Merlin mourned Arthur. Indeed, his grief ran so deep, for years none saw him, and many thought him dead. Yet, the day came when he emerged from his solitude, driven forth by a threat so great he feared it presaged Britain’s doom.
You see, Morgan le Fay served The Morrigan, an ancient Celtic Goddess who thrived on death and destruction. Knowing Morgan’s allegiance, when Merlin sensed her magic, a wave of his hand revealed her to him, but his awareness came too late to stop her. He could but observe as she did her mistress’s bidding.
Four were ensorcelled to achieve The Morrigan’s goal. Four would be required to see she never reached it.
He scoured the land, seeking four young noblemen with neither scar nor blemish, willing to carry the seed of the kingdom’s salvation into the future—no small feat in a land ravaged by war. However, Merlin persisted because, did he not counter Morgan’s magic, Britain would fall.
Years passed ere he found four willing to pledge both themselves and their progeny to Britain’s salvation.
Leaving them to await his summons, he returned to his mystical cavern deep within the earth aware The Morrigan left little to chance. Since she chose to reappear a thousand years in the future, someone or something to advance her cause must be destined for that time. But who? Or what?
He could seek the answer, possibly find it, but dared not underestimate The Morrigan’s cunning. No matter how thorough his search, he would have no surety the answer he discovered would be the correct one.
He had to find an advantage—or create one–lest she still win.
With knowledge of things beyond the ken of mere men, he traversed time, studying the past, hoping to reveal a future not yet written.
Several possible possibilities did, indeed, present themselves, and although he could not know which The Morrigan had chosen, they provided direction.
Ere he could do aught, however, he had to alter Morgan’s sorcery.
His initial attempt failed. Too accustomed to simply dismissing the weak conjuring of other would-be sorcerers, he had neglected one of sorcery’s basic tenets; to alter another’s casting, one had to, first, understand the subtleties within the incantation, and second, command greater knowledge and, thus, greater power.
Thanks to his expert tutelage, Morgan wielded great power–for a mortal. He, however, commanded the wisdom of ages.
He also knew Morgan. She had been both his student and his lover. Verily, none knew her as he did. Even so, in their years apart, a sly pliancy had imbued her casting. Try as he might, he could shave only seven decades from her millennial spell.
Those destined to fight this fight were mortal. They would be gifted, aye, but mortal still. They stood no chance against The Morrigan in all her rapacious savagry. But Merlin planned to catch the goddess unaware, force her to battle in a weakened state.
He hoped seven decades would be sufficient; to The Morrigan, seven decades measured less than the beat of a honeybee’s wing.
He arranged four stone slabs, one pointing east, another south, the third west, and the last north, mirroring the arrangement Morgan had used. He purified the stones with hyssop and fire and summoned the four noblemen.
The men took their places. With their permission, he bespelled them, leaving them awake and aware but unable to move. More importantly, they would feel neither pain nor cold or discomfort of any kind—no matter what happened.
He worked quickly. Morgan would come. He had seen to that. But success or failure depended upon when. Too soon and he might find himself waging a Wizard’s War. Too late, and his magic would have advanced beyond the alteration necessary for his plan to succeed.
He gambled with Britain’s fate but saw no recourse. He held the bones. The time had come to throw them.
He gifted the first man’s seed with Sight. This gift, along with a silver chain, its center knotted and forged into a triple-loop pendant bearing a heart-shaped amethyst, would be passed to his oldest daughter. In turn, her oldest daughter would inherit the gift and the amulet, then, her oldest daughter, and so on through the generations until the prophesy came to pass.
The second man’s seed received two gifts: Dreaming and Knowing. His silver chain and pendent bore a heart-shaped emerald that would, along with the gifts, traverse time via the first female offspring of his line.
The third noble’s gift included something many would consider a curse–blindness. Merlin had explained that the young man’s first-born daughter would not really be blind. She, and the first-born daughters of her line, would simply see differently. Theirs would be a twilight world colored by the energy of all around them. Thus, they would be able to tell truth from lies, good from evil, who to trust and who to condemn.
In some ways, they would see better than anyone else.
Although yet a youth, the Hibernian had agreed to carry the seed of The Prophetess. A heart-shaped ruby graced his chain and pendant.
On the last slab, the one pointed north, lay a tall, well-muscled Caledonian. The slightest mistake on this, his fourth, and the game would be over ere it began.
He gifted the Caledonian’s seed with acute intuitive precognition, keen and facile intelligence, and a strong sense of justice underscored by the desire to protect and defend—all subtle gifts readily disguised or explained away. Thus, not only would they remain undetected by the world of men but by the bearer, as well.
These gifts, and a square-cut peridot set in a wide, gold ring, would pass from oldest son to oldest son.
As he breathed the last words of the casting, Morgan entered the chamber. He ignored her, pretending to be unaware of her intrusion. She made no move to gain his attention. Indeed, she appeared to shrink, disappear.
He circled each slab, muttering foolishness while touching the soles, loins, chest, and crown of each man—touches that mere moments before wielded strong magic—until he reached the Hibernian.
He held up a thick gold band set with three round onyx. Morgan’s muffled gasp assured she understood its significance. Murmuring his incantation lest she hear, he swept it through the brazier’s flames and onto the young man’s left forefinger.
Britain’s future now rested on whether he had read it—and Morgan—aright.
Bowing his head, he shuffled from the chamber. Morgan’s mortal perception would assume the difficult casting had drained him. Foolish though it seemed, she had always seen him as a mere man. He had never corrected her.
Once beyond her sight, a whispered word put a crystal ball in his palm. He watched her approach the slabs. With a snap of her fingers, an iron brand appeared amid the brazier’s cleansing flames.
He murmured the words necessary to activate the dust he had released onto the coals while purifying the Hibernian’s ring, contaminating the fire and, thus, altering the enchantment forged into the iron. Only when she pulled the iron from the flames, hastened to the Hibernian, and applied the white-hot brand beneath the lad’s left breast, did Merlin know he had succeeded.
He would have preferred one of the adult nobles for this pivotal part of the plan. Conflicting gifts within a mature host posed potential problems. Conflicting gifts in the seed of a host not yet a man? It was, at best, a calculated risk. Still, putting the Sea of Eire between The Morrigan and both the Prophetess and the Pawn seemed wise, and a Hibernian returning to Hibernia after a lengthy visit with his grandparents would raise no questions.
While the other gifts were necessary, they played only small parts. Did The Morrigan discovered their bearers ere the time came to fight, all would not be lost did these two, the most potent of his weapons, survive.
He had explained this to the Hibernian and outlined the disposition of his ring. The lad had not quailed.
His progeny would need his courage.
Morgan lifted the iron. Three conjoined circles within one larger circle marked the once pristine flesh—just as three round onyx on a heated gold ring branded his finger.
The pieces were in place. Now, all he—and Britain—could do was wait.