Argo, the ancient ship, has returned and hides beneath Urtha's fortress in Alba. Jason and the Argonauts are aboard her, enchanted into sleep. Niiv is still Merlin's lover, still seeking magic and mysteries, still a delight and torment to him.
Something is wrong in Alba. An unknown force is affecting the land. The omens are frightening. The feckless Sons of Llew arrive, having stolen their uncle's chariot and horses once again. They bring news of hostels, gateways between the worlds of the living and the dead. An enormous gathering of the Shades, of the dead and the unborn, are being drawn to them.
Meanwhile, Kymon and Munda, Urtha's son and daughter, are coming of age. Kymon is angry, boastful, ready to fight the Shades of Heroes, and violently annoyed by his father's diplomacy. Munda, on the other hand, is possessed of the Sight and welcomes the new, strange force in the land. She breaks taboo to visit one of the hostels. She comes back speaking of the Killer of Kings, the son of Jason.
And as Merlin walks in and out of time, clinging to his magic and the remains of his youth, the forces set in motion will determine the fate of kings and kingdoms alike.
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Robert Holdstock is the author of the World Fantasy Award-winning Mythago Wood, widely considered one of the most significant fantasy novels of the 20th century. He lives in rural England not far from London.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Chapter OneOmens. . . Argo, Jason's enchanting ship, came back to Taurovinda, Fortress of the White Bull, a year after she had sailed away. She came back along the river known as "the Winding One." I had always held a secret suspicion that she would return, but she stayed quiet for a full turn of the seasons, resting below the fortress hill in the subterranean waterways: the springs, streams, and hidden tributaries that connected Taurovinda to the otherworldly Realm of the Shadows of Heroes. And so for a while I was unaware of her presence.Jason and those who were left of his crew of Argonauts slept in her embrace, belowdecks, close to the Spirit of the Ship, the heart of the vessel. Argo protected them: her captain, her crew drawn from lands across the known world, some from out of time itself. Perhaps she thought of them as her children.But why had she returned? When I first realised that she was there, she closed herself off from my gentle probing, hull-silent, denying her spirit to me after her first breath of greeting. Why had she returned from the warm seas of the south?The strange changes in the sanctuaries of the fortress itself should have given me the clues.Niiv, the enchantress from the Northlands, daughter of a shaman--bane of my life since I had first encountered her with Jason--had joined the women who guarded the well. Now there were four of them, all young, wild, unkempt, capable of the most astonishing and terrifying shrieks of laughter and amazement, or of horror and despair: all the screams of the "far-seeing and deep-sensing" that make such guardians of the sacred so disarming, so dissociated from the people who live around them.Niiv, by this time, had become my lover. She shared my cramped quarters in the fortress, but not my squalid hut in the heart of the evergroves, by the river, a living space among the honoured dead.In the early hours of each morning, when she crawled across me, seeking me out for satisfaction, she stank of mysteries. The smell of old earth and sour sap filled our small lodge. We lived close to the guarded orchard where the Speakers for Land, Past, and Kings--the oak men, as they were known--held their ceremonies. Our own ceremonies were noisier. Niiv was primal and eager. Delight glowed from her. There were times when she was brighter than the moon.As she scoured my body, her cries of pleasure echoed with recent memory: of the way she had also scoured the world of spirits during her time by the well. When she finally collapsed across me, sighing deeply, the sigh of softening was more to do with her waxing understanding of enchantment than with my own waning presence inside her.I loved her; I feared her. She had learned to treat me with just enough disdain to draw me closer. She was aware that I knew what she was doing. It made no difference to either of us. Passion flourishes with teasing.All the signs were that the hill below the fortress of Taurovinda was coming alive in a way that signalled danger from the west, from across the sacred river Nantosuelta--the Winding One--from the otherworldly Realm of the Shadows of Heroes.To Urtha, High King of the Cornovidi, and to his Speakers and High Women, the signs were sudden and dramatic: sweeping storm clouds that formed unnatural shapes above the hill before abruptly shattering in all directions; then the thundering of a stampede of cattle, though no cattle were to be seen; other physical manifestations that were frightening and suggestive. But there were subtler marks of the change that was in progress, and I had been aware of them for almost a full cycle of the moon.The first phenomenon was the backwards movement of creatures. When a flock of birds is swarming in the dusk sky, it's easy to see only the shadow movement without noticing that the flock is flying tail-feathers first. Deer seemed to be swallowed by the edge of the woods, pulled back into the green rather than retreating from view. At dawn, as first light cast its faintest glow, the dogs and bigger hounds of Taurovinda all seemed to be cowering, as if at bay, facing some unseen aggressor, walking stiffly, tails first, into the shadows from which they had emerged to scavenge.As fast as these moments of disorientation occurred, so they ceased, but there was no doubt in my mind that the past and the future were becoming entangled in a deadly weave.Secondly, there was riddle-speaking. Again, it passed as quickly as it had been manifest. A quick greeting, a passing remark by a blacksmith to his apprentice, and the words were meaningless, though spoken meaningfully. To the listening ear they made no sense, a sequence of sounds, guttural gibberish. But the riddle-speakers themselves saw no difficulty. It was as if a forgotten tongue had briefly possessed them. Which indeed it had.This was something I knew well.As I saw Time begin to play tricks, I looked for its source of entry into the fortress. I went first to the orchard, the grove guarded by Speaker for Kings, tight spinneys of fruit trees, hazel and berry, hidden behind a high fence of tangled wicker and thorn, dense enough to stop even the sleekest animal entering the enclosure. The trees were in blossom, their branches reaching to the setting sun. This was quite natural for the orchard.Next, I visited the well.The well was situated at the centre of a high-walled maze of carved stones. At the heart of the maze was a grove of dwarf oaks, green with moss, boughs dripping with fronds of lichen. Within the grove lay the smaller stone enclosure that protected the rising water source itself.Around the wide mouth of the well were seats made of a pink crystalline rock that was familiar to me not from Alba, but from countries in the hotter, drier, more fragrant south: Massila, Crete, Korsa. Those were the lands of the ma'za'rai--the dreamhunters--who prowled the forested hills at night, carrying curses and distributing them. Like the ma'za'rai of those far-off islands, the three women who served the well of Taurovinda were often to be seen racing like hares across the hill in the moonlit darkness, feeding on insects and small animals, leaping in the manner of mad hounds to catch a bird in flight, taking on strange shapes, though by dawn they were once again as mischievously pretty as in their sixteenth year.When a new woman-at-the-well came, it was always when an older one had gone. Downwards, no doubt, into the waterways below the fortress itself. But one day a fourth woman joined them, and three became four, and there was no disruption to the enchantment.The new woman was Niiv.After the first signs that the Shadows of Heroes were active again, I spied on the women every day. They spent most of their time seated on their crystal benches, staring into the open throat of the hill, occasionally casting blood-smeared stones or plaits of grasses and herbs into the mouth, and singing out the insights of what they called the "glory-vision," the vision of strangeness, dreams of distance. When the water responded, it bubbled to the surface, almost playfully, and then the wild celebration started. I took no pleasure in witnessing the activities. Suffice it to say that the women manipulated the water, and drew forms from it. All of that was normal. It had been normal water-magic since long before the citadel had been built upon the hill.Now, though:I watched the four women from my hiding place. Were they aware of my presence? Niiv, perhaps, but Niiv trusted me, believing that I trusted her. They were excited, peering into the well shaft, clearly puzzled by something.This time when the subterranean flow shifted to the surface it came up as a great spout of angry water, roaring from the deep, punching out and knocking over the nymphs who had summoned it. It flexed and shimmered, a creature waiting, watching, liquid muscle swaying like a liquid tree, reaching out and probing the shivering women.Gradually they found their courage, Niiv most noticeably. They let the fronds of water embrace them, stretching and spreading into its grasp. And when they were entwined with the blood of the earth, so the deep world of the hill began to surface and show itself, to reveal that which was buried there.Faces from a past older than Taurovinda leered and peered from the water, unblinking gazes that were lost as soon as they had glimpsed the living world.These once-living forms, these memories of men and women, had become elemental. Their decay in the flesh had left them as mere dreams, shadows haunting the stone below the hill. But now they were released. Some fled, hollow birds breaking from the water, dispersing through the air. Others sank back down, preferring to remain at rest.Horses emerged, racing from the well, manes flowing, sending the guardians screaming into a crouch as the grey shapes leapt over them, disappearing into the stone maze. Then dogs, hounds of all shapes and sizes, but muzzle-bared and hot for the hunt, backs ridged, bodies flowing with speed as they bounded across the walls, baying fiercely then mournfully as they vanished into the world of men, shades only, but alive again.Hounds and horses, buried with kings, now seeking the ghost-trails of the wild hunt.And then I saw for the first time the echo of the ancient man who lay there, the founder of the citadel himself. Durandond.He rose, naked and unarmed, a water-spectre presenting himself in his middle years, older than when he had listened to my prophecy, so many generations ago, but still years away from the brutal moment of his death.He looked to the East, to his homeland, then to the skies. Did his gaze catch mine as he turned back to survey the enclosure? I couldn't say.The expression on Durandond's face was of sadness, then of anger, as if this sprite, this liquid ghost, was aware of what was coming to take his proud fortress once again.The water dissolved. Durandond returned to the bone-chamber below the hill.The moment had passed.Copyright © 2007 by Robert Holdstock. All rights reserved.
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