A Test Of Worth
Herne handed a goblet to Cerian, her fingers closed around the cool stem gratefully, “Thank you, Lord.”
“Are you feeling better, Lady?” Herne asked.
“Less light-headed,” Cerian replied, “but what happens now?”
“You have passed one of the most difficult tests, now we journey to Lady Nimüe, she holds the Grail.”
“But all the legends of Arthur and his knights say that the Grail was taken up to heaven.”
“There is a reason for that,” Herne mused for a moment. “A reason that I cannot explain here, but soon you must take the Test of The Keeper.”
“Ah,” Cerian swallowed hard. “When?”
“Tonight,” Herne nodded gravely, “We must journey to an especial feast day - I shall wake you.”
“How do I get home?” Ceri quavered.
Tenderly Herne removed the goblet from her hands and drew Cerian to her feet, with an arm around her shoulders he led her to the far end of the room. A pair of doorposts and a lintel appeared. “Walk through and you will arrive exactly where you were this morning.” He informed her.
“How much time has passed?” Ceri murmured.
“Barely three hours in this world or perhaps half a lifetime in your own.”
“I thought you said that time had no meaning here?”
“I did indeed,” Herne laughed, “but Lady, much has happened here and you are not the child I met a day ago - nor yet are you the woman you wish to be. Tell me - how much time do you think has passed?”
“Almost half a lifetime,” Ceri whispered, “I have become someone I do not know.”
“You will eventually know her,” Herne bent and kissed her knuckles, “Time being what it is, it is different to all men-”
“And for us that can move through Time - it is even more so.” Her eyes snapped back into focus and she whimpered, “Lord, help me!”
Herne’s xanthous eyes became even more intense and he bit his lip, “Lady, I may advise you, defend you and even comfort you, but I cannot help you. Your latent power is emerging. I do not know what your gift is, you yourself must discover that without my aid. Unfortunately power such as ours brings with it great knowledge and responsibility. Be brave, little one.”
“I do not know if I can be brave,” Ceri told him doubtfully.
“I doubt that anyone does,” Herne replied. “However we shall soon see. You must learn Latin and Brêton, your English is as foreign to the Saxons as your clothing would be.”
“But I thought that this power would enable me to speak any language I chose?” Ceri frowned, “stories say that.”
“That’s why they are stories,” Herne replied. “Reality is very different. Go. I’ll see you tonight.”
Ceri nodded and just as she was about to step through the doorway, she heard Herne’s voice behind her, “Leave your window open, I need to be able to enter your room to wake you.” Then she had stepped through the portal and disappeared from Herne’s sight.
Herne watched as the doorposts and lintel slowly disappeared.
“You didn’t tell her the truth?”
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.”
“I have indeed, Cernunnos.” She replied shortly, her green eyes suddenly hard. “But you were my best beloved.” 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 during the 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, “Be nice to have a brother though.”
Her mother raised one flawless eyebrow and said, “I think it’s a bit late to put requests in now – don’t you?”
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, come.” Herne responded tightly.
Ceri nodded and pulled a dressing gown 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 deep 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 quarter-length 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, Lady?” 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.” 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 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, 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 liquid.
“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-in-waiting 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. 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 forward and transparent fingers gently brushed Bedwyr’s forehead, “I know. I cry your pardon. 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.”
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 foliage, 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!
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 the whole tree was covered in pale, white flowers and there was such a smell of sweetness in the air that she could not speak. She 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 and 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 any thought for herself 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 she was told for one of the few moments in her life and Joseph said, “I am very proud of you, 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, “Princess, I wish to serve you - 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 fulfil a promise.”
“Go. I think you will know what to do.”
“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.
“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 the film covering his eyes seemed to drain away and his eyes were clear.
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? Did you escape? I would not have seen thee hurt but I had to save the Queen-”
Ceri nodded, “It would appear so.” She frowned in puzzlement, “Bedwyr, I was never-” and then she stopped because somehow she knew that Bedwyr had seen her before and in Camelot. She swallowed and feigning a confidence she did not feel she replied, “I escaped, Sir Knight. You were right, your duty was to the Queen first.”
“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, he dropped to his knees and took Bedwyr’s other hand.
“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.” Something twinkled in the cornflower blue eyes and he said, “It is good to see you again, cousin.”
He knows me too! Ceri thought, but I have no memory of our meeting. What should I say, what should I do?
Slowly Cerian reached up to the chaplet of flowers 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 closer than friend or brother. His eyes suddenly seemed to fill 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 am no Princess.”
“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 Graal, the Holy Grail of legend. She stared at the vision and the golden bowl began to move towards her, it hung before her like a globe, and a voice boomed, “Those who have a measure of Royal blood may hold the San Graal for a moment. Wilt thou hold it and undertake the quest for which you were 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 swallowed hard.