, a boy they named Mordred, who was acknowledged as the Heir of Pendragon.”
Leryn’s quill made scratching sounds as he wrote. “And that explains both Mordred’s magic and his longevity. He’s half-elven, like you and Rosie.”
“Exactly.” Merlin coughed again, but quickly recovered.
“But you managed to overthrow the Pendragon. You and Cerdic the Lionhearted.”
The wizard nodded. “Power was Arth Ur’s true mistress. He was a brutal warlord, uniting all of Angland, but not as his father had envisioned. Through hostages and subjugation, at the height of his power, the Pendragon held all the lands which now make up the Six Kingdoms, under an iron fist. With the Isles of Albyonne under his rule, Arth Ur turned his sights across the channel, toward the Norman Lands.
“I strongly counseled him against overstretching his resources. Tired of my constant disagreement with his decisions, he turned on me, as I knew he eventually would. But I escaped his dungeon, with the aid of a Saxon prince who was a hostage, Cerdic of Wessex. We were able to convince the cowed lords of the three peoples, elves, dwarves, and humans that if we stood together against the Pendragon, we could defeat him.
“And we had a confederate in Arth Ur’s household. Desperate to liberate her kingdom from Arth Ur’s despotic rule, Morgaine secretly aided us. With her help, we were able to defeat him. Cerdic struck the killing blow, ending the Pendragon’s reign of terror. Morgaine returned to her people with her son, who was very like her in appearance. An Elven childhood is long, so many years passed, and the rest of the world forgot about the boy who was once known as Pendragon’s Heir.” Merlin looked away. “That was a mistake.”
Leryn said, “I remember reading about the Demon Siege of Londown. The histories all say they were nearly victorious. People claimed it was led by the Heir of Pendragon. How did such a thing come to pass?”
Merlin didn’t want to discuss it but felt compelled to finish what he’d begun. “With the overthrow of the Pendragon, Cerdic of Wessex became king of a united Angland, cultivating the goodwill of his neighbors. Three generations passed, during which time I was guesting with Morgaine in her homeland. We were determined to raise Mordred to be a compassionate heir to his mother’s Elven throne. I became his tutor in all his studies but we had to hide his gifts of magic from the Elves, or they would have murdered him. So, in a way, we taught him to be deceitful, and shouldn’t have been surprised when his true character was exposed.
“In those days, we didn’t know the boy Mordred had a plan of his own, which he had nurtured in secret from the day his mother spirited him out of Londown. Too late, we learned of the delight he took in secret cruelties he perpetrated on his servants, and anyone he had power over. He was able to conceal his true nature from us because his major talent is that of charm. A master at dissembling, Mordred was able to hide his intrigues until he had the knowledge he believed he needed. One day he vanished, which I knew boded ill, but didn’t know what.
“Twenty years passed. The next I heard of him, he had turned to dark magic and was marching on Londown. He made it clear he intended to reclaim his stolen birthright. With some shock, we learned Mordred was not merely demon-possessed. He had traded his soul for power. He was a demon, and a high ranking one at that.”
“How did you deal with it?”
Merlin was interrupted by another coughing spell. Leryn went to the kitchen for the soothing tea that Janet had prescribed. Returning, he held it to the wizard’s lips, waiting until the fit had passed.
At last Merlin was able to speak again. “When I heard what was happening, I came to the aid of King Caelin. We’d been told the bulk of Mordred’s army was made up of slaves under the lash of soulless undead. Demon-possessed generals forced the enslaved humans in his armies to fight against their own kind.”
Shuddering as he wrote, Leryn asked, “What was that like? I can’t imagine.”
“Better you shouldn’t imagine it,” replied Merlin, sharply. “The carnage was beyond belief. Each night, once darkness fell, Mordred turned his undead warriors loose to wreak havoc among the poorest sections of Londown, those who must live outside the walls. It was a feast for the undead. There was no escape for those unfortunates. People were afraid to leave their hovels, and terrified to remain.”
“But you and King Caelin prevailed.”
Merlin nodded. “We did, but only because Caelin was able to rally the people of Londown. I convinced Caelin to strike in the morning when Mordred’s forces were at their weakest. We killed his demon-possessed generals. Once the generals were dead, his enslaved soldiers turned against the lesser undead in his army, destroying and burning the corpses of their former slave-masters and scattering the ashes in the River Heath, to ensure they couldn’t rise again. Even so, the Demon himself escaped.”
“Which brings us to the point. What happened next?”
“Caelin and I tracked him to an obscure fishing village near the mouth of the River Heath. You know it today as Bleakbourne.” Merlin coughed, but resumed speaking. “We battled in the way that only wizards can, and I eventually succeeded in banishing Mordred to Hell.
“But, in the process, a hole between the worlds was created. I just barely managed to seal it up, with Mordred on the other side, a struggle I had hoped to never have to repeat.”
Leryn looked over his notes. “I don’t understand why the Demon chose this place. He must have known the veil between the worlds is thinnest here, and you would have more power in this place. Surely he had a reason.”
“He did. Because he was the Pendragon’s Heir, Mordred had many loyal followers who longed for the power their families had lost when the Pendragon was defeated, one of whom was a local lord, Wilem, Lord Tenneriff.” Merlin grinned, a grim, satisfied grimace. “I managed to get to Mordred before he could get to Tenneriff.”
Leryn considered the situation. “So, the problem, as I see it, is the Demon was consigned to Hell, where he has been languishing for how many years? Four hundred?” At Merlin’s nod, he asked, “But shouldn’t that have made him less powerful?”
Merlin snorted. “Use your head, bard. Yes, his punishment has weakened him physically, but he is a Prince of Hell. He’s gained much dark knowledge during his sojourn there. He believes he will soon have what he needs to defeat me, and if that happens, he will reclaim his birthright.”
Leryn said, “But that won’t happen. Good always prevails, and we’re fighting on the side of good.”
“Don’t be so naïve, boy. Evil wins just as often as good does, and believe me, we will definitely fail, if I can’t get out of this bed and do my part in creating that orb.” The wizard held his ribs as he suffered another coughing fit. When it had passed, he lay back against his pillows, unable to rest. “If we fail, the world will see the return of the Pendragon, but on a scale even Arth Ur could only have dreamed of.”
“Bleakbourne on Heath” © 2016 – 2017 Connie J. Jasperson, All Rights Reserved
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Connie J. Jasperson is an author and blogger, and a regular contributing member of the Edgewise Words Inn staff.