From the author of The Merlin Prophecy, the historical trilogy that “appeals to those who thrill to Game of Thrones” (Kirkus Reviews)—the third installment in the epic, action-packed story of King Arthur.
Celtic Britain is on the brink of collapse, and the kingdom’s bloodiest days are upon it. For many years, the people of Britain have enjoyed peace and prosperity under the reign of King Arthur. But Arthur is now weakening with age, and the seeds of discontent are being sown.
Seeking to cleanse the land of Christian belief, dissenters need a symbol with which to legitimize their pagan claim and unite the malcontents. They seize upon the ancient Cup of Bishop Lucius of Glastonbury as a way of fragmenting Arthur’s hard-earned kingdom.
The ultimate threat to Arthur’s rule lies far closer to home: his own kin will betray him. Celt will slay Celt and the rivers will run with blood. Will all be lost, or can Arthur conquer the mounting forces before it’s too late?
The King Arthur Trilogy Book Three: The Bloody Cup Chapter I
A WIND FROM THE NORTH I was at the Cross
With Mary Magdalene.
I received the muse
From Ceridwen’s cauldron.
—THE BOOK OF TALIESIN
Two tall men on powerful, clean-limbed horses came to Cadbury Tor as autumn turned the fruit trees to russet and gold. In the broad fields that surrounded the fortifications, the early winter wind ripped the fallen leaves into drifts of rust. With knowledgeable eyes, the young men noted the fruitful fields, the snug farms, and the township that nestled at Cadbury’s skirts, and they grew round eyed at the beauty of this secure kingdom.
These outland warriors carried with them the scent of glamour and a faint shimmer of oddness that led superstitious folk to turn away in sudden alarm. Moreover, these men were twins, and many crossed themselves in dread, for even the smallest child knew that twins were both a curse and a blessing. The men were mirror images of each other, fair yet fearsome, and no common man could quite ignore the chill finger that stirred the hairs on the back of his neck.
At the first gate leading to the citadel, they sat proudly on their fine horses—one white and one black—and proclaimed their lineage clearly for all the men-at-arms to hear.
“We crave entrance,” the dark-haired twin demanded calmly. “Our names are Balyn and Balan ap Cerdic, ap Llanwith of blessed memory, come to the High King at our mother’s bidding to offer our swords to our liege lord.”
While the warriors who made up the guard were unfamiliar with the twins, every member of the garrison had heard tales of the legendary King Llanwith of the Ordovice clan who had assisted the young Artor to assume the throne of Britain. Rumor had long hinted that Anna, the matriarch of the tribe, was kin of Artor, a linkage that added a layer of mystery to an already distinguished family. The guards at the entrance to the fortifications straightened respectfully.
With low bows of homage, the watch permitted the twins to pass through the entrance to the citadel.
Upwards, towards the crest of the tor, the two men rode abreast of each other. One had hair of rich dark brown, bordering on black, and the other boasted hair of honey red. One guided his horse with his right hand and one used his left, and the warriors on the walls remembered that their mother was rumored to be the sister of the High King and the unacknowledged daughter of the previous ruler, Uther Pendragon. As they searched the faces of the twins, the warriors recognized that the shape and color of the young men’s grey irises belonged to only one other man in all these lands—Artor, the High King, who ruled the Cadbury fortress.
“The scions of legend are once again among us,” one old warrior said ruminatively when they had passed. He spat on his hands. “We’ll soon have some excitement.”
“They’re fair young men, fresh fodder for the queen,” another responded wickedly.
“I’d keep my mouth shut if I were in your boots, Rhys, or the king will close it permanently. If Lord Artor chooses to ignore the behavior of his wife, then who are we to notice?” a third veteran warned.
“May the gods send a fever to see that slut off,” Rhys said quietly. “And then, perhaps, Cadbury can be hale and hearty again.”
Ignorant of the stir they were causing. Balyn and Balan rode higher up the defensive walls, noting with soldierly pleasure the cunning and strength in the earthwork construction that had been planned by Myrddion Merlinus so many years before. Then, abruptly, they realized they had reached the summit. Before them stood the wooden tower of a stone church with colored glass set into the narrow windows of the building. Beside the Christian sanctuary, the palace of the High King towered over the land in tiers of dressed stone and timber.
At the carved doorway of the great hall, resplendent with its freshly painted dragons, the twins were halted by two tall warriors who eyed them from head to heels with cautious, unfriendly eyes. One warrior was close to fifty, with uncut hair of an extraordinary white blond that was plaited to his hips and bound with silver. The other warrior was some years younger and open of face, with an upper body that was heavily muscled and hardened with exercise. Both warriors wore the king’s dragon on their armbands and matching torcs could be glimpsed at their throats under the woolen tunics that covered their mail shirts.
“Stand aside, good men,” Balyn ordered imperiously. “We have ridden untended from Viroconium to offer our services to the High King.”
Balyn’s arrogance made both guards bristle. No one entered Artor’s hall without permission, however impeccable their lineage.
“Please?” Balan added, and his tanned face split in a wide grin.
Percivale and Gareth grinned instinctively in response to the darker twin whose hair had such shine and gloss, and whose grey eyes were like sunlight on a chill sea.
After a lifetime of service to the High King, Gareth knew the truth of Anna’s birthright, and his chest contracted with an old pang of concern. He also knew that Artor’s grandsons had come to offer allegiance to their grandsire in ignorance of the true ties of their bloodline.
“The High King is entitled to the protection of all loyal men who serve as his personal guard,” Percivale explained gracefully. “And we take our duties seriously.” His easy smile encompassed both young men. “Please leave all your weapons at this threshold. Only the High King goes armed within the precincts of his Judgment Hall.”
Balan complied with easy good humor, but Balyn expressed his irritation with every muscle of his face. However, item by item, the brothers laid aside an impressive array of weapons and followed Percivale and Gareth into the presence of the king.
Artor’s hall was resplendent with finely woven cloth that acted as the perfect foil for the battle standards of Mori Saxonicus, the last great battle against the western Saxons under the command of the thane, Glamdring Ironfist. The eyes of the twins widened as they observed the symbols of one of the west’s greatest triumphs. Around them, courtiers in brightly dyed linens and furs, and warriors richly caparisoned as befitted the servants of the king, rested on carved wooden benches or stood in corners, gossiping and drinking beer or wine offered by quiet-footed servants. It seemed to the dazzled eyes of Balyn and Balan that these vivid courtiers scarcely noticed the magnificence around them.
Peace had bred complacency and Balan read it in the plump, bland faces that gawped at them when they entered the king’s hall. But he saw that farmers, shepherds, and shopkeepers were also among the gilded throng. These ordinary men stood unabashed in the presence of the High King, firm in the knowledge that Artor would offer judgment in their various cases with impartial, unimpeachable justice. Balan felt a visceral thrill of pride that he could become a part of a world that was both beautiful and just.
His eyes were drawn to the man sitting on a simple chair at the far end of the hall. His tunic was snowy white, and he eschewed ornamentation except for his crown, a torc of red gold, and a fine golden chain that disappeared into the neck of his robe. He was far less gorgeous than any of the aristocrats who lounged in the hall, but the force of his character was unmistakable. Here was the center of this world; here was the source of song and story: Artor, High King of the Britons.
Artor himself longed for the open air. The aristocratic petitioners made his head ache with their constant demands for preferment over neighbors, for judgment over tribal borders and for relief from tribute. Their greed often made him feel nauseous.
On the other hand, his Judgment Hall also brought common men to the tor. Farmers, traders, and town dwellers trudged up the spiral pathway, seeking arbitration from the one man whom they trusted to be fair. Untangling the complex familial or financial skeins of ordinary life gave Artor pleasure, for it reminded him of what it had been like to be a free man.
Although the hall was crowded with petitioners, the twins caused a stir as they strode through the crowd as if it did not exist. Within moments, they stood proudly on the decorated flagstones before the High King and his queen. Their booted feet rested at the claws of Artor’s dragon mosaic, as if the twins were extensions of the great beast that reclined at the High King’s feet. Smoothly, and with careful discipline, the brothers dropped to their knees and bowed to kiss the talons of the Dracos dragon.
“Rise, young princes, no child of Queen Anna need bow to me,” the king ordered, while Queen Wenhaver stared at the twins.
Artor listened to their salutations with a mixture of excitement and discomfort. Balan, who used the hand sinister, or the left, was tall and was similar in build to Artor himself. Not a hint of curl marred the sheen of his long, loosened hair, and his face under its dark, winged brows was calm and untroubled. Artor felt a painful stirring of affection for this clean-limbed young man.
Older by minutes, and as fair as his brother was dark, Balyn possessed hair that curled gently past his shoulders. The petitioners in the hall recognized the similarities between the two young men and the High King, and silence was replaced with a low hum of whispers. The other twin used his dexter, or right hand, which was believed to be more benign by the superstitious, although Artor wasn’t sure that this granddam’s tale was always true. His agile mind recognized an impulsive nature in Balyn, demonstrated through his swiftly moving hands and the ready words that spilled out his thoughts without the leavening grace of caution.
Both young men rose and waited quietly under the scrutiny of the High King.
For their part, the twins examined the face of their lord and noted the clipped, greying curls that gathered around his face. Artor was still handsome, strong, and straight-limbed, but heaviness dragged at his mouth and clouded his wintry eyes with distrust. Lines of worry tugged the inner corners of his eyebrows close to his shapely nose, and the shadows under his eyes were deep, almost bruised.
“You will introduce me, Artor, won’t you?” the queen interjected, tapping one foot on the dais.
Age had not dimmed Wenhaver’s ostentatious display. She wore far too many fine gems for good taste. Her mouth was petulant and was marred by deep lines around her thinning lips. Although her hair was still extraordinary, her figure and face bore the signs of dissipation and encroaching old age, held at bay with the aid of rigid bindings and cosmetics that were better suited to a young girl than a mature woman. When Artor bothered to notice and remembered her former natural beauty, he felt stirrings of pity for her. Like a painting on wood that is prey to the crackling and warping of old age and dryness, her looks were extraordinary until any movement broke the spell and revealed the hag waiting under the curls and the powder.
Both young men knelt before her and, characteristically, Balyn spoke first.
“I am Balyn ap Cerdic, my queen, second son of Cerdic ap Llanwith of the Ordovice, and this callow youth is my younger twin, Balan. Beware of his sweet words, my lady, for only I can offer the appropriate phrases that your beauty deserves.”
“How charming,” Wenhaver simpered.
Balyn’s eyes were fervent and Artor sighed inwardly to see the boy so easily beguiled by Wenhaver’s jeweled, practiced, and wholly superficial magnificence.
“My queen.” Balan spoke in turn with careful gravity. His gaze was direct and a shadow seemed to darken his eyes before he lowered them in homage.
Artor missed nothing.
“What news of your mother, Queen Anna, and your brother, Bran?”
“Bran enjoys the tribe’s favor, and fortifies his lands with diligence,” Balyn responded in a slightly dismissive voice. “He swears to you that Saxons shall never set foot on his soil while he lives.”
Artor nodded distantly. Gareth could have warned Balyn that any disrespect towards Anna’s eldest son was dangerous ground, especially when duty was concerned. The High King had immolated himself on the fires of duty for decades, and fully understood the bitter price that Bran paid for his kingship.
“Mother sends her greetings and bade me remind you that the High King remains her favorite warrior of all the lords of the West,” Balan added cautiously. “I ask that you forgive her familiarity, my liege, but she swears that she has known you for as long as she has been alive.”
Balan’s brief speech caused Artor to smile and some of the bleakness left his eyes.
“Is she well?” he asked the young man.
“Our mother is indefatigable.” Balan grinned widely. “She’s still beautiful, as you have no doubt heard, my lord, but she pays no attention to her physical appearance. She’s the first to join the women in the apple harvest, and the last to bed during times of flood or pestilence. There are no children in all of Viroconium who don’t sing her praises, while the little ones call her the Lady of Sunshine. They swear the sun glows brighter wherever she walks.”
“She was always a scamp.” Artor smiled fondly in memory of Anna’s childhood in Aquae Sulis. “Your mother was always scraping her knees and running off with the farmworkers to explore the fields of the villa.”
“Why have I never met this Ordovice queen?” Wenhaver scowled at the compliments that had been heaped on another woman, especially on one whose lineage was rumored to be so high. “Why has she never journeyed to Cadbury, or even to Venta Belgarum?”
Artor’s eyebrows drew together in controlled anger. Of the twins, only Balan was sufficiently alert to recognize Artor’s displeasure at any implied criticism of his mother, and he smiled gratefully in response.
“Queen Anna prefers her adopted lands and she has told me often that she is reluctant to leave their borders,” Artor answered testily. “I honor her preferences in this matter, for she cares nothing for courts or ceremony.”
“And her people would not readily permit her to leave,” Balan added. “Even her Roman childhood is now seen as a virtue, for she insists on cleanliness and the old values of honor and respect for all souls who come in contact with her.”
Wenhaver frowned briefly, but then remembered that lines were beginning to deepen around her eyes. She forced her brow to smooth, although her blue eyes continued to glitter. Somewhere in her mean little heart, Wenhaver recognized that her husband loved Anna more than anyone. She smiled sweetly as she twisted the knife to show her displeasure.
“Does she really work in the fields like a servant?” she lisped in saccharine concern, as she examined her own hennaed and polished nails. “Her complexion must be ruined!”
Balan whitened, and even Balyn flushed at the queen’s insult.
“Desist, Wenhaver!” Artor raised his voice fractionally. “Not all queens are amused by idle pleasures and personal vanities. Some, like the Lady of the Ordovice, are chatelaines in the Gallic sense, because they share those tasks that the common women must endure. In so doing, they understand their subjects much better. My sister Morgause is one such queen. She rules with King Lot and concerns herself with women’s matters, where her orders are obeyed implicitly. I admit that we have had our differences in the past, but I have never doubted that my sister is a true queen.”
Wenhaver turned her fabulous eyes from one boy-man to the next, and then lowered her lashes to avoid seeing the anger on her husband’s face. Her expression warned the king that tantrums were imminent but it left the twins totally confused.
Artor turned back to Balan, a partiality that was not lost on his twin brother, who stiffened a little and was imprudent enough to allow his cheeks to whiten with annoyance.
“So Anna has managed to civilize Llanwith’s stiff-necked Cymru warriors? My foster father, Ector of the Poppinidii, feared that she would never be accepted because of her Roman breeding, even though she was raised as a Celt.”
“Her personal qualities always triumph over any prejudices that might confront her, my lord. In fact, she still uses her Roman name within her household and the whole tribe knows it, but they accept her quirks and continue to love her.” Balan glowed with pride, although every word was chosen carefully. He imagined a chasm opening at his feet as the conversation threatened snares that he could not hope to avoid.
“Licia!” Artor murmured softly and, behind the throne, Odin stirred.
“Her name is magical and very, very old. She was named for the great matron of the Poppinidii, Livinia Major, who died before she was born.”
“Aye, we have been told the story of her birth by Lady Livinia Minor,” Balyn said, vying for the eye and favor of the king.
“You have been to Aquae Sulis?” Artor asked, his eyes flickering with sudden pleasure and his body leaning forward impulsively.
Wenhaver gaped at her husband’s sudden animation. He obviously cared for these outlandish twins. He usually tired of visitors quickly.
“Many times, my lord. We have seen Gallia’s Garden and the urn containing her ashes, and we have heard the legend of the wise healer, Frith. Local folk regularly visit the shrine, although few seem to know the history of Gallia. She died before Mother was born.” Balyn smiled as he realized he had Artor’s full attention, even if his information was inaccurate.
“All the better,” Artor’s inner voice whispered. “What they don’t know can’t hurt them.”
“We’ve also said a prayer for Lord Targo, sword master of renown.” Balyn spoke quickly, as was his custom. “And Grandfather Ector, of course.”
Artor wasn’t disposed to like the boy, but he couldn’t disguise the affection for Ector that infused his voice.
“Lord Ector was my foster father and a man who was decent through to his bones. His dearest wish was to be buried in Gallia’s Garden so that visitors could sit awhile over his resting place and ponder the natural beauty around them. He often expressed the desire to hear laughter and the soft music of the earth as he slept in death.”
“A pretty conceit,” Wenhaver murmured in a voice just loud enough for her husband to hear. Artor gritted his teeth and continued.
“Gallia was a Roman woman of little worldly account, lad, and she died long before her time. She was not yet twenty when she perished. I knew both Gallia and Frith well, so I can swear they were two of the finest women who ever drew breath in Aquae Sulis. They always had my undying respect, and their garden is maintained at my expense and by my direct orders.”
Wenhaver yawned delicately, but pointedly.
“But I fear we are boring the queen, who has little tolerance for tales of the past. She will be cross if we discuss paragons whom she has never met or understood.”
Like an indulgent uncle, Artor gazed down at the two young men who stood so upright and proud like two fine hounds bred for battle and the hunt.
“Gareth, my strong right arm, personally laid the garden during his youth. His brother and his nephews now tend it for me.”
Balyn frowned. He had no idea what lay behind this oblique conversation, but he was determined to discuss its issues with the king’s “strong right arm” in the near future.
Balan smiled easily, for he loved listening to tales of the past and was entirely wrapped up in Llanwith’s scrolls, just as Artor had been when the Villa Poppinidii had been his home. But, unlike his brother, who always accepted circumstances at face value, Balan was wary of the waves of dislike that appeared to exist between the High King and his glittering queen. He promised himself he would think about the implications of the conundrum when he had more time.
The weak afternoon light warned the king that night would soon be upon them, so he accepted the twins’ oaths of loyalty and offered them places in his militia, where they could begin to prove their worth. Both young warriors greeted his decision with unconcealed happiness and Artor was reminded that they were still very young.
I shall avoid prejudgment, he told himself sternly, remembering a younger self, faced with the ill will of his own father.
As the twins bowed to take leave of their king, Balan stopped their hasty, excited retreat by gripping his brother’s arm.
“Our thanks, my lord,” a confused Balyn muttered, but Balan nudged him.
“Tell them about the other visitors!” he hissed.
“Your pardon, Majesty, but the excitement of finally meeting you has driven all rational thought from my head,” Balyn explained. “You are about to receive other noble visitors and kinsmen. We promised to serve as their envoys.”
Artor raised one mobile brow.
“Lord Gawayne is returning to Cadbury with his eldest son. We met upon the road, but Gawayne wished to view the resting place of the Lord Targo, so we parted at the crossroads leading to Aquae Sulis.”
Wenhaver smiled, and Artor cringed inwardly as he read her openly excited and lascivious thoughts.
The bitch is in heat, he thought savagely, but his face revealed nothing but polite interest.
“I remember Gawayne’s boy well. He was a large and beautiful babe who almost killed Lady Enid during his birthing. The beauteous Nimue, the Maid of Wind and Water, managed to save both mother and son.”
With a brief flash of unholy amusement, Artor watched his wife’s chagrin at his unwelcome compliments towards another woman. Myrddion’s apprentice outdid the queen in beauty, intelligence, style, and accomplishments. Regardless of the gulf of social position that yawned between them, Wenhaver knew that Nimue would always be her superior, and her hatred for Myrddion’s woman hadn’t wavered in the long decades since they had last met. In one detail only was the queen superior to Nimue—her enmity was eternal.
Wenhaver’s dislike turned her doll-like face into a twisted and ugly reflection of itself. Yet sadness tinged his triumph, for he realized that he and Wenhaver had made a pointless, barren wasteland of their lives. He regretted the way they picked at each other, tearing off fragile scabs of mutual forbearance for the sake of a moment’s satisfaction.
“What is the lad named?”
“His name is Galahad, my lord, and the Otadini claim he is the greatest warrior in the world.”
“Galahad,” Artor repeated, and somewhere beyond the mortal world, he felt a tremor in the void as the wheel of Fortuna shuddered and began slowly to turn.
“The boy will be welcome,” the king said softly, then the audience was over.
FAR AWAY IN the cold north, Morgan swayed over her knucklebones and felt a fissure open in the fabric of the world. Her sister, Morgause, was in deadly peril. The bones presaged death, and the pattern warned Morgan that other deaths were promised. Her brother, Artor, was now threatened as never before, and she tried desperately to dredge up a feeling of triumph in his fall from eminence on Fortuna’s wheel. She had hated him for so long that she should have felt something—even relief.
Her kinfolk were dying, but she looked in vain for a sign in the portents that revealed her own fate.
“Shite!” she exclaimed crudely. She brushed away a tear, for the Fey prayed for death every day of her pain-filled existence.
Then her eyes whitened and rolled backwards in her head until all she saw was a battered tin cup that filled and overflowed with fresh, glistening blood.
“The Cup is come,” Morgan whispered through lips that were dried, cracked, and oozing with the fragility of poisoned old age. “The Cup is filling, filling, and we will all be washed away.”
Her vision cleared and she could focus on her withered, tattooed hands once again. Her ugly mouth smiled and her tongue flickered over her bleeding lips like a lizard kissing the sun.
“But Artor nears his end,” she whispered thinly. “Praise be to all the gods! At last Gorlois will be avenged!”
But reason threatened her momentary triumph. Artor was close to sixty years, Morgause was older still, and Morgan felt as ancient as the dead heart of the Otadini Mountains. They should all have died decades ago, and now the siblings existed as anachronisms of power and illusory vitality.
Her rational mind sighed.
What does it matter after all these years? Who remembers the ancient wrongs?
She answered her own question.
I do! And so does my pestilential brother. Fortuna’s wheel turns . . . at last.
M. K. Hume is a retired academic. She received her MA and PhD in Arthurian literature and is the author of The Merlin Prophecy, a historical trilogy about the legend of Merlin. She lives in Australia with her husband and two sons.