“Why did you wish to speak to me?” it was the first words Ceri had spoken since their greeting and her voice sounded unnaturally loud in the frosty silence.
“To inform you that the Dark now have full knowledge of who you are. My mission was to warn you to be on your guard, Lady.” Herne paused and then his golden eyes blazed triumph, “However, Ambrosius recognised you and what is more important is that the other lords of this domain did likewise. I doubt that the Dark expected that. They will no longer be able to thwart you, or not for some time at any rate. My Lady, you are truly fit to hold the San Graal.”
“So Royal blood flows in my veins,” Cerian replied her blue eyes alight with laughter.
“Oh yes. The Grail made you truly Royal the moment you held it and promised to do your utmost to fulfill the quest to free me.” Herne replied with utter solemnity, “My liege, this is only a beginning and the end is not yet in sight. I believe that we now have a fighting chance.”
“And I must go forward in time,” Ceri remarked. “Come, my Lord.” Side by side they trotted forward and disappeared. Together the horses emerged onto the lawn behind the house. A cold wind whipped around them, making their mounts snort and stamp in protest,
“What now?” Ceri turned her eyes towards the Being on her left.
“It is almost time for the ceremony,” Herne seemed to be sitting straighter in the saddle and his voice had a deeper resonance. ”The days grow shorter and the winter solstice beckons. It is an important time for you - it will be your fifteenth birthday. We must be there for these ceremonies.”
“We?” Ceri queried softly.
“We, my liege.”
“I miss him,” Ceri said simply, staring at the house before her, “he was more of a friend than a father. We never really had time to know each other before I had to leave and yet - and yet I miss him. But I miss my own family too, and these people who took me in when I was but a babe I shall always regard as my first family for without them I may not have had the courtesy to address my true father.”
“I know that,” Herne’s voice was no more than a whisper. “All of the Ancient Ones will be at this festival Lady. The Beltane fire will be high and it may be that you will leap across those flames with your husband-to-be, you should come.”
Ceri flung back her head and laughed suddenly, “You have an ulterior motive, Lord Herne!” She dismounted still chuckling to herself and taking the horse’s reins over its head she handed them to Herne. “Call me when the time comes,” she instructed. Then she turned and walked to the house. At the door she paused and turned to look back.
Herne was still mounted on his horse and for a moment she thought that she saw pity in his gaze then it disappeared to be replaced by a grim smile, she saw him nod quickly and then he and the horses vanished from view. For what seemed a long while Ceri stood watching the spot where they had been.
She checked that the fire was still alight and after filling the scuttle and making up the fire she plonked herself down in front of the television. There was a film on one of the cable channels, but she was only half-watching it, she was listening to the sound of cooking coming from the kitchen and feeling like an outsider.
Ceri leant back in the chair and sighed, Rufus came and nuzzled her leg, “I somehow think you can’t help this time Rufus,” Ceri sighed, she scratched the dog’s head and sighed again, “I feel that I’ve failed. Whatever I was supposed to do I haven’t done or couldn’t do it, and I think I’ve let Herne down. Oh Ruf, what am I going to do? I love my parents, but they’re not my parents, I can’t see my true father as my father, but more as a friend. The whole world is going mad around me and there’s nothing that I can do.”
Then it was as if she heard Herne’s voice in her head, “And who are you parents, Madam?”
Ceri grinned to herself and whispered, “You are right, Lord. My parents belong to this time and to Ancient time. I stand between Times and claim both as my own!”
She was valiantly trying to enjoy the film when Mum called, “Dinner’s ready!” there was no answer so she shouted again, “Say, Yes Chef!”
“Yes Chef!” Ceri and her Dad chorused as they walked into the kitchen. Mum was busily destroying a chicken and heaping various dismembered parts onto plates which already had a serving of vegetables on them.
“Take your plate,” she ordered as they entered.
Ceri set her plate down at the table and picked up her knife and fork, attacking the breast was easy, but she had to get some kitchen roll to wipe her fingers after she’d munched her way through the leg. She was halfway through dinner when a thought occurred to her, “Mum?” she asked, “Did you plan to get pregnant again or was it a fluke?”
Her Mum smiled, “It wasn’t exactly a fluke. Me and your father tried for a few years after we were married, I always wanted more than one child, but it never happened. Then we were so busy – we weren’t even spending time in the same county, let alone the same bed, so it just got pushed aside. It was only last month when I realized that I might be expecting. It wasn’t a total fluke, but it was slightly unexpected.”
Later she helped to load the dishwasher and then they sat down in the lounge and watched the television for a while. Her thoughts flew back to the conversation between Mum and herself, Three days until the twenty-first, she mused, so that’s what Herne meant, the Winter Solstice, a little thrill ran through her, my fifteenth birthday!
“Dad,” she said quietly.
“Yes, sweetheart,” he replied looking up from his newspaper.
“Could we-I mean can we, can I have my birthday on Christmas Day. Then you can combine my Christmas Present with my Birthday one.”
“If that’s what you want my love,” Dad replied, “are you sure?”
“Please.” Ceri responded, “I know that we usually don’t celebrate my birthday until January, but it’ll be really hectic trying to get all my packing done - and I’d just like to have one day where I don’t have to worry about anything.”
Her father looked across the room at his wife and said, “That all right, love?”
“I don’t see why not,” Mum replied, “it means I only have to cook one meal instead of two. All right.”
Preparations for Christmas began in earnest that week and Ceri found herself being drawn more into the family circle. She found herself stirring puddings, making cakes, mince pies, she even helped her father to fetch the Yule Log. She was so busy that two days passed in a glut of preparations. She had just finished the fifth batch of mince pies and walked out onto the back lawn, it was only half past four, yet the sun was already a orange-red disc on the horizon.
“Our Lord, the Sun, leaves us for another year, we must light the fires to tell him to return to us soon, for the Dark has regained its foothold for a short span. Let there be rejoicing tonight, and let the Beltane fires burn high-” Ceri felt a little shiver run down her spine, there had been a resonance in that voice, as if another person spoke it, and not her father, “everything okay, Cerian?” he asked in a more normal tone of voice.
“Yes, Dad,” Ceri smiled up at him, “what were you quoting?”
“Just something I thought an Ancient Briton might say.” he replied, “They believed that the forces of Light and Dark held sway over all countries. They believed that the Sun was not just a source of light, but also their God of Light, so when the hours of light became shorter in wintertime they lit fires in the hope that this would induce him to return. After a while it became customary for the fires to be lit on one special day, the twenty-first of December as this was the true heralding of winter.” He paused and then smiled at his daughter, “they were great fires in those days, and it was said that if a betrothed couple jumped over the flames, hand in hand it prophesied long life and healthy sons.”
“No daughters?” queried Ceri.
“Daughters were not looked upon with favour by the Ancient Briton, all he saw was mouths to feed and dowries to pay to prospective husbands who would take them off their hands. Happily we have modified our approach somewhat and daughters are seen in a more favourable light.”
“Sometimes only a woman may accomplish that which a man cannot.” Ceri remarked.
He replied softly, “Perhaps, but I still believe that women are the weaker sex and therefore need protection more than men, a man may take care of himself it is harder for a woman. Looking forward to Christmas Ceri?”
“I suppose so, Dad.” Ceri sighed, “I just don’t want to go back to school.”
“I know,” her father took her hand and gently squeezed it, “but unfortunately its the law, we have to send you to have some sort of schooling.”
“Couldn’t I choose what form of schooling I want?” Ceri queried.
“No.” Her father sighed, “not yet, but when you’re older you may decide what form of education you want to do. You like English, so perhaps you’ll want to study only English, or History, or any other subject.”
“But why can’t I do that now?” Cerian implored.
“Because you need a basic education in all subjects so that the Government can say that they’ve taught you a little about everything. Even if,” he paused at the scowl on Ceri’s face, “you don’t understand any of it. That’s where the system falls down, they check to make sure that you are taught certain subjects, but they fail to check whether the pupils adequately understand them.”
Ceri looked thoughtful and then she said, “Could I study Journalism?”
“Yes,” her father replied, “if you want to be a newspaper reporter, or an Editor of a magazine. Or even if you want to become a writer. Who knows,” his eyes danced wickedly, “you might even win a Nobel Prize for Literature.”
“I might,” Ceri forced a smile to her numb lips, because she knew that whatever power she held within her frame would take her away from those she loved before she could even begin to think of further schooling.
She slept fitfully that night and woke suddenly, as if a well remembered voice had called her from sleep. The night was pitch dark, Ceri pulled a robe around herself and pulled open the curtains. Every blade of grass glittered like a sharpened pilum in the lamplight from the road, a chill wind blew across the grass but the blades did not bend and Ceri was reminded of an army waiting for its leader. A whisper touched Ceri’s face and coiled around the curtains making them sway, then Ceri saw him. Herne stood on the lawn clad in armour, he held out his hand and spoke the one word, “Come.”
Without hesitation Ceri stepped through the wall and onto the lawn, she felt him grasp her hand and it was as if she’d truly come home. “My liege,” he said softly, “Art thou ready?”
“This time, yes, Lord.”
Herne gazed down upon her and spoke, “Then come, my Lady.” He took her other hand and kissed her knuckles, as he did so the breeze became stronger and seemed to be blowing them away for they became fainter with each passing moment until there was only the frost on the grass and the mournful note of the night air as it moaned above the garden.
The Abbey’s windows were lit for the feast, in the courtyard a great fire blazed brightly. Herne regarded Ceri’s form with some distaste, “Lady, I suggest that you change, I do not think that you will be regarded with much favour if you appear before the Ancient Ones dressed like that.”
Ceri looked down at herself, her dressing gown looked old and shabby, fluffy pink slippers poked out from beneath it. She wiggled her toes experimentally and then raised her head and grinned up at Herne, “You have a point,” she replied, “If you’ll show me to my room I’ll get changed.”
Herne nodded courteously and one arm around her waist guided her into the building and up the stairs into one of the smaller cells. “Dress quickly,” Herne said as he left her. “And wear this.”
He handed her a medium sized casket, Ceri watched the door close and stood staring at it for what seemed a very long time. Finally she looked around, behind her stood an old table, she placed the box on the table and quickly divested herself of her dressing gown and nightdress. Her clothes were already laid out on the bed, she slipped them on, dressing in a white cambric undershirt and above that a pale blue ankle length dress, soft blue leather boots adorned her feet and this time a pale silver belt with the image of a horse embossed on the buckle was fastened around her waist. A rich vermilion cloak hung on the back of the door, she slipped it on, it was equipped with a hood. Then she turned her attention back to the box on the table.
As she opened it a soft gleam came from within and the top fell open to reveal the circlet with which Nimüe had crowned her the night she had been hailed as Princess.
Slowly, reverently she lifted the crown, it seemed to become alive in her hands, as if it had been waiting for her. There was a full-length mirror inside the wardrobe, for a long time Ceri stood staring at her reflection, then reluctantly she placed the crown on her head. It blazed brilliantly, as if to proclaim that it had finally found its mistress.
“Stop that.” Ceri commanded and the glow dimmed, she wrenched it off and collapsed on the bed. When Herne came for her he found her sitting on the bed, her face streaked with dried tears and the crown lying, discarded on the floor.
“I can’t wear it,” she said without turning, “I put it on and it started to glow, and when I told it to stop - it stopped! I don’t want to know any more. Just forget about tonight.”
Herne bent and picked the crown up and seated himself beside Ceri, gently he put an arm around her and cuddled her to him, “Oh Cerian,” he said gently, “this crown only augments the power you already have, it is only a tool, a sophisticated tool but still a tool. You don’t have to wear it if you don’t want to of course, but you may find that the tasks you are called upon to do will be much harder without it.”
“But I can’t wear it in my own world,” Cerian turned to look at him for the first time.
“In a few weeks you will become a schoolgirl again and return to your lessons and your books and there will be no question of your power ever coming to the notice of the people in your own world. Lady, you don’t have to use it, not everyone can wear it with impunity, some it has scarred for life because they presumed that they could wear this crown. Will you wear it for me, or if not for me, for tonight?”
Cerian stared at him for a long time and then slowly she removed the circle of silver from Herne’s fingers and returned to the mirror. She combed her fair hair and replaced the band. It glimmered faintly, like starlight on frost. Walking across to the basin and ewer she poured some water and washed the tear marks from her cheeks. It was a more composed lady that turned back to the Hunter, “Shall we go, Lord?” she queried, “it would not do to keep our guests waiting.”
At the bottom of the stairs Galahad was pacing back and forth like a caged tiger. Ceri touched his arm and some of the tension seemed to leave him, “Have we kept you waiting, mon chevalier?”
Galahad smiled down at her and shook his head, “Not really, Princess, but something’s happening around us, Time appears to be shifting and it is disconcerting for one such as me who still remembers what it was like to be constrained by Time.”
“Then we must hurry,” Herne said quickly and the last thing Ceri felt was his hand beneath her elbow before the world around her collapsed. She looked around, Galahad and Cernunnos had disappeared and she stood in a large room before a great fire. Suddenly the door opened and a monk entered, “My Lady, you must come quickly. A messenger has arrived from Winchester, the King, your father is grievously ill. You must go to him.”
“I’ll come immediately,” Ceri said quickly, pulling the cloak around her she followed the Brother out into the chill night air.
A man stood holding the bridles of two horses, Ceri stepped forward into the light and he bowed solemnly, “My Lady, I am charged to bring you to Winchester. You know about the King?” and as Ceri nodded, he continued, “he begged us to find you before he died.”
“Then we must leave immediately,” Ceri replied bluntly. She mounted quickly, fumbling for the stirrup on the sidesaddle and finally gathering up the reins.
She bent down from the horse to inform the monk of her destination and thought that she recognised him, as he held the torch up so that she could see his face, she suddenly knew she was regarding Cernunnos in another guise. “Return to us soon, Madam,” he said quietly, and she heard his voice in her mind, Be of good courage, I shall be with you.
Ceri’s lips set in a thin line and she urged her mount forward into the night. They rode like the wind for Winchester and the moon had set and the stars were beginning to pale when they arrived at the palace. Cerian marched into the keep with all the grace and audacity as befitted one of her rank, “Take me to the King,” she demanded.
“My lady, would you not prefer some refreshment after your ride,” Flaptongue quavered.
“There is no time,” Ceri replied, more gently now, “please, I must see the King!”
“And you shall.” Another voice said softly, Ceri looked up, a nun stood at the top of the stairs, “follow me, my lady.”
There was a smell in the air, and Ceri had to fight to keep from retching, it was a mixture of feathers, sweat and the peculiar fœtid smell of sickrooms. Ambrosius lay on the bed, asleep, though even in sleep he muttered deliriously and his hands plucked the coverlet. Ceri divested herself of the cloak she wore and taking the bowl of water and cloths from the servant gently began to wipe the sweat from her father’s face and neck. As the day wore on he seemed to pass into a kind of sleep. However by mid-afternoon he was muttering again lost in the throes of delirium and Ceri knew that his malady was grave. It was night when she left the chamber to eat and when she returned Ambrosius was conscious, although Ceri could see from his pallor that he was dangerously ill.
“Ceri!” he cried as he saw her and tried to rise but slumped back against the cushions, “you came. I thought I might never see you again.”
“I told you that if you ever needed me, I would come.” Ceri said, trying not to cry “Do you want me to try to heal you?”
“No.” Ambrosius shook his head, “not this time. Will you tell Merlin I was thinking of him?”
“Father, I’m here.” Ceri turned and saw Merlin standing at the end of the bed, he was older now and all at once Ceri felt more alone than ever, “rest easy Father, we’re both here.”
“You will remember me?”
“All of England will remember you,” they spoke in unison and a weak smile touched his lips.
“You will finish the monument for me?” he spoke to Merlin again and Ceri saw the attendants’ frightened glances and heard their whispers.
“The King is delirious, he speaks to demons!”
“He cannot live long now, he is not even aware of us.” Ceri saw them both make the sign to ward off the evil eye and suppressed the desire to laugh.
“Do you want to be buried where the monument stands?” Ceri asked. Ambrosius nodded quickly and smiled again, “Uther is to be King after me, you will tell him?” this was to Merlin.
“I shall do that, Father.”
“I have left Britain unified at last. Do not grieve, my children, celebrate my passing for I go to join the Invincible Sun.” He fell silent and his eyes closed, Ceri turned and saw Merlin smile at her, “Will this be farewell, my sister?”
“I don’t know,” Cerian sighed, “I should like us to meet again, brother. You and I are the only ones who understand what it is like to bear these burdens of knowledge and power.”
“I hope we meet again. Have the servants send for my mother’s coffin at the Convent of Saint Peter in Maridunum. Will you take care of him?”
“Yes,” Ceri wanted to say more but found there were no words to express the depth of her emotions. “Farewell, Merlin. I shall dress him in his battle garb with his sword in his hand.” Merlin raised a hand in farewell and then slowly faded until he was gone.
Ambrosius awoke once after that, he smiled up at Ceri and whispered, “Your crown, where did you get it?”
“It was given to me at Glastonbury.”
“I have seen it before,” Ambrosius sighed, “on the altar to Mithras beneath the Mountains of the World. The legend -” Ceri gently laid a finger on his lips, “Sssh, Father, you shouldn’t talk so much. You’ll exhaust yourself.”
Ambrosius grinned, a warrior’s grin, grim and fierce and replied with some of the old strength, “This is something that you should know. This Diadem has lain on the altar to Mithras for many Ages of Man. There is a story that a sword of Power was forged from a special metal long ago and with the excess metal a Diadem was made. It was said that whomsoever wore it would herald the new age.” He broke off suddenly and lay back on the bed his breathing ragged. Finally he looked up at Ceri and she saw that his eyes were full of love “Is this the new age - now - in my time?”
“Not yet,” Ceri replied, she clasped her father’s hand and said quietly, “I am still not sure what is expected of me, all I seem to do is make mistakes.”
“We all do. Just be sure that you learn from the mistakes you make,” Ambrosius whispered. His lips curved upwards again, “But I have seen the Diadem of Mithras worn, by my own child! What more could a man ask of any god? Stay with me, Cerian.”
“Until you order me to leave you, My Lord.” Cerian replied, “may your sleep be peaceful and your dreams pleasant until the Sol Invictus himself takes your hand and awakens you.”
“My beloved daughter,” Ambrosius whispered and then his eyes seemed to fill with a blue fire. His skin became almost translucent and a look of ineffable peace crossed his face. He inhaled once more and then the breath escaped from his body in a soft sigh and Ambrosius seemed to sink a little further into the cushions.
Ceri slid from the stool and kneeling beside the bed buried her face in her hands and sobbed until she thought her heart would break.