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You are here: Home --> The Archives --> Short Stories

Merlin and the Dragons

It all began a long, long time ago. It was an evil time. The cruel saxons had overrun half of Britain, and all the major cities were in their hands. Vortigern, the British King, had fled from them with his remaining followers to the mountains of north Wales. They called Vortigern “The Fox” but “The Viper” would have been a better name. His path to the throne was cleared by poison, smoothed by bribery and ankle deep in blood. It was Vortigern who had brought the saxons to Britain in the first place. He had paid them to come and fight his battles for him and now they wanted the Kingdom for themselves. Vortigern had no one to turn to. He ran to the mountains because there was nowhere else to go. I was a boy then, just 13, living in the small town of Carmarthen in South Wales. My grandfather was the King of Carmarthen and my mother was a princess, but I had never seen her, for she entered the Abbey of St. Peter’s on the day that I was born. Since I knew nothing about my father, I might as well have been an orphan, and I was brought up in my grandfather's house, where his young wife, Vivian, nursed me as her own. Their children, my uncles and aunts, were the same age as me and treated me as a brother. Later I went to the abby school. The monks were kind and scholarly and I was very happy there, but the most important things I learned were the things I learned at home, for my grandfather was a priest of the old religion who knew the secrets of nature and of night. He passed them on to me and , like him, I had the Sight. I could see into the future and call up the past. I learned to prophesy and to read minds. From the beginning this set me apart. One summer afternoon, after school, I went to play football with my friends. It was not football as you know it now, but remember, this happened long ago. A small band of soldiers sat in the shade beneath the town walls, watching our game. They were strangers because we knew all the soldiers in Carmarthen by name, and I could see that they were Vortigern’s men by the red dragons emblazoned on their tunics. No doubt they had come to try to rally support for him. But I was too young to fight, so their presence was no concern of mine. Or so I thought. When our game ended, the King’s men were still there. It was a warm evening, but I shivered when I realized they were staring at me. One of them came up and took me by the arm. He looked like their captain. “Are you Prince Merlin?” he asked. “The one they call Merlin the Bastard?” “Yes, my name is Merlin. But no one calls me Bastard here.” As I spoke, I saw the look of triumph on his face. “Then Bastard, you must come with us. Vortigern wants to see you. He needs your help.” He was sneering at me, as if to say, how could a mere boy help a King? His companions sniggered and I began to feel uneasy. What did the old fox want me for? The soldier’s came with me to my grandfather’s house while I gathered together the few things I needed; my heavy cloak, my boots and the ancient gold bracelet my mother had left me. Then I tiptoed into my grandfather's room. He lay on his bed, staring into space as he had done for months now, waiting to die. His dim, blue eyes turned toward me and he stretched out a trembling, bloodless hand. “Merlin, dearest boy,” he whispered, “this is the last time you will see me alive. Be careful, for Vortigern is treacherous and cruel, but don’t be afraid. When I die all my magic powers will be yours and I have only a few days left to live. It is God’s will.” Tears streamed down my face as I said good bye. I knew that I was kissing him for the last time. Outside, Vortigern’s men were waiting with my horse. There was another rider with them, a slight figure in a black veil, but I was thinking too much about what my grandfather had said to wonder who it might be. The journey took four days. We hurried north through the high passes, riding hard from dawn till dusk. Each day the sun shone and I gazed in wonder at the wild beauty of the country. I noticed that we avoided the settlements and small forts along our route. My guards were nervous and I could sense their fear each time we saw someone ahead of us on the road. On the last night of our journey, we made our camp beneath a clear moonlit sky. We all looked up and gasped: The bright yellow moon was slowly disappearing before our eyes. After half hour it was gone, leaving only the faintest glow behind. My guards threw themselves to the ground, covering their heads, while our veiled companion knelt in silent prayer. But I continued to look up remembering the astronomy my grandfather had taught me, and just as I expected, after a short pause, the moon slowly reappeared. My guards struggled to their feet, shaken and subdued. The world had not ended after all, but I think the message was clear, even to them. Vortigern’s light was not merely on the wane, it was fading fast. Next morning we had not ridden far before the great mountains of Snowdonia came into view. Vortigern’s camp lay on the banks of a winding river in the valley below the mountain. Long before we reached the camp I could see the half built castle on the foothill above. The desperate King was trying to build an impregnable fortress, even though he had no country left to defend. The camp was unguarded. A handful of sick and injured men lay among make-shift tents. Everywhere, women were hard at work, cooking mending and washing in the stream. Bands of wild looking children ran about as they pleased. We climbed the slope, past a trail of weary horses dragging cartloads of heavy stone. From a distance the building had looked quite small. But as we got close to the top of the hill, I realized that it covered an area larger than Carmarthen. But it was not its size which surprised me most, it was the chaos of the site. Every where I looked unfinished walls had cracked and crumbled, while Vortigern’s flag, showing a red dragon, dropped from the ruins of a tower. The King himself stood among a group of priests and ministers, looking disconsolate, while men scurried everywhere, trying to clear away the ruined masonry. At the first shout of “They’re back” everyone stopped what they were doing. I was pulled from my horse and bundled toward the king, my veiled companion beside me. A crowd quickly gathered around us, jostling to see who we were. “These are the ones you asked for my lord. The Bastard and the nun.” Impatiently, Vortigern waved the captain away. Beside him stood a man in a white cowl, who lunged toward me. Vortigern held him back. “Patience, Maugantius, patience.” Then the king stepped forward, rings glinting in the sun as he squeezed my chin and peered into my eyes. “So you are Merlin. Yes, yes, just like the old man.” He waved an arm around the ruins, “You are welcome to my palace.” I rubbed my bruised chin as he turned to my companion. “Dear Princess, you are welcome too. I must apologize for forcing you to come, but this is a matter of the utmost importance and there are questions which only you can answer. It won’t take long. Then my men will take you back at once. Maugantius, please.” Maugantius had been staring at me while Vortigern spoke. Now he turned to the mysterious figure beside me. “Princess, you have taken the vow of silence, I know. But God will forgive you if you break it now. I have just two questions to ask you. Is this boy your son? And, if he is, who is his father?” “Yes, Merlin is my son.” The words came in a whisper. It was the first time I had heard my mother’s voice. Then she turned toward me, lifting her veil to show her pale, drawn face. “Oh Merlin, Merlin, you have no human father. It was a false devil who came to me in my dreams.” Vortigern was unable to hide his excitement. “Maugantius, can what she says be true?” “Certainly, my lord. The wise have written of such things. A thousand spirits, half angel and half man, live between the earth and the moon. It is clearly one of these that visited the princess. Merlin is fatherless, just as we had hoped.” The guards tightened their grip on my arms as Maugantius pulled a dagger from the folds of his cowl. “My lord,” he hissed “give me the word.” My head was swimming and I could feel me knees buckle beneath me. The peering, hostile faces surrounding me spun around. I knew that if I fainted that would be the end, so I closed my eyes and clung to my mind, like a drowning man clings to a plank. I managed to hold on. I opened my eyes to find that I was being dragged toward a marble slab in the middle of the site. Squirming free of the guards, I leaped onto the slab and raised my arms. The mob stopped in it's tracks. “What superstitious rite is this?” I shouted. “What murderous sacrifice? I challenge you, Maugantius, to say why I must die.” “Don’t listen to him, my lord,” Maugantius snarled. “Even the minutes are precious. The boy must die at once.” But once more Vortigern held him back. “No, Merlin is right. He shall be told.” The old fox smiled at me. “You see the ruins of our castle here. This is the second time it has collapsed. Yet the foundations are built on solid rock and my master masons are the best there are. Maugantius told me why. It seems that this is scarred ground. The spirit of the mountain is angry and only a blood sacrifice will appease it. If the foundations are sprinkled with the blood of a fatherless boy, they will stand firm. Merlin, we know, now, that you are that boy.” “This is not ancient magic, Vortigern,” I replied. “These are black lies. The Egyptians used the blood of orphans this way, to please their cruel gods. The Romans did the same. But it won’t work here. You could drench your foundations in the blood of a thousand Merlins and your walls would crumble just the same.” “Insolent whelp!” Maugantius leapt toward me, raising his knife above his head. Vortigern seized his arm. “Wait. Let the boy speak.” He turned back to me, his smile gone. “Well, boy, go on then. Tell me what all my great wise men could not.” I closed my eyes. A picture came into my mind. “I see a sealed cavern underground, filled by a deep pool. At the bottom of the pool live two hollow stones. In each of the stones a dragon is sleeping, one white, one red.” I opened my eyes to look at my audience, who stood quite still now, waiting to hear what I would say. “Your foundations aren’t built on rock, Vortigern. They lie on a thin crust of earth, covering a pool. You must drain the pool and fill it in. Then your walls will stand.” Maugantius tried to speak, but Vortigern ignored him. He called his chief mason over. “I want your best men. The boy can show them where to work. Now Merlin, let’s see this pool.” I led the men through the ruins to an area which had already been cleared. Then I set them to work. As they pounded the earth with their picks and hammers, hollow cracks and thuds rang across the valley. But soon we heard a different sound. A shout went up. The men had broken through. We all crowded around the opening, and saw our own faces staring back at us from the dark surface of the water. Then the masons took over. They brought up pumps and started to drain the pool while the rest of us waited in silence. Even great Vortigern had been struck dumb and I noticed that Maugantius had gone. We waited and waited until the pool was drained. Then we peered nervously into the hole. Two oblong stones lay side by side on the muddy bottom. They looked like tombs, big enough to hold ten men. Strange muffled sounds came from inside them. Then they started to crack and sharp claws and scaly limbs appeared. The crowd drew back in horror while I alone remained where I stood at the edge of the pool. Within moments two dragons had climbed out beside me. One was red, the other white. They were breathing fire in short bursts of flame which sizzled on the wet earth. Ignoring me, the dragons began to fight, tearing at each others shiny skin and panting fierce balls of flame. In turn, they forced each other back toward the hole. I turned to Vortigern, who was cowering behind a pile of stones. “Alas for the Red Dragon, Vortigern, for its end is near. The White Dragon will overrun it's lairs and cavernous dens. The rivers and streams will run with blood and the mountains will groan for the suffering people. The country will cry out in pain. Finally a boar will come to end the strife and bring a time of peace. Then Britain will rejoice and cry out for joy. You are the Red Dragon, Vortigern, The boar’s name is Arthur.” I came out of my prophetic trance to see the end of the fight. The White Dragon had the Red Dragon down and was ripping at it's throat. The dying dragon’s tail thrashed wildly in the mud until, with a mighty roar, the White Dragon heaved it over the edge. It crashed down into the dredge of the pool, shuddered horribly and lay still. The Viper was dead. With another Triumphant roar, the White Dragon spread its vast wings, beat them and slowly floated up above us. It circled the mountain, breathed flame, then wheeled away toward the sun. We watched it go, until the glittering creature had dwindled to a speck. Only then did Vortigern and his followers creep out from behind the stones where they had been hiding. As they did so, Vortigern’s flag, with its proud Red Dragon, fell from the ruined tower and lay crumbled in the mud. Vortigern clutched at my sleeve. “For God’s sake, Merlin, tell me what to do.” I shook off his hand. He was doomed and there was nothing I could do. But although he had been prepared to kill me to save his own life, I felt sorry for him now. “The best thing you can do is run,” I said. “Run to the coast and keep on running. For even as we speak, Aurelius and Uther are leading a great army from the south. You murdered their father and brother and stole their kingdom, and you would have killed them too if they had not escaped to Brittany. The young princes are now men and they are coming for revenge.” Vortigern turned pale. “Where can I run to, Merlin?” To the east are the Saxons, to the west the sea. I have no ships and worse still, I have no friends.” “Then I suggest you build your fortress here, as quickly as you can. Fill in the hole and build strong walls. Your enemies will have to starve you out. If you can hold them off till winter, who knows?” Anyone could see it would take months to rebuild these walls. But Vortigern was desperate, and I left him there, among the ruins, bullying his exhausted men. My mother was praying, her head bowed. Taking her hand, I led her down the hill. We found our horses, which had bolted from the dragons, wandering nervously among the tents. We rode out the way we had come. Shouts and bangs echoed behind us, growing fainter as we climbed up out of the valley. We stuck to the difficult high passes because I was anxious to avoid being seen. We rode for three days, stopping each night to rest. Then we talked and my mother told me many things, about her own childhood and her life in the abbey. She questioned me closely, too. She spoke tenderly, this mother I had never had, and I often saw tears glistening in her eyes. On the forth day the first part of my prophecy was confirmed. We were making our way along a ridge when we heard a deep murmuring in the distance, ahead of us. We reined in our horses and sheltered behind some rocks. Before long the sound of marching feet and hooves grew louder and the first banner came into view. Soon the valley below was filled with men and horses. Everywhere their banners, emblazoned with white dragoons, proclaimed who they were. Aurelius and Uther had arrived. We reached Carmarthen by nightfall to find the gates open and the ramparts deserted. I escorted my mother back to the abbey before making my way to my grandfather’s house. It was surrounded by blazing torches. A crowd had gathered outside it, talking in low voices. When the people saw me, they fell silent and stood back to let me pass. His body was laid out where I had left him, only now it was covered in flowers and encircled by candles. I knelt by the bed and took his cold hand in mine. My grandfather was dead and his last words to me had already been proven true. I had inherited his magic powers. I prayed, as I knelt beside him, that I would use them well. Digg Technorati Blinklist Furlreddit
Thanks to Lancelot for this contribution!


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