Duke Of The Red Dragon
Cerian 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.”
“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.”
“Puis, je suis en prêt, mon seigneur,” Cerian replied automatically and then realised she had spoken in French.
“Good,” Herne’s eyes twinkled and Ceri suddenly spluttered, “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, Ceri found herself looking down on his tonsured head. 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, 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 it 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 catching and reflecting 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 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 nausea rising in her throat, 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.
Using the dagger, Ceri made four deep cuts that resembled the four cardinal points of a compass, there was the acrid stench of burning flesh and as pus welled up, the tumescent odour of infection 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. “Get me the branding iron,” she said thickly. Merlin released his father and turned to the brazier.
Ambrosius raised himself on his elbows and stared at the young woman holding a pad over the now bleeding wound. “Ceri?” He whispered hesitantly, “How can you be here?”
Ceri stared at the man, the dark hair matted with sweat and sticking to his flushed forehead, she wanted to ask how he knew her name, did he know who she was, did he remember her mother? She swallowed and replied the only way she knew how, “I am here, my Lord, that is all that matters.” Merlin touched her shoulder and she turned to see him holding the branding iron. The tip glowed a sullen red. She swallowed and turned back to Ambrosius. “I have to cauterize the wound,” she explained, “and it will hurt.”
To her surprise he laughed, “I know. Give me something to bite on. Merlin, get the guards, they’ll need to hold me.” Merlin nodded and disappeared. Ceri found herself alone with the Count. He smiled at her and said softly, “You’re not her are you. She had green eyes, yours are blue. But you look like her. You have the same name.” She nodded hesitantly. “Ah. Then when I am well we shall speak of this, won’t we?” She nodded again and then Merlin returned bringing the two guards with him. Ambrosius lay back down and Merlin slipped a piece of wood between his teeth.
“Hold him.” Ceri ordered and thrust the glowing metal into the wound. There was a smell of burning flesh and Ambrosius arched in pain. Despite the bit in his mouth Ceri heard him groan in agony. The two soldiers were fighting to keep his shoulders on the bed.
“Let him go,” she said wearily as she lifted the iron bar, “It’s done.” She dropped the still hot iron bar into a bucket of water where it sent up clouds of steam. She leant forward to see if Ambrosius was still conscious and saw a hand snake through the mist. “My Lord,” she said softly.
“You have your mother’s skill.” He smiled again and despite his pain Ceri could see his charisma, “Will you tell me who you are?”
“Yes, My Lord,” Ceri began, “I am- ” and then she stopped because Ambrosius was unconscious again.
She bound a pad around the wound and bandaged the thigh. She nodded to Merlin, “Thank you,” she said softly.
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 made it look as though it was aflame.
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 the 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.” Mithras 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 her back against one of the sarsens. A wind had arisen and as Ambrosius lay regarding her it seemed that he was looking at 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 brooch 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 then 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, “Burn 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 will 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.