Chapter One

A COCKEREL CROWING its defiance to rivals always marked the start of his day. Shifting uncomfortably on a straw-stuffed sack, he turned away from the damp wall to see how far the first fingers of daylight had stretched across worn paving slabs. But the cockerel’s call was distant, muted and distorted – filtered through a narrow opening high up in his cell, making his first waking thought a cruel reminder that he was no longer in the sanctuary of his parents’ farm. Absent were the homely sounds of dogs barking, birds fighting, workers busying themselves, and the fountain splashing an invigorating melody.

Artorius sat, scratching at his woollen garment, then pushed aside the filthy blanket and ruffled his long, tangled hair, freeing some strands of straw. The rattle of keys interrupted his woeful reflection, signalling the entry of his jailor, Ahern, with a bowl of weak gruel and a pewter mug of water. He was a sullen, wordless giant who expressed himself with grunts and kicks.

“You are a happy man, Ahern, for you have found your true calling in life,” Artorius muttered, receiving a snarl in reply. Three months in his narrow cell had afforded him plenty of time to reflect on the words of Merlyn that had led to his arrest. Merlyn had exposed him to a cheering crowd as the true heir to his father, Uther Pendragon, and had showed him how to pull the sword of Ambrosius smoothly from the cleft in a rock, made possible by the removal of pressure due to Merlyn and Varden’s subtle easing back. A trick to fool an expectant crowd. No sooner had he entered the royal hall than the doors were barred behind him, and Caradoc, the army commander, had him arrested. Merlyn too, and Gawain the knight who had supported his claim. But not Varden, the ex-soldier and Merlyn’s bodyguard. He was at large and represented his only hope of rescue. 

“But my destiny as the son and heir to Uther, if indeed I am, has proven to be a false calling,” he moaned to the closing cell door. He had received no visitors or news from the outside, but the fear of execution had receded as the weeks had passed. They had locked him away and would no doubt parade him or dispose of him once the reign of the new king was bedded in – the boy-king Mordred, whose mother had tried and failed to free the sword on his behalf. He gloated over the memory of Morgana’s desperate and unsuccessful struggle.

Left alone with his thoughts, he shouted his anger and frustration at the impassive stone walls. “It was a conjuror’s trick that landed me here! It was YOUR ambition, Merlyn, not mine!” He had practised it over and over. This is what he would say to the mysterious healer should they ever meet again.

THE BEST PART of Ygerne’s day was the hour she was allowed to spend in her enclosed garden in the company of her daughters, Morgaise and Anne. They would tend to the roses and dwarf apple trees, and collect vegetables and herbs for their evening meal. They had been confined to their rooms since that strange day when Merlyn had unveiled Ambrosius’s sword. Ygerne had been shocked by his revelation that the youthful Artorius was the baby she had believed dead, although Morgana had once revealed her suspicion that he had been stolen. But that was typical of Uther’s mischief-making daughter. Morgana’s long investigation had revealed nothing, so the baby remained officially dead, despite a faint maternal flutter that tugged at her heart, the vague feeling that maybe the child still lived.  She had experienced it during Uther’s victory parade in Corinium, as if her son’s eyes were on her.

The widowed queen invited the squabbling girls to sit beside her on a stone bench and be still whilst she shared her thoughts with them. “Could it be true?” Ygerne asked her daughters, not for the first time.

Anne, a girl on the cusp of womanhood, answered first. “I think so, Mama. I have always felt that I have a brother, and have often imagined playing with him. When I saw Artorius, my heart jumped.”

“You are Uther’s daughter, without a doubt,” Ygerne laughed, “impulsive and firm in your belief.”

The older Morgaise, daughter of Ygerne’s first husband, Chief Gorlois of Cornubia, scoffed at the suggestion: “It was all a trick by Merlyn to place a farm boy on the throne so he could rule this land.”

“And yet, I would look into that boy’s eyes and decide for myself,” Ygerne replied. Her worn face, lined by thin strands of greying hair, was troubled.

“I would like to try and visit the cells to talk to him,” Anne said, making a curved line with the pointed toe of her slipper in the gravel at their feet.

“They will not let you,” Morgaise replied sharply. “And besides, it would be interpreted as plotting by Caradoc and Morgana, who rule over the boy-king. They would have your pretty head on a spike.”

The sisters glared at each other. Ygerne reached out and held their hands, silencing them. “I am less inclined to do nothing, as time goes by. Let us apply our minds to thinking of a way to contact Artorius. Perhaps, sweet Anne, you could find a way to go to the dispensary where they are holding Merlyn and try to talk to him when his guards are not looking?”

Morgaise’s face lit up at the prospect of something to do to quell their dull routine. “Yes! And I can go with her to distract the guards. But what should we ask of him, dear mother?”

THE FOLLOWING MORNING, Morgaise reported to their guards that Anne was sick with stomach ache and urgently needed to be taken to the dispensary to see a healer. The guards were visibly alarmed by the sight of Anne rolling on the floor, groaning, with white foam dribbling from the corner of her mouth. Caradoc himself appeared, some minutes later, wearing Uther’s purple cloak edged with gold, Morgaise noticed, and a silver medallion bearing an eagle’s head swinging on his chest.

“Carry her on a litter to the dispensary. Hurry,” he tersely commanded the guards.

“May I accompany her as I know her diet and history of ailments?” Morgaise asked innocently.

Caradoc nodded, then promptly turned his back and marched out.

They had not been outside of the enclosure of royal apartments in three months, and now Morgaise enjoyed looking about her at the passing traders and market stall women who turned away from her stare and stilled their chatter. Where the cobbled street ended, a dirt track took them to a row of wooden thatched huts that clustered around the dispensary, a large stone building standing apart from the more typical rows of townhouses and livestock pens.

They entered through a wide archway and were greeted by the women who tended to the sick and injured. The two guards and two litter-bearers were directed through a door and out into an airy and light courtyard where a fountain dribbled spring water into troughs from which servants collected fresh drinking water in jars for the patients. Morgaise followed the litter-bearers into a room smelling of herbs and was soon face-to-face with Merlyn. The ageing healer was still an imposing presence and easily the tallest man there. Her keen eyes noted his long grey hair tied neatly behind a black gown; his narrow features and tattoo swirls were partly hidden by a closely cropped beard. 

Merlyn’s brown eyes flitted from Morgaise to Anne lying still on the litter, and he pointed to a table laid out with a white cloth.

“What ails the young woman?” he asked.

“She has eaten something that does not agree with her delicate stomach,” Morgaise replied.

“Stand outside,” he commanded the guards and litter-bearers. They hesitated, exchanging looks, before silently withdrawing to guard the door. Morgaise sniggered at his authority over his jailors.

“I may be a hostage, but I remain a valuable resource to them. This is my dispensary, developed over many years under Uther’s reign. I preserve here the skills and knowledge of Roman physicians now long departed.” He looked at Anne’s tongue and touched the back of his fingers to her forehead, whilst Morgaise looked around her. Glass jars contained plants and body parts, and assorted clay pots with symbols scratched on them occupied the shelf space around the room.

Merlyn, once satisfied that Anne was in no danger, indicated a woman, who stood by the stool where a boy sat grinding a pestle into the mortar hugged to his ribs. “You can trust Pryderi, who assists me. The guards do not know she is my wife, so please keep this a secret.” Turning to the quiet woman he said, “My dear, may I introduce Queen Ygerne’s daughters – Morgaise and Anne.” If Pryderi was shocked or surprised, she didn’t show it. She bowed slightly to the royal princesses and busied herself on a nearby workbench.

By now Anne was sitting up. Merlyn asked Pryderi to bring a potion to ease stomach pains. “What did you take to make you unwell?” he asked her.

“I crushed up some fennel and dog wort from the garden and made a potion with sheep curd. It gave me stomach cramps and produced foaming of the mouth,” she cheerily quipped.

“Indeed, it would,” Merlyn replied. “Now drink this to settle your stomach,” he said, as Pryderi handed over the remedy.

Turning to Morgaise he asked, “Pray tell me, what it is that you have come for?”

The confident young woman faced him and held his gaze. “Our mother is concerned about the fate of the youth, Artorius. We are not convinced that he is the son of Uther, as you claim, but we would like to help rescue the boy from what may yet be an unfortunate end.”

“Have you heard that Caradoc has plans to kill him?”

“No, but our mother has a feeling that once the people are more accepting of Mordred as king, then he will be disposed of.”

Merlyn took the pewter vessel from Anne and passed it to Pryderi. “You should start to feel better now, my lady,” he said, smiling. She managed a half-smile in return. “I also am of a view that the young man needs rescuing, and soon. I had not expected allies from within the royal enclosure, although I’m pleased that you have come.” He bowed slightly to Morgaise.

“We are so bored imprisoned in our rooms that we are ready to do anything for some excitement.”

Anne coughed and added, “But I have long harboured a feeling that I might have a brother, and would welcome the chance to meet with Artorius and question him.”

Merlyn kept his thoughts to himself. A jailbreak would almost certainly be followed by a swift escape for all involved. There would not be much time for a family reunion. “I have six men or more camped in the woods who are in readiness to act. But first we need to plan his release. Can you draw me a diagram indicating where he is held on this wax tablet?” Merlyn turned to a table and handed a curved stick to Morgaise. Anne joined her and together they made a crude sketch of the interior of the underground chambers beneath the king’s hall.

“Is this the only entrance?” Merlyn asked, pointing to the sketch.

“Yes,” Anne replied. “It is guarded day and night by two guards. It can be reached from the kitchens at the back of the hall. If I know when you are coming, I can let you in through this door.” She indicated a gap in the outer wall of the enclosure.

“I know the place,” Merlyn said. “The moon will be at its brightest two nights from now and will help with our escape. We shall come to this door when the moon reaches its highest point in the night sky. I shall knock like this.” He rapped his knuckles on the table in a broken beat.

“Then one of us shall let you in,” Morgaise replied.

“We can do no more than that,” Anne added, “and must return to our rooms before the alarm is raised.”

Merlyn hesitated before speaking, “You may only have the briefest of moments with your brother, you must realise.” He did not want any words left unsaid on their plan. “But I shall send word to you where he can meet with you and your mother once we have made good our escape. That is all we can do. Remember this boy, Ulla, for it might be him who brings you news.” He ruffled the dark brown hair of the quiet boy in the corner.

Anne nodded, knowing this was the best that could be expected from a midnight jailbreak, whilst harbouring the faint hope of a snatched moment with her brother.

MERLYN LED HIS gang through the streets of sleeping Venta, beneath the glow of a pale moon. He glanced about for any signs of movement before rounding a corner, where he came face-to-face with a large, growling dog, its bared teeth and arched back indicating a readiness to strike. He held an arm up to indicate his followers should stop and dropped to eye level with the dog. He whispered in a soothing tone and slowly pulled a piece of roasted boar skin from inside his tunic and offered it. The dog approached, sniffing. Merlyn carefully patted its head and was relieved to see its tail wagging. “Come on,” he urged his followers, allowing the dog to tag along beside him.

They avoided a watchman’s tower at the corner of the wooden stockage that housed the royal buildings, and lined up in the shadow of a warehouse opposite the doorway to the kitchen. Merlyn checked both ways and studied the parapet above the wooden barrier across the street before running across to the door. He rapped the code and waited for a response. Sure enough, he heard bolts being withdrawn and he stood back, gripping his staff in both hands, ready to strike.

Morgaise’s face peered out from under a hood and he smiled with relief. “Come quickly,” she whispered. “The guards are drunk and sleeping.”

Merlyn waved for his men to follow and then entered the compound. Once all eight were inside, Varden, their leader, detailed one man to watch the doorway and two others to scout the yard and be in readiness to cover their escape.

Merlyn turned to Morgaise and asked, “Do you know where the sword of Ambrosius is?”

“The one Artorius pulled from the stone? Yes, it hangs on the wall in the Great Hall, behind the throne and under Mordred’s banner.”

When Varden returned to his side, Merlyn conveyed this information in a whisper. With a nod from Merlyn, Morgaise led them into the kitchen and out into a passageway that connected the hall to the sleeping quarters. She met Anne halfway along the narrow hallway, who indicated they should take a left turn. At the top of a circular stairwell Anne whispered to Merlyn, “At the bottom you will find the jailor sleeping on a wooden bed, but the night watchman is awake. He has the keys to the cells.”

Merlyn nodded. “Anne shall lead us down and Morgaise shall remain here to keep a look out and wait for our return. Varden will go to the hall and get the sword.”

“No,” Morgaise whispered, “the hunting hounds sleep in there by the hearth. They will attack him.”

Varden and Merlyn were confounded by this information. “Barking and snarling hounds would wake the guards,” Merlyn said, deep in thought.

“I sometimes feed the hounds,” Morgaise hissed. “They know me. Let me go there with a plate of meat from the larder and pick the sword on my way out.”

“Will they attack you in the dark?” Varden asked.

“Not if they smell the meats on offer,” she replied.

“Then let us try it,” Merlyn said, not wishing to delay further. “Varden will stand by the door with two men, ready to come to your aid if the hounds are restless,” Merlyn added.

Morgaise led Varden back to the kitchen to raid the larder for joints, whilst Merlyn and the rest of the men descended the stairs behind Anne. At the foot of the stairwell was a chamber lit by a solitary torch glowing from a bracket on the stone wall. To their right was a wooden bed on which slept the large form of Ahern, the jailor, snoring on his back. Anne crept forward towards the row of cells and bumped into a startled watchman, holding a lantern in which the candle had died.

“Oy, what are you doing here?” he growled. Merlyn and his companions shrunk back into the shadows, leaving Anne to answer him.

“I… followed my cat down the steps. Have you seen him?”

“No, I have not…” was all he managed in reply as Merlyn stepped forward and banged his head with the ball at the end of his wooden staff. The young gaoler fell to the floor, unconscious, and they checked whether the sleeping man had been disturbed by the clatter of the lamp on the floor. Ahern grunted and rolled over, facing the wall. Anne picked up the keys from the stricken man and passed them to Merlyn. They moved cautiously down a flight of a dozen steps to a tunnel lined with locked doors. A burning torch fixed to the wall lighted their way. Anne plucked it from its sconce.

Merlyn led the way to the first cell door with Anne following behind. The second key clanked in the lock and Merlyn pushed the door open, peering into the gloom. He moved towards a hunched figure lying on a bunk with his back to him. Merlyn put his hand on the sleeping man’s arm, and rolled him onto his back. The light from Anne’s torch fell on Artorius. He woke with a gasp and Merlyn put his hand over the young man’s mouth. He ceased to struggle when he heard a familiar voice by his ear.

“Merlyn!” he croaked through dry lips.

“Be quiet, my boy,” Merlyn whispered. “The jailor still sleeps.”

Merlyn led Artorius, whose heart galloped now, to where he saw a young woman staring at him. “This is your sister, Anne,” Merlyn said, stepping back. Artorius stood, mystified, but Anne stepped forward and looked closely at his face.

“I believe there is a resemblance,” she said, and then hugged the bemused youth.

“We’d better get going,” Merlyn whispered, looking around.

“Wait,” Anne replied, “there are two knights held here. Perhaps they are friends of Artorius?”

Merlyn looked to the hunched youth who shrugged his thin shoulders. “Then let us quickly look to see who they are and if they are worthy of our help.”

They combed the dungeons, finding some stray wretches, and soon identified Gawain and Percival, held in separate cells. Gawain could stand, bruised but otherwise unhurt, but Percival cried out in fear as they approached, in the voice of one who has endured a terrible torment. It soon became apparent that he was in much pain and couldn’t walk, his leg badly broken.

“What of these other wretches who are unknown to us?” Gawain asked, indicating three reed-thin men.

“Let them follow us out of here, then they can decide if they wish to come with us or escape to the forest,” Merlyn replied.

Whilst Artorius and Gawain briefly hugged, Merlyn called up two men to help the lame knight. “Let us hope you don’t have to make a run for it,” Anne whispered to Merlyn as they made their way to the stairwell.

At the top of the stairs Merlyn paused to peer in the direction of the hall. “Anne, lead them out through the kitchen door. I’ll follow soon.” With that Merlyn strode into the gloom towards the hall, leaving Anne and Varden’s men to escort the shuffling escapees towards the exit.

Merlyn found Varden and his two companions hiding in a recess in the wall, daggers at the ready.

“She is still inside with the hounds,” Varden whispered.

“We have rescued the prisoners and now must get away from this place,” Merlyn muttered, the tension apparent in his tone.

“You go and lead them to safety. I’ll wait for Morgaise and the sword,” Varden replied, his eyes shining with resolve in the dim glow of an oil lamp. Merlyn paused for thought. Ideally, they should all leave together. Just then, the hall door creaked open and Morgaise slid out, shutting it behind her. They gathered around her as hounds whined and scratched at the closed door. With a triumphant smile, Morgaise produced the unsheathed sword from a fold in her skirt. Varden took it from her and Merlyn gave her a gentle hug around her slender shoulders.

“Let us make haste, for our luck will soon run out,” Merlyn whispered, turning to lead them back towards the kitchen. They passed out into the cool night air, finding their fellows hiding in a shadowy porch. Clouds shrouded the moon making it much darker than before, causing Merlyn to sigh his relief. The biggest man was able to carry Percival on his back, and they filed out through the open door and into the night. Artorius and Merlyn were the last to leave, exchanging hugs with the two young women. Morgaise was hurriedly introduced to Artorius, to add to his wonder of the events still unfolding.

Anne sniffed back her tears as she kissed Artorius on the cheek. “I hope we meet again soon, dear brother, together with our dear mother who longs to hold you once more.”

Merlyn pulled Artorius away and they melted into the night. “Let us not tempt the fates by delaying, Artorius,” he whispered. “Our horses are outside the town’s walls. It is but an hour to sunrise.”

Artorius started at the sight of a large guard dog emerging from the shadows. His alarm soon turned to bemusement as it wagged its tail and lolled its tongue at Merlyn who bent to pat its head. The beast trotted beside them to the unguarded gates and watched as they slipped out into the night, leaving the sleeping town behind.