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Authors: Michael G. Coney

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King of the Scepter'd Isle (Song of Earth)

BOOK: King of the Scepter'd Isle (Song of Earth)
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KING OF THE SCEPTER’D ISLE

Michael G. Coney

www.sfgateway.com

Enter the SF Gateway …

In the last years of the twentieth century (as Wells might have put it), Gollancz, Britain’s oldest and most distinguished science fiction imprint, created the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series. Dedicated to re-publishing the English language’s finest works of SF and Fantasy, most of which were languishing out of print at the time, they were – and remain – landmark lists, consummately fulfilling the original mission statement:

‘SF MASTERWORKS is a library of the greatest SF ever written, chosen with the help of today’s leading SF writers and editors. These books show that genuinely innovative SF is as exciting today as when it was first written.’

Now, as we move inexorably into the twenty-first century, we are delighted to be widening our remit even more. The realities of commercial publishing are such that vast troves of classic SF & Fantasy are almost certainly destined never again to see print. Until very recently, this meant that anyone interested in reading any of these books would have been confined to scouring second-hand bookshops. The advent of digital publishing has changed that paradigm for ever.

The technology now exists to enable us to make available, for the first time, the entire backlists of an incredibly wide range of classic and modern SF and fantasy authors. Our plan is, at its simplest, to use this technology to build on the success of the SF and Fantasy Masterworks series and to go even further.

Welcome to the new home of Science Fiction & Fantasy. Welcome to the most comprehensive electronic library of classic SFF titles ever assembled.

Welcome to the SF Gateway.

1
CASTLE CAMYLIARD

T
HE TWO GREATEST
STORYTELLERS IN ALL ENGLAND
came to Castle Camyliard late one autumn afternoon.

“He calls himself king,” said Merlin.

“And why not?” Nyneve regarded the grim bulk of the castle in some awe. “It looks like the kind of place a king would live in. But not me. Not for any title.” She was fifteen years old at that time, still learning about men but already beautiful enough to influence them.

The castle of this western land loomed dark and granite-faced from a breast of broken moorland. From its battlements the gray Atlantic could be seen on three sides, restless, sucking hungrily at the cliffs. North lay Wales, south lay France. Prisoner rocks struggled in the western sea, abandoned by the defeated land. Remains of a sunken Lyonesse could be seen all the way from Land’s End to the Scilly Isles.

England lay to the east of the castle. There the Romans, with troubles at home, had been withdrawing their forces for many years. This made little difference to Camyliard. The Romans had never penetrated this far into Cornwall, and King Lodegrance reigned unchallenged.

“They’ve all started calling themselves king. Every little chief in England. Once the Romans move out, they get delusions of grandeur. Empty-headed peacocks, that’s what they are. What we need is someone strong enough to unite them.” A fine drizzle
was falling and Nyneve was anxious to get on, but Merlin had shambled to a halt, gesturing with the willow twig he called a wand. “A leader of men!” he cried, addressing the empty moorland with shrill enthusiasm. “A man of courage and wisdom, with the strength of a lion and the gentleness of a deer.”

“Have you ever seen stags in the rutting season?”

“A female deer, although manly in all other ways. To bring them all together in peace and understanding. A man like—”

“Like you, Merlin?” asked Nyneve skeptically.

“Like Arthur!”

A surprising change came over Nyneve. She flushed and said, “Yes.”

“We will tell the people of Camyliard about Arthur!”

“Well, yes. That’s what we’re here for, remember? And this is about as far as we can get, thank the Lord. After Camyliard we head back home.”

Merlin gazed resentfully at the sea beyond the castle. “These last few weeks have been a wonderful experience for you, Nyneve. I’ve protected you and fed you and sheltered you—”

“And tried to get in bed with me.”

“—and given you the benefits of thousands of years of experience, and …” Her last remark filtered through to him and his voice grew petulant. “And all I’ve asked in return is a little friendship. A little daughterly affection. And what have I received?” He searched his ancient brain for the right word. “Rebuffment.”

“Don’t let’s go into all that again. Come on, Merlin. I’m getting frozen to the marrow standing here. We’ve got another two miles to go, at least.”

By the time they reached the castle it was getting dark. Lanterns cast a sickly yellow light on the wet walls and a cold sea breeze eddied around their ankles. The gulls were silent now, settling down for the night; and sleepy Camyliard goats uttered the occasional complaint from nearby barns.

A guard
stepped clanking from the shadows. “Halt!”

“We
are
halted, for God’s sake. Put that pointed thing down before you hurt someone. I’m Merlin.”

A derisive laugh. “Oh, yes? Cast a spell, then.”

“I will do as I choose. Now let us through. Nyneve and I have come to entertain the castle.”

A sudden change came over the man. He didn’t exactly spring to attention, but he was clearly impressed. “Nyneve? She’s the storyteller. We’ve heard about her.”

“And about me, clearly,” said Merlin, piqued. “Now take us to the king.”

King Lodegrance sat before a cavernous fireplace with his boots off, drinking wine. He was a short, thickset man with the dark hair of the Cornish Celt and a geography of lines on his face that suggested laughter, or cruelty, or both. In a deep chair opposite, his queen gazed at the flames, pale of face and hair, captured from Saxon forebears many years ago and never able to forget it. A handful of favored soldiers lolled about the chamber, attended by servants. A minstrel strummed a lonely air about a lost lass.

“For pity’s sake stop that twanging,” shouted the king. “The night’s bad enough without your whining.” Then he noticed the newcomers. “Come over here and let me look at you,” he commanded. He examined the pair as they stood dripping onto the flagstones. “The girl’s pretty enough. Clean her up and put some decent clothes on her. There’s nothing we can do for the old man, though. By the Lord Jesus, I hope I never get that old. Feed him to the dogs. It’s the kindest thing.”

“I am Merlin!” cried the wizard, outraged.

“They are Nyneve and Merlin,” said the guard. “You know, sire. The storytellers.”

“Oh, yes. I’d heard they were heading this way. Well, you’ve come at the right time.” The lines on his face arranged themselves into a grim smile. “Now we can hang that minstrel. And our daughter is sick. I understand you are some kind of a healer, Merlin. You will have a chance to practice your skills before you entertain us.”

“Certainly,”
replied Merlin, trapped.

“Get them cleaned up, then,” commanded the king.

Some time later Nyneve, bathed, scented, and dressed, was led into the king’s presence again. His eyebrows lifted as he took in her black, lustrous hair, her heart-shaped face with its warm brown eyes, and her cuddlesome figure. They’d dressed her in one of the king’s daughter’s dresses, and it was apparent Nyneve was the more rounded of the two. In contrast was Merlin, with sacklike smock and bony ankles. “I trust my robes will soon be available,” said the latter with a pathetic attempt at dignity.

“You look more entertaining like that,” said the king. “But first you must see to my daughter.”

The daughter, Gwen, was a pallid younger version of her mother, lost in a large bed. The bedchamber was vast and smoky, and as Merlin and Nyneve entered, a wad of soot flopped into the fireplace, discouraging the fire but offering compensation in the form of a rook’s nest. The king accompanied them to the bedside.

“Work your miracles, Merlin.”

Merlin took the girl’s limp hand. Her eyes watched him with the docility of a heifer. Her face was thinner than Nyneve’s, the jaw coming to a narrow point. “What seems to be the trouble?” Merlin asked her, hoping for an instant solution to his dilemma.

“That’s for you to find out, Merlin,” snapped the king. He swung around and left.

Merlin turned to Nyneve. “Rule number one is to ask the patient first,” he said.

“The king wouldn’t know that, not being a healer himself,” said Nyneve mischievously.

Merlin laid a hand on the girl’s forehead. “She has no fever.” He took her wrist. “Her pulse is weak.” He pulled down the bedclothes and gazed at the girl’s half-clad breasts, seeking inspiration. He reached out a hand.

“Don’t you dare!” snapped Gwen.

“I’m a healer. I’m accustomed to such things.” His hand hovered over her breast like a vulture, awaiting a sign of weakness.

“I think you’re a
filthy old man.”

“You’re right,” said Nyneve. “He
is
a filthy old man.”

Gwen smiled. “You’re the first human being I’ve seen for months. Get this old fool out of here, will you, and let’s talk.”

Grumbling, Merlin departed. “He’s all right, really,” said Nyneve. “You just have to keep him at arm’s length. It’s his sister Avalona I’m frightened of. Or she may be his mother. I always forget—they’re both so old.”

“How old?” asked Gwen. “I’ve never seen anyone quite so old as him.”

“Thousands of years, so he says. And I believe him, because he knows an awful lot. How old are you?”

“Seventeen. And you?”

“Fifteen. My name’s Nyneve.”

“Fifteen … ?” Gwen regarded her curiously. “You look much older. I mean, you don’t
look
older, but you seem older. Where are you from?”

“Mara Zion, to the east. It’s a village in a forest, not far from Castle Menheniot.”

“You must have seen an awful lot of the world.” Gwen looked sad. “I’ve seen nothing. I’ve never been farther than the beach in seventeen years.”

“I’ve seen the greataway,” said Nyneve, rather smugly.

“The greataway?”

“It’s up in the sky. It’s all of time and all of space, and it’s huge. All the stars are in it, and Earth too. The stars are suns just like our sun, you know. Avalona took me into the greataway once. She showed me a god up there, called Starquin.”

Gwen, baffled by all this, seized one solid fact. “God is called God.”

“That’s just what the Church tells you. Avalona says the Church doesn’t know what it’s talking about. Do the people in the village here believe in the Church and all that stuff?”

“I don’t know. My father doesn’t like me talking to the villagers.” Gwen sighed. “He says I’m a princess and I should act like one. And that means not having friends in the village, apparently. I expect you have lots of friends in Mara Zion.”

“Not so
many.” Now it was Nyneve’s turn for sadness. “Since Avalona and Merlin took me into their cottage, I’ve lost touch with people. I sometimes see Tristan, our local chief, but that’s about all. Except for the gnomes, of course. Avalona encourages me to be friends with the gnomes. She has some kind of a plan for them.”

BOOK: King of the Scepter'd Isle (Song of Earth)
3.81Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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