Beneath The Mountains Of The World
She never knew how long she knelt there crying, but suddenly a gentle hand touched her shoulder and Ceri turned a tear-stained face to see a priest standing behind her, compassion in his eyes. Quickly she scrambled to her feet and murmured, “I am sorry, Father, you will want to perform the last rites-” her voice died away as the figure slowly changed until it was Herne standing in front of her. She saw pity in his golden eyes, “Come, my Lady, there will be time enough for grief later. We have much to do.”
Ceri stood up and turned to face Herne, “You knew this would happen, that’s why you wanted me here - you knew!”
“Yes.” Herne replied, “I knew, we must take him and Niniane from this place into one of the Ancient Hills where they may lie in deathless sleep until they can be awakened.”
“When will that be?” Ceri felt the tears course down her cheeks. The thought of never seeing Ambrosius again was more than she could bear.
“Someday,” Herne replied, “He was the First True High King of all Britannia, and Niniane would have been his Queen. They have that right.”
Ceri said nothing but the tears that flowed down her face increased in number. Herne put his arms around her and hugged her, “Ssh,” he said softly rocking her shaking figure, “it will be all right, you’ll see.”
Then Herne bent over the silent figure of Ambrosius and laid a palm on his chest. A glow illuminated it and spread to the rest of his body, Ambrosius started to breathe again, long slow breaths, like one caught in an enchanted sleep. “I shall see to the King.” Herne said quietly. “Go and see to the Lady Niniane’s coffin, it should be brought into the adjoining chamber.”
The servants were clustered outside the rooms when Cerian emerged, “The King is dead.” she said simply, “The body is being tended; I will dress him in his armour and place his sword in his hand. I came to request the Lady Niniane’s coffin from the Convent of Saint Peter in Maridunum.”
“At once, your Highness.” A servant bowed solemnly and then left the hall. Ceri stood wondering where to go when a gentle voice said, “Madam, would you like a cup of mulled wine? It is a bitter night and you have taken no refreshment since last night.”
“Yes, thank you.” Ceri replied. The girl slipped away and returned with a wooden cup more than half-filled with a dark steaming liquid. Ceri took it gratefully while another servant went to fetch a chair. She sipped the hot sweet wine, and tried to compose herself, she felt numb, and she couldn’t believe that she would never speak with, or listen, to her father again. She started to cry silently and the tears ran down her chin and dripped into the wine.
A hand dropped to her shoulder and she turned to see Gorlois, the Duke of Tintagel standing behind her. “Is there aught I can do, Lady?”
Cerian shook her head, “There is nothing anyone can do, but thank you, Sir Duke.” Gorlois regarded her silently, as the tears coursed down Cerian’s cheeks. Eventually he coughed and handed her a large handkerchief.
The cup of wine was long finished when Lady Niniane’s coffin arrived and Father Elias emerged from the Count’s room. He looked down over the balustrade to see a rude wooden coffin being carried in through the doors. “Bring it up to the King’s chamber. I shall place it beside the coffin belonging to the King.” Herne turned to Ceri and said quietly, “Would you accompany me, Princess.”
Silently Cerian rose to her feet and followed Herne into the chamber. Ambrosius lay on the bed, but in the coffin there lay another Ambrosius, white and waxen, Ceri knelt on the floor beside the breathing Ambrosius and bent to kiss his lips but Herne’s hand on her shoulder stopped her, “No, My Lady.”
Ceri looked up and her eyes narrowed in anger but Herne seemed unperturbed, “if you kiss him, you’ll break the enchantment.”
This time Ceri flung her head back and laughed, “Even my power is not sufficient to raise someone from the dead!”
“You still have no idea,” Herne regarded her somewhat sadly, “the crown you wear means that you, above all the Ancient Ones have a power beyond imagining. The coronet you wear is the Diadem of Mithras; the god himself blessed it and conferred the power of the Sol Invictus upon it. You think that you’re the only one to whom it has been offered - think again, the fact that you wear it, and that the crown allows itself to be worn by you means-”
“Means what?” Ceri turned around her eyes blazing, “means I have to abide by your precious rules just because you say so! This diadem means that I could do anything I choose and you can’t stop me! Perhaps I should set myself up as Queen and command all those who swore allegiance to me to follow me, and they would.” She added turning back to Herne, “they owe me that much, Cernunnos!”
“You will not do that,” He said quietly.
“You can’t be sure.”
“Yes I can. If the Sol Invictus, or Mithras or even Niniane had suspected that you would seek to set yourself up and wrest power from us by force none of this would have occurred-”
“You can’t say that,” Ceri replied angrily, “humans don’t behave like that, for once I would like to defy you all and do something for me - I am sick and tired of doing everyone’s bidding. I was supposed to do something for my father - and I haven’t been able to do it. I had to watch him die and you let him!”
“No - I did not let your father die -” Herne replied softly, “and had I had a choice I would have spared you this. As for you defying us, I have no doubt that you could and might, but I do not think our trust in you is misplaced. If it brings you any comfort, I believe that one day you will take your father’s hand and raise him from this sleep, Lady.”
Ceri suddenly felt the anger drain away, she slumped onto a chair and buried her face in her hands. When she finally looked up at Herne he was smiling down at her, “I am sorry,” she said thickly, “but I wish I could have done more, I wish he could have known how I felt about him and I wish I’d said goodbye.”
“Lady,” Herne replied, “You did do something for him, you comforted him, do you think he did not know his time was near? You offered to heal him and he refused, at least credit him with some intelligence, you eased his passing, your task was to soothe him and what you must do now is to prepare him for the day when he will be awakened. Know this too, that he knew that of all the peoples in the world, the one chosen to wear the Diadem of Mithras was his own daughter. Not a man, but a woman. You comforted him and held his hand - not even Merlin can say that.”
Ceri sighed and Herne nodded curtly, “You’ll be all right, for you are Much Loved, and not by me alone. Now come, we have a lot of work to do this night and for Niniane I need a woman’s touch.”
Somewhat more at peace with herself Ceri stood up and joined Herne. Their hands rested gently on each other and beneath them a soft golden light began to glow, Herne started to chant:
“Recreate in flesh and bone;
And auburn hair of færie charm,
Sweet Niniane and this spell keep.
Her safe and blessed in dreamless sleep.
So she, until the mountains sing
May dream in peace, beside her King.”
They opened the coffin and a woman lay within it, she wore a nun’s habit and a cross was around her neck. Ceri stared at the face and watched the chest rise and fall with the same long, slow breaths that characterised the King’s slumber.
“We must dress her in something more appropriate,” Herne said, “this-” he gestured at the habit and cross, “will never do.”
“I’ve never heard you use spells before,” Ceri said as they removed the head veil and wimple, “normally you don’t speak.”
“This spell was more for your benefit, I do not know when the mountains will sing, but until they do, Ambrosius and Niniane will remain asleep beneath the earth.”
“I’ve never undressed anyone before, Lord,” Ceri suddenly felt young and alone, “I would prefer not to have to do this.”
“Yes, I know.” Herne said, “but I should like your assistance and it is not so bad once you have done it.”
Ceri nodded quickly, she was already feeling out of her depth and if she spoke she was afraid that her voice would give her away. Herne gently lifted Niniane, her wimple slid off and a mass of auburn hair was released. Herne laid her on the bed and together they divested her of her clothes. Ever afterwards Ceri remembered little of the experience and barely heard anything that Herne said to her, but she was aware of his voice in the background, and it was gentle and encouraging.
Eventually Niniane lay in an emerald green dress next to Ambrosius. Then Herne turned back to the empty coffin and made a few passes over it with his hands. Another Niniane appeared lying within it; Herne smiled triumphantly and then closed the lid. He did the same to Ambrosius’s coffin and then called the servants.
Ceri touched his arm, “Won’t they notice them on the bed?”
“No.” Herne assured her, “they will see two coffins that are to be taken to the unfinished monument for that is what they expect to see. You and I have more important things to do.”
The servants entered and bore the coffins away. Ceri left the room and found the Steward relaying his orders concerning the two coffins. He stopped when he saw Ceri, “Yes, my Lady?”
“I regret that I cannot be present for the funeral,” Ceri began, “I must make a long journey and I cannot wait, Merlin will understand, will you tell him that I should have liked to have been there. Please-” she held up her hand as the Steward made as if to assist her, “do not trouble yourselves. I should like to leave in silence, thank you for your kindness. Fare thee well.”
“May you fare well too, Lady.” the Steward replied but Ceri had already turned around and the darkness swallowed her up.
When Ceri returned to the upper room Herne was already beginning to weave his magic. Without any prompting she moved across to stand opposite Herne, she gazed down at Ambrosius and Niniane and her face was calm and her bearing queenly, “I hope you are right, Lord Cernunnos, for I would not like him to sleep forever.”
“Even if he did, Princess, it would be no loss to him. For sleep is pleasant and for him it will pass in the wink of an eye. We are the ones who are bound by Time.”
“That’s true,” Ceri smiled and then their palms touched, for a moment she felt the world rock beneath her and fought down the desire to steady herself, she was alone at the foot of the stairs, Galahad and Herne were nowhere in sight. I’ve just been here, she thought puzzled, so how am I back here?
She felt a hand beneath her elbow and then heard Herne’s voice, “Mea culpa, Princess. You had to see Ambrosius to show him that you were the one to wear the Diadem, and to comfort him. Once the main task had been accomplished, Time brought you back to your starting point, I helped but really we rode on Time for a while.”
“You might have warned me,” Ceri remarked. She turned to Galahad and took his hand, “You and I have experienced much, have we not, Mon chevalier?”
Galahad lifted her hand and kissed it, “My Lady, we have realised the impossible! You are my liege lady, now and forever!”
“We are expected in the Great Hall,” Herne interrupted, “The last part of this begins.”
Slowly the doors opened and Cerian saw on the raised dais in the centre the bodies of Ambrosius and Niniane, the floral tributes around them both made it almost impossible for Ceri to move through them. Her nose started to hurt and tears began to trickle down her cheeks, she stood at their feet and whispered, “I shall come back and take both your hands and lift this sleep from you, by Epona and Mithras and by the Light I swear it!”
To her surprise it was Galahad who put an arm around her shoulders and held her. “We have to take them from here, to another Holy Place. Will you be all right?”
Ceri nodded and from somewhere she dredged up the strength to stand upright and move away from him. Cernunnos had lifted Ambrosius and for the first time she saw how stricken he looked. “Oh Cernunnos,” she bit her lower lip, suddenly ashamed of her previous anger, “you grieve too.”
“We both do, Lady,” it was Galahad who spoke, he held Niniane in his arms and her copper hair spilled over his breastplate.
“I grieve his loss from our presence,” Herne said softly, “for he too was one of the Ancient Ones and I shall miss the comfort of having him around.”
“What must I do?” Ceri smiled at them both.
“The Diadem will show you the way.” This time Herne’s smile was warm and full, “relax, Princess, let it guide you.”
Slowly, Cerian began to walk the length of the Great Hall, she paused at the door and carefully removed the circlet, she held it in her hands and then suddenly she flung it into the air, for a moment it glittered brightly, the black stone catching the lights of all the candles in the hall and then there was a noise, like a soft thunderclap, and before them stood another room, the floor was made of hewn stone and from somewhere, although Ceri could not see where, a cool blue light illuminated the place. Tentatively, Cerian stepped forward into the light and Herne and Galahad followed her. Then a door closed and the watchers were alone in the Hall.
Ceri looked around her, the corridor opened into a large chamber, Galahad and Herne stopped, the room was filled with people, all caught in slumber. Ceri saw one that she recognised and her eyes widened and she recognised Bedwyr, angrily she turned on Herne, “If he was to be sentenced thus, what was the point of my forgiveness, why should the Midwinter Thorn bloom if this was what was going to happen!”
To her surprise it was Galahad who replied, “Lady, without your forgiveness he could not have entered here, he awaits the One who will take him by the hand and raise him and present him to his King - as do all who sleep here. Come, we must place the King and Queen in their appointed places.”
This time Herne led the way, to a raised dais, carefully he laid Ambrosius down and Galahad placed Niniane next to him. Ceri stood looking down on them her eyes dry and scratchy, she felt too weary to cry, she wrapped her arms around herself and pushed her chin onto her chest in an effort to block out the sight of them both.
She turned and began to stride down the rest of the hall, suddenly she stopped, there were no more bodies, caught in slumber, instead there was a small chamber hollowed out from the earth itself, set against the wall was what was obviously an altar and sitting on it was the Diadem that Ceri had thrown into the air in the Great Hall at Ynys Witrin, she stared at it and then a gentle and very familiar voice said, “I thought that we would meet again, are you going to take your crown?”
Cerian turned to see a young man standing behind her, he was still dressed like a Roman centurion, he held his helmet under his arm, “Greetings,” she said softly, and then curtsied, “Lord Mithras.”
“Lord?” The man’s eyebrow lifted a notch and he inclined his head, “Ambrosius always gave me the impression you were among the most courteous of his offspring - I see that he spoke the truth. Listen to me, I may only appear to you for a short time, by rights I should not appear at all to a woman but you have been shown a great favour. Lady, the beginning of your quest is almost at an end, with every choice you make you reject one path and choose another, how things will progress I know not, but I know this - you of all who have attempted this quest have come farther and accomplished more than any of the others, when you leave this place go in good heart. Farewell, Lady.”
“Wait!” Ceri cried, “You did not believe that I would save the Hunter – why should you appear to me now?”
Mithras bowed and when he raised his head Ceri saw a real smile playing about his lips, “The night you restored Ambrosius to life showed your quality. I admit that I was wrong, Princess.”
He raised his arm in a typical Roman salute and Ceri curtsied solemnly, slowly the man faded from view. She felt rather than heard Cernunnos behind her, “He called me Princess!” Ceri gasped
“I should hope so,” Ceri thought she heard him chuckle, “Are you going to take your crown?”
“I will not wear the Diadem again until my father awakens from sleep.” Ceri said softly, she smiled half-heartedly. “Where is Galahad?”
“Beside Bedwyr’s bier.”
Ceri turned to see Galahad standing at the foot of the dais upon which one of the fairest of the knights ever to grace the Round Table lay and saw Galahad’s head fall and with a startling clarity knew where she had seen that turn of the head before and of whom Galahad reminded her.
She walked across to him and laid her hand on his arm, “Why didn’t you tell me?” she asked softly.
Galahad’s face turned towards her and for a second Ceri saw the agony in his eyes, she reached up and hugged him to her, “Mon chevalier,” she murmured, “My dearest knight.” It was with a shock that she realised he’d started to cry, for an instant she was more afraid than she’d ever been in any of her encounters with the Dark and then that feeling too passed and instinctively she rocked him as one rocks a child. When he raised his head from her neck she saw that his eyes were red-rimmed, “I should have known, after all, Bedwyr told me you were his son on The Day Of The Dead, I wasn’t listening.” Cerian said softly, “after all he was the best, the bravest and the most beloved of all knights that ever sat at the Round Table, the love of Gwenhwyfar and beloved of Elaine. He’s your father.”
Galahad nodded, “The Ancient Ones say that he will not sleep forever, but sometimes I feel that the world will dissolve in fire and wrath and he will dissolve with it. We spent such a short time together on earth and I miss him more than I ever dreamed possible.”
Ceri looked across at Ambrosius and Niniane locked in their enchanted sleep and then she turned back to Galahad, “I know.” She said simply, “It feels like that for me too, even if Cernunnos himself has assured me that someday I shall awaken them, but at the moment I can’t bear to lose them.”
Galahad reached up and with his thumbs he gently wiped away the tears that trickled from the corners of Ceri’s eyes and when he spoke his voice was harsh, “We must go, My Lady, the time for the awakening is not yet.”
“I know,” Ceri sighed again and for the last time looked back at the dais, it felt as though her heart was being torn apart but she turned back to her two friends and said, “Let’s go. The longer we stay the harder it will be to leave.”
Herne nodded slowly and without waiting for the word Ceri led the way, they halted as they reached the smooth wall. Ceri raised her hands, palms together, as if she was about to say a prayer and drew them apart. The wall opened, but instead of opening into the hall this time the entrance led onto a rugged hillside. Cropping the grass three feet away three horses were tethered, one of them raised its head and whickered a greeting.
Galahad stepped forward his face lighting up, “Crisiant!”
Cerian stepped forward and took the reins of the chestnut mare, ”We shall give you some time to yourself, Sir Knight,” she said formally, “I hope to see you very soon.”
Cernunnos opened his mouth but Ceri glared at him so fiercely that he shut it again. Cerian mounted and Herne followed suit, they left Galahad with his face buried in Crisiant’s neck.
“Don’t say anything,” Ceri bit the words out, “not a word. Understand?”
Herne nodded mutely, after a while Cerian turned to Herne, “All right. Ask your question.”
“Why did you leave him? He might do something foolish?”
“I would have been more foolish to compel him to come with us,” Cerian replied, “That was the first time he’s seen his father, am I right?”
Herne nodded slowly, “I hoped that he would be so caught up in our ceremonies that he wouldn’t notice.”
“Well he noticed. From the little he said he knew about this.”
“Yes. Or rather he knew that his father passed into the Halls beneath the Earth to sleep; until a Queen could raise him.”
“But not where? That I think was stupid. But on the whole, better now than later.” By this time the horses had walked in a circle and they returned to see Galahad trotting towards them. As he reached them they saw his face was more composed. He smiled and spoke to Ceri, “Forgive me, Princess.” Then his hand grasped her forearm and he pulled her towards him and kissed her lips.
Ceri’s eyes opened even wider, she was too surprised to pull away. Then Galahad released her and was sitting back on his horse. From somewhere she found a voice, “You’re forgiven, mon chevalier.” He reined his horse in to match its pace to hers; they were both so taken aback at what had just transpired that neither saw the smile playing about Herne’s lips.
“You know the place we’ve just been could be anywhere,” Ceri remarked, “Wales, Scotland, it could even be parts of France or Switzerland.”
“That’s the beauty of the place.” Herne replied, “it must be kept secret you see. Not just from the Dark but from ordinary mortals.”
“Yes.” Ceri mused thoughtfully, “Who knows what Archaeologists and Scientists and the like would do if they ever discovered that Hall.”
Herne shuddered, “Don’t. I have a very low opinion of the majority of your countrymen, Princess, in fact in four hundred years I have only discovered two who were worth the trust I placed in them. It does not say much for this world once the sons of Adam and the daughters of Eve are left to their own devices.”
“No. No, it doesn’t.” Ceri replied, “But it will be their world and they must make the best of it.”
Herne halted his mount and said, “Do you know what you just said?”
Ceri nodded absent-mindedly, “Only that the world will belong to the Sons of Adam and Daughters of Eve.”
“Yes, I heard that,” Herne licked his lips, “but you didn’t identify yourself among them.”
Cerian turned towards him and opened her mouth and then said, “But I’m not mortal, am I?”
To her surprise, Herne leant forward and hugged her to him, “I know that it is hard to break the ties that bind you; those of family and home are the worst. By acknowledging yourself and your power you’ve taken the first step.”
“The first step to what?”
“I don’t know,” Herne replied, “perhaps the first step to self-discovery. Perhaps the first hint of the greatness of your power.”
They rounded the bend in the track and before them the Abbey rose in all its magnificence and Ceri suddenly felt a great sense of relief at the sight of such a familiar edifice. Eagerly she trotted towards it.