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Authors: Mary Stewart

Crystal Cave

BOOK: Crystal Cave
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The Crystal Cave
Mary Stewart
(1970)

To the Memory of MOLLIE CRAIG

with my love

MERLIN

O Merlin in your crystal cave

Deep in the diamond of the day,

Will there ever be a singer

Whose music will smooth away

The furrow drawn by Adam's finger

Across the meadow and the wave?

Or a runner who'll outrun

Man's long shadow driving on,

Burst through the gates of history,

And hang the apple on the tree?

Will your sorcery ever show

The sleeping bride shut in her bower,

The day wreathed in its mound of snow,

And Time locked in his tower?

— Edwin Muir

PROLOGUE
THE PRINCE OF DARKNESS

I am an old man now, but then I was already past my prime when Arthur was crowned King. The years since then seem to me now more dim and faded than the earlier years, as if my life were a growing tree which burst to flower and leaf with him, and now has nothing more to do than yellow to the grave.

This is true of all old men, that the recent past is misted, while distant scenes of memory are clear and brightly coloured. Even the scenes of my far childhood come back to me now sharp and high-coloured and edged with brightness, like the pattern of a fruit tree against a white wall, or banners in sunlight against a sky of storm.

The colours are brighter than they were, of that I am sure. The memories that come back to me here in the dark are seen with the new young eyes of childhood; they are so far gone from me, with their pain no longer present, that they unroll like pictures of something that happened, not to me, not to the bubble of bone that this memory used to inhabit, but to another Merlin as young and light and free of the air and spring winds as the bird she named me for.

With the later memories it is different; they come back, some of them, hot and shadowed, things seen in the fire. For this is where I gather them. This is one of the few trivial tricks — I cannot call it power —

left to me now that I am old and stripped at last down to man. I can see still...not clearly or with the call of trumpets as I once did, but in the child's way of dreams and pictures in the fire. I can still make the flames burn up or die; it is one of the simplest of magics, the most easily learned, the last forgotten. What I cannot recall in dream I see in the flames, the red heart of the fire or the countless mirrors of the crystal cave.

The first memory of all is dark and fireshot. It is not my own memory, but later you will understand how I know these things. You would call it not memory so much as a dream of the past, something in the blood, something recalled from him, it may be, while he still bore me in his body. I believe that such things can be. So it seems to me right that I should start with him who was before me, and who will be again when I am gone.

This is what happened that night. I saw it, and it is a true tale.

It was dark, and the place was cold, but he had lit a small fire of wood, which smoked sullenly but gave a little warmth. It had been raining all day, and from the branches near the mouth of the cave water still dripped, and a steady trickle overflowed the lip of the well, soaking the ground below. Several times, restless, he had left the cave, and now he walked out below the cliff to the grove where his horse stood tethered.

With the coming of dusk the rain had stopped, but a mist had risen, creeping knee-high through the trees so that they stood like ghosts, and the grazing horse floated like a swan. It was a grey, and more than ever ghostly because it grazed so quietly; he had torn up a scarf and wound fragments of cloth round the bit so that no jingle should betray him. The bit was gilded, and the torn strips were of silk, for he was a king's son. If they had caught him, they would have killed him. He was just eighteen.

He heard the hoofbeats coming softly up the valley. His head moved, and his breathing quickened. His sword flicked with light as he lifted it. The grey horse paused in its grazing and lifted its head clear of the mist. Its nostrils flickered, but no sound came. The man smiled. The hoofbeats came closer, and then, shoulder-deep in mist, a brown pony trotted out of the dusk. Its rider, small and slight, was wrapped in a dark cloak, muffled from the night air. The pony pulled to a halt, threw up its head, and gave a long, pealing whinny. The rider, with an exclamation of dismay, slipped from its back and grabbed for the bridle to muffle the sound against her cloak. She was a girl, very young, who looked round her anxiously until she saw the young man, sword in hand, at the edge of the trees.

"You sound like a troop of cavalry," he said.

"I was here before I knew it. Everything looks strange in the mist."

"No one saw you? You came safely?"

"Safely enough. It's been impossible the last two days. They were on the roads night and day."

"I guessed it." He smiled. "Well, now you are here. Give me the bridle." He led the pony in under the trees, and tied it up. Then he kissed her.

After a while she pushed him away. "I ought not to stay. I brought the things, so even if I can't come tomorrow — " She stopped. She had seen the saddle on his horse, the muffled bit, the packed saddle-bag. Her hands moved sharply against his chest, and his own covered them and held her fast.

"Ah," she said, "I knew. I knew even in my sleep last night. You're going."

"I must. Tonight."

She was silent for a minute. Then all she said was: "How long?"

He did not pretend to misunderstand her. "We have an hour, two, no more."

She said flatly: "You will come back." Then as he started to speak: "No. Not now, not any more. We have said it all, and now there is no more time. I only meant that you will be safe, and you will come back safely. I tell you, I know these things. I have the Sight. You will come back."

"It hardly needs the Sight to tell me that. I must come back. And then perhaps you will listen to me —"

"No." She stopped him again, almost angrily. "It doesn't matter. What does it matter? We have only an hour, and we are wasting it. Let us go in."

He was already pulling out the jewelled pin that held her cloak together, as he put an arm round her and led her towards the cave.

"Yes, let us go in."

BOOK I
THE DOVE
1

The day my uncle Camlach came home, I was just six years old.

I remember him well as I first saw him, a tall young man, fiery like my grandfather, with the blue eyes and reddish hair that I thought so beautiful in my mother. He came to Maridunum near sunset of a September evening, with a small troop of men. Being only small, I was with the women in the long, old-fashioned room where they did the weaving. My mother was sitting at the loom; I remember the cloth; it was of scarlet, with a narrow pattern of green at the edge. I sat near her on the floor, playing knuckle-bones, right hand against left. The sun slanted through the windows, making oblong pools of bright gold on the cracked mosaics of the floor; bees droned in the herbs outside, and even the click and rattle of the loom sounded sleepy. The women were talking among themselves over their spindles, but softly, heads together, and Moravik, my nurse, was frankly asleep on her stool in one of the pools of sunlight.

When the clatter, and then the shouts, came from the courtyard, the loom stopped abruptly, and with it the soft chatter from the women. Moravik came awake with a snort and a stare. My mother was sitting very straight, head lifted, listening. She had dropped her shuttle. I saw her eyes meet Moravik's.

I was halfway to the window when Moravik called to me sharply, and there was something in her voice that made me stop and go back to her without protest. She began to fuss with my clothing, pulling my tunic straight and smoothing my hair, so that I understood the visitor to be someone of importance. I felt excitement, and also surprise that apparently I was to be presented to him; I was used to being kept out of the way in those days. I stood patiently while Moravik dragged the comb through my hair, and over my head she and my mother exchanged some quick, breathless talk which, hardly heeding, I did not understand. I was listening to the tramp of horses in the yard and the shouting of men, words here and there coming clearly in a language neither Welsh nor Latin, but Celtic with some accent like the one of Less Britain, which I understood because my nurse, Moravik, was a Breton, and her language came to me as readily as my own.

I heard my grandfather's great laugh, and another voice replying. Then he must have swept the newcomer indoors with him, for the voices receded, leaving only the jingle and stamp of the horses being led to the stables.

I broke from Moravik and ran to my mother.

"Who is it?"

"My brother Camlach, the King's son." She did not look at me, but pointed to the fallen shuttle. I picked it up and handed it to her. Slowly, and rather mechanically, she set the loom moving again.

"Is the war over, then?"

"The war has been over a long time. Your uncle has been with the High King in the south."

"And now he has to come home because my uncle Dyved died?" Dyved had been the heir, the King's eldest son. He had died suddenly, and in great pain, of cramps in the stomach, and Elen his widow, who was childless, had gone back to her father. Naturally there had been the usual talk of poison, but nobody took it seriously; Dyved had been well liked, a tough fighter and a careful man, but generous where it suited. "They say he'll have to marry. Will he, Mother?" I was excited, important at knowing so much, thinking of the wedding feast. "Will he marry Keridwen, now that my uncle Dyved —"

"What?" The shuttle stopped, and she swung round, startled. But what she saw in my face appeased her, for the anger went out of her voice, though she still frowned, and I heard Moravik clucking and fussing behind me. "Where in the world did you get that? You hear too much, whether you understand it or not.

Forget such matters, and hold your tongue." The shuttle moved again, slowly. "Listen to me, Merlin.

When they come to see you, you will do well to keep quiet. Do you understand me?"

"Yes, Mother." I understood very well. I was well accustomed to keeping out of the King's way. "But will they come to see me? Why me?"

She said, with a thin bitterness that made her look all at once older, almost as old as Moravik: "Why do you think?"

The loom clacked again, fiercely. She was feeding in the green thread, and I could see that she was making a mistake, but it looked pretty, so I said nothing, watching her and staying close, till at length the curtain at the doorway was pushed aside, and the two men came in.

They seemed to fill the room, the red head and the grey within a foot of the beams. My grandfather wore blue, periwinkle colour with a gold border. Camlach was in black. Later I was to discover that he always wore black; he had jewels on his hands and at his shoulder, and beside his father he looked lightly built and young, but as sharp and whippy as a fox.

My mother stood up. She was wearing a house-robe of dark brown, the colour of peat, and against it her hair shone like corn-silk. But neither of the two men glanced at her. You would have thought there was no one in the room but I, small as I was, by the loom.

My grandfather jerked his head and said one word: "Out," and the women hurried in a rustling, silent group from the chamber. Moravik stood her ground, puffed up with bravery like a partridge, but the fierce blue eyes flicked to her for a second, and she went. A sniff as she passed them was all that she dared. The eyes came back to me.

"Your sister's bastard," said the King. "There he is. Six years old this month, grown like a weed, and no more like any of us than a damned devil's whelp would be. Look at him! Black hair, black eyes, and as scared of cold iron as a changeling from the hollow hills. You tell me the devil himself got that one, and I'll believe you!"

My uncle said only one word, straight to her: "Whose?"

"You think we didn't ask, you fool?" said my grandfather. "She was whipped till the women said she'd miscarry, but never a word from her. Better if she had, perhaps — some nonsense they were talking, old wives' tales of devils coming in the dark to lie with young maids — and from the look of him they could be right."

Camlach, six foot and golden, looked down at me. His eyes were blue, clear as my mother's, and his colour was high. The mud had dried yellow on his soft doeskin boots, and a smell of sweat and horses came from him. He had come to look at me before even taking the dirt of travel off. I remember how he stared down at me, while my mother stood silent, and my grandfather glowered under his brows, his breath coming harsh and rapid, as it always did when he had put himself in a passion.

"Come here," said my uncle.

I took half a dozen steps forward. I did not dare go nearer. I stopped. From three paces away he seemed taller than ever. He towered over me to the ceiling beams.

"What's your name?"

"Myrddin Emrys."

"Emrys? Child of light, belonging to the gods...? That hardly seems the name for a demon's whelp."

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