Within Glastonbury Tor 542 A.D
Arthur was dead. Camelot—in truth, all of Britain—crumbled beneath the weight of his mistakes.
Alone in the mystical place he called home, Merlin assessed, excused, and justified until, at long last, he admitted what he had always known; the mistakes had not been so much Arthur’s as his. The signs had been there, but he ignored them, too busy pursuing his own desires to attend the path the king’s trod.
Love, the most powerful magic ever created, had ensorcelled even him, the greatest of sorcerers. How could a mere mortal prevail against it?
As though summoned by his longing, his body tingled. Heat betrayal should have dispelled suffused him, sparked by a casting resonance he would recognize anywhere. He sprang to his feet.
Were she a limb, he would hack her off, be done with the maddening desire that haunted him still. But she had not been content as an appendage. She had wanted more. Much more. With an ease that startled him, she had enthralled him, claiming his heart. Thus, did hers cease to beat, he feared his would, too, and no power existed on any plane that could sustain his mortal form without it.
Arthur’s unifying reign and the growing awareness of the One True God had weakened deities conceived by humanity’s perception of the natural world. Lacking tribute and adoration, most recognized their game over and sought other diversions. However, courtesy of her nature, his mother’s aunt, she the Celts called The Phantom Queen or, more often, The Morrigan, could not yield.
A master manipulator and exploiter of mortal flesh’s weakness, she had wooed Uther’s grieving daughter into her service with promises of vengeance and power, playing Morgan’s emotions with a virtuoso’s subtle deftness, tuning the girl’s hatred to the pitch she required. The unprincipled bitch then insinuated her pawn into his life to beguile and bewitch him while she choreographed events that had cost Britain its king and its peace. Advocate of war, harbinger of death, instigator of sexuality, and grantor of fertility, only his demented aunt grew strong amid the carnage and travail of a kingdom without a king, a country awash in blood spilled by ruthless men lusting for power.
Had he known Morgan served another of his kind, much less his rapacious aunt, he never would have agreed to teach her despite her threats to reveal his part in her mother’s deception and accuse Uther of her father’s murder. But he had not known, and it had never even occurred to him he might fall in love with the tempestuous maid.
That her betrayal still made his now hollow heart ache irritated him. Cursing himself for a fool, he congealed the mists of time. He needed to know what trouble she brewed so he could counter it. While he could command time, walk its various planes, and adjust small details to influence outcomes, he had to act quickly—only an utter lack-wit would attempt pulling a lengthy thread woven into a tapestry so intricate the potential tangle defied imagination.
Illuminated by a single brazier, Morgan stood at the head of three stone slabs splayed before her, head thrown back and arms raised. The Morrigan, in all her savage glory, lay insensate on the centermost stone.
Bloody hell. The casting had proceeded too far to risk interruption. He settled in to observe, confident, should it be necessary, he could undo aught she wrought.
Like a bell peeling through the mist, her husky contralto called to him without words. To hear her incantation required transfer to her plane, but he could feel it thrumming within him, stroking his senses, demanding his attention.
She divided the triune Morrigan into her three lesser parts: Macha, mother-goddess, inciter of sexuality. Nemain, war-goddess, purveyor of blood-lust and battle frenzy. Badba, goddess of death who, sometimes in the guise of a wolf but most often as a crow, perused the battlefield, choosing and claiming those who would fall. Placing each on a separate slab, she turned away for a moment, her head bowed.
Unease rippled down his spine–along with a trickle of pride; separating a triune being took immense skill. Even so, naught would convince him The Morrigan had consented to the separation. Although three would be harder to find and destroy, dividing the goddess divided her power. His arrogant, self-serving aunt would not choose to be vulnerable unless doing so brought a distinct advantage, and he could find none but the additional numbers.
He distrusted Morgan but respected her intelligence. She had reason for what she did, but why risk disobedience? The Morrigan held many reins, any one of which might be employed to control a willful servant—or destroy her.
Morgan clapped. Four young men, all strong and well-formed, entered the room. No blemishes or scars marred their naked bodies. Their vacant eyes bespoke their enthrallment as they obeyed Morgan’s pointed fingers. Three took their places on the stone slabs beside the lesser goddesses. The fourth disappeared behind her.
Four? Why four?
At his command, the scene slid a quarter turn, revealing what Morgan’s body concealed. The man laid upon a fourth slab alone but for a pulsing black mass.
The three personas of The Morrigan merged with their hosts, demanding his attention. Once the joining was complete, Morgan turned to the fourth slab, lifted the mass, and held it at arm’s length. She raised her eyes. Her gaze collided with his.
Startled by her seeming awareness of him, it took a moment to identify what she held. Aghast, he gaped, unable to find a curse vile enough.
She nodded, as though acknowledging his recognition, and placed The Morrigan’s beating heart on the man’s chest, continuing her incantations as the organ claimed its new home.
The last dark stain disappeared. She turned to the brazier and withdrew a white-hot iron. Again, she stretched out her arms, extending the brand for a long moment ere she applied it to the man’s flesh.
Three conjoined circles within one.
He snapped his fingers, banishing the mists. He knew what he needed to know.
He set about finding four strong, well-formed young men, unmarred by scar or blemish, willing to bear the burden of Britain’s salvation. The task seemed impossible in a country ravaged by war, but he persisted, all the while recalling how Morgan had displayed the heart and the brand. Had she known he would see? Did she mock him? Aid him? And if the latter, why?
Although he had no answers, a seed sprouted, dug its roots deep into the dark place where what remained of his withered heart dwelt. It found little sustenance but refused to die.
Such is the nature of hope.