The Iron Grail – Chapter 5

On the Plain of MaegCatha

(Merlin has rescued the children of the High King, Urtha: Kymon and Munda. They are in the place of exiles, close to the fortress of Taurovinda, which is in the hands of the Dead…)

That night, I received a most unwelcome visit, from someone I had hoped I had left behind far away in Greek Land.

My living quarters in the Camp of Exiles were uncomfortable and spartan, a reed-layered floor below an overhang of rock that had been extended and covered with animal hides to make a passable animal shelter. The breeze curled through every gap in the stitching, and a screech owl seemed to find the top of one of the supporting poles a perfect place to make my sleep a misery. The river flowing through the gorge seemed to rush like a torrent; the new-born of the exiled clan wailed with night terrors, setting off lowing among the cattle and vigorous barking among the tethered hounds.

Restless, haunted by those shields with their glowering ikons of Medusa, I was in just the state of mind to allow the approach of the woman who was determined to cling to me. I heard my name called; there was urgency in the summons. There are ways of crying out that alert every sense: an infant in distress; a dying man giving up the ghost; a man being murdered; a woman opening like a gate, to allow the passing of a new breath of life. And there is the cry of hurt from a woman who considers herself wronged.

“Merlin! I know you’re there!”

The insistent, dreamy voice roused me from my hard bed, bringing me out into the starlit night. The hounds were restless, the horses too. I walked east along the stream until I could see the crouched figure, busy washing its hair.

As I stumbled blindly over the loose rocks to come down to the swirling pool where this wild woman lowered her head to beat the water with her saturated locks, I realised who she was. Or rather: whose dream she was.

Niiv turned suddenly to look at me, silver-eyed in the night, pale lips half-smiling, everything about her signalling recognition and playfulness.

“Not sleeping well, Merlin?”

“I was until you came back.”

“Did you think I would stay away?” She tut-tutted, shaking her head. “You’ll never get rid of me. I’m a very determined girl.”

“Where are you?” I asked the dream.

“I don’t know exactly. Sailing towards the North Star. We have a good breeze behind us. The coastline to the east is red and rugged, covered with stones; the argonauts call it Gaul. The white cliffs of Alba are ahead of us, but not far. Argo is strong, Jason is strong, we have some fine oarsmen!” She grinned pointedly. “We’ll be back with you before you know it.”

The apparition of Niiv flung back its hair. Dark hair, dyed, and a face that was a little more gaunt, but just as elfin and pretty as when I’d known her, the girl was still in fine form. But to reach for me like this, from a ship wave-tossed and struggling off the coast of Gaul, a long way south, was a waste of her limited talents.

Before I could say a word she went on, “You’ve been hiding from me.”

“I’ve been in hiding. Not just from you.”

“I’ve flown across this land ten times looking for you, but this is the first time I’ve found you.”

She still exasperated me with her recklessness. “You’re a fool, Niiv. Your light will extinguish like a falling star. Have you seen a big man suddenly fall over dead, for no apparent reason, his heart suddenly stopped, his head suddenly full of blood? That is your fate if you continue to be so reckless with your small talent.”

“But with my small talent and your great ability, the young and the old, the new born and the ever-living, we could be wonderful together! We were made for each other, Merlin. How many times do I have to remind you? A man like you needs a companion like me. I will take nothing from you except that which you choose to give. You have me all wrong. I love you. I want to learn from you. Why are you so frightened of me?”

The river babbled beside us. I could see the glow of moonlight on the water through the crouching girl before me. She had been ageing and dying in her desperate efforts to find me, to be close again.

I could well understand why: she was a direct descendant of a Northlands woman I had known, very intimately, over a century ago. I had been aware that that snow-bound pleasure in my past would give rise to squealing flesh and blood, a daughter; but not that the daughter would lead, at last, to Niiv, who having met me once clung to me as if I were her life.

We sow the seeds of our own despair, but even knowing this, we seem to go on sowing.

“We are related,” this fetch, this living ghost of Niiv reminded me unnecessarily. “But not so closely that we cannot enjoy each other. Wait for me, Merlin. Watch for me. You misunderstood me in Greek Land, you wronged me badly. We can be so strong together.”

I remembered my last glimpse of her, as I had finally escaped from her clutches, a pale-faced figure with wind-blown fair hair, arms outstretched, a dead swan held by the neck in her right hand. She had screamed at me, letting me know just how much she had looked into my future. She had seen events in my future that terrified me. She used her knowledge as a fisherman uses a knife to prise limpets from their granite home. She was determined to open my body and see the markings on my bones, where magic lay; and where death lurked, waiting for betrayal. She was the one return to Alba that I dreaded. The Three of Awful Boding had kept the worst to themselves, it seemed.

The shade of the girl finally dissolved, vanishing as Niiv, on the high sea, south of Alba, grew exhausted with her dream-journey. I was glad to see her go; I was unhappy that she had at last located me, but there were other things on my mind, at the moment, and I had time to prepare for the Northlands vixen who was following my spoor.

I was more concerned with understanding the two children who had, almost without my comprehending the process, come into my charge.

Kymon had not just grown in height, he had aged in mind; he had become a determined young man. And for the first time in a long while I would have to break one of my own rules: I would influence the way he thought.

After Niiv had disappeared, I stayed by the river at the eastern end of the valley, sleeping lightly. The water was clear and cold. It murmured to me, helped me think as I dreamed. I was wide awake before dawn, and as first light streaked the starry sky I heard the sound of ponies, approaching from the caves.

Kymon and Munda rode slowly past me. I hailed them and they stopped, peering at me as I emerged from my cloak. Kymon was in his battle-harness, shield on his back.


“Where are you going?”

The boy pondered the question for a moment, then shrugged. “To Taurovinda. Where else? It’s where we live.”

“But the fortress isn’t safe. I’ve already told you that.”

“I have to see for myself,” Kymon retorted. “I don’t expect to be welcomed by the host who live there now.”

“Nor me,” said Munda. “Why don’t you come with us, Merlin? Grandfather says you can throw hawks in people’s faces.” She laughed at this thought. “All I have is a sling.”

I was furious with them. “Have you forgotten that you were being searched for in your hideaway? You’re in danger, you little fools! I didn’t spirit you away from Ghostland just to see you ride into Ghostland’s clutches in Taurovinda, like two pigs to the spit!”
They were going into danger, but they took no notice of me, more amused by my dishevelled appearance than concerned by my words. They were quite determined. I would not be able to persuade them by fair means, so it was now that I did a little ‘charmed’ persuasion.

“You must not try to enter the fortress!” I stated bluntly. A shadow passed over their faces.

Kymon thought for a few moments, then scratched his chin as a man scratches his beard. “Perhaps you’re right. But what about a look from the distance? From the evergroves. Perhaps the Dead won’t dare enter the sacred enclosure.”

“Very well,” I agreed – did my relief show? — and fetched a horse from the stables after telling the High Woman Rianata, who was known as the Thoughtful Woman, where we were going. She gave her permission, though from the look in her eye she didn’t yet fully trust me.

Kymon and Munda, slightly built and riding energetic chariot ponies, covered a great deal of ground as I lumbered along, riding the best of Ambaros’s war-horses, but uncomfortable even with a canter.

This was unknown territory to Kymon, though he knew to ride east, and I led them along the wooded edge of the river, whose crossing places, between the northern lands and the south, Urtha’s fortress guarded. After a day we reached the evergroves and the mounds that had been raised over the honoured dead, including Urien, Urtha’s younger son. This sacred wood was still untouched by the reivers from Ghostland, and my instinct told me that it would stay that way. It would be a haven close to home. But the Dead had certainly occupied the hill, though to Kymon’s eyes the stronghold looked deserted.

Munda was more aware. She led her pony to the edge of the plain, frowning as she surveyed the great rise of the fort and its winding battlements. “The place is haunted,” she said, but Kymon just laughed. “The ghosts our own people,” he suggested. “Those who haven’t yet gone to the Land of Shadow Heroes.”

“It doesn’t feel right,” the girl insisted and glanced at me, looking for an answer. She had more intuition than her brother, I suspected; or perhaps just more sense.

“The fortress is occupied,” I agreed with her.

“By what people?” Kymon asked gruffly. “I don’t see their banners. I don’t see their guards. Do you?”

This last was addressed to his sister. Munda nodded. “They are watching us,” she advised. “They are still strangers in our land.”

I watched her as she said this. She had gone into a daze, though it lasted only a moment.

“Now you sound like those women who guarded us!” Kymon snapped angrily. “You are too dreamy, sister. Fill your sling and balance your javelin. We’ll be back here to repair what those moon-dogs have done to our home!

The last Kymon had seen of his home it had been burning fiercely, and the ground between houses, corrals, shrines and forges had been littered with the dead; and there had been no visible evidence of the skirmishers who were inflicting the destruction on the Fort of the White Hill.

The last he remembered was when Maglerd, his father’s mastiff, had dragged him down, then pulled him to safety, Gelard carrying Munda following. Those hounds had run for all their worth, leaping the barricades, sliding down the ramparted slopes, slinking though bush and woodland, following the rivers and streams until, charged by some inner fury, some silent guide, they had brought these children to safety, ironically in the very kingdom of the Dead that had razed the fort.

“We can return and rebuild,” Kymon announced loudly again.

“The intention is admirable,” I suggested to him, “but you are outnumbered.”

“Outnumbered by what? By dark clouds? By burned thatch roofs?” He was flushed with pride and fury.

“By the Dead. By the Unborn. They’re in there now, in force.”

“I’ve lived in the Land of the Dead,” he said arrogantly. “They ride proudly. But what harm can they do here?”

“Harm enough to have sacked this fort, and sent you into exile”

“They were not the Dead,” Kymon snapped. “They were Trinovanda, bull-stealers and slave-takers, mercenaries, disguised as the Dead!”

“How would you know?” I asked the proud youth. “You were fallen, dazed, and dragged by hounds. How do you know who raided Taurovinda?”

“I’ve had time to think about it,” he said, leaning on the shield, watching me through eyes that were narrowed with inquisitiveness. “The Trinovanda are the worst of our enemies. It makes sense to me.” Then he teased me with a look. “Are you afraid of the Dead, Merlin?”

“Yes. I find them unpredictable.”

The answer bemused him. He glanced at Munda. “And what about you, sister? Does this damage look like the work of wraiths, or the work of raiders?”

“Merlin is right,” Munda said softly. “You weren’t in the house when Urien died. I was. I saw the whole thing.”

For the first time, Kymon’s resolve weakened. He frowned, straightened and glanced back at the silent ruins on the plain. But he would not be shaken from his goal. I heard him mutter, “This place is ours. It’s what my father would want, and what my mother would want, and what grandfather would want… this place is ours.”

If I’d thought for a moment that he was signalling it was time to return to the camp, I was wrong. He swung himself across the low saddle of his copper mare, then kicked the pony viciously in the flanks, whipping the reins so that the animal foamed round its bit, reared up then bolted through the edge of the grove and out into the scrub of the plain, towards the tall outer gate with its bleached skulls of bulls. He screamed as he rode, his right fist held high. And before I could say a word, the girl had followed him, making the sound of a crow: krah, krah, krah. She rode, head low, small spear held across the girth of her pony. What impulse made her follow her brother like this I can only imagine. Kymon rode furiously up and down before the Bull Gate, shouting abuse at the unseen, unseeable enemy.

“You Dead! You Unborn!” He sneered the words, several times, turning them into a rich and juicy insult, surprising from his unbroken voice. Then he added, to Munda’s great amusement — she cheered as he shouted — “You bastards! You are the sons of men who ran from combat! And hid below their cowls, exposing their backsides like dogs in submission! Suckled on tits that were no more than old leather wine pouches! Suckled by mothers who never had a chance to wash their backs because they were never off them! Fostered with mange-riddled dogs and foot-rotten sheep because no king’s sons would be seen alive with you!”

Munda rode nervously out of arrow range as this diatribe proceeded, calling, “Enough now, brother. Save your anger for when you can get at their guts and do some cutting.”

He ignored his sister, standing up on his horse, balanced on the narrow saddle, arms spread wide. “I will not be evicted from my father’s house,” he screamed again, and his words started to echo from the sheer walls of Taurovinda. Now he waved the oval shield above his head. Sunlight caught the image of the horse and hawk. I saw light reflected on ghostly eyes, high above, beyond the steep earthen walls, a line of men listening carefully to every word that this brash and dangerous youth had uttered, taunting and challenging the occupying force.

I had thought this would be the end, that he would ride back to safety, but to my amazement Kymon suddenly went into warp-spasm, still standing on his calm pony. Fists clenched to his chest, face distorted, skin as white as ash and sucked in against the flesh, he shouted the old curse, the curse of challenge.

“I will make you endure hardship and the long sigh!” he howled at the men above the gate. “Your own blood a red plague, your women red-eyed. I will play you at the stabbing game! My face, blood-filled, rage-filled, my eyes, ice-filled, hate-filled! I will be weary after triumph, a crow that scours the ploughed ground of your flesh. My sword, the thorn that pricks the rose-bloom of your hopes and dreams, your blood the blossom, blossoming on your breast, on your shield the blossom of your brother, clotting rose, petal-scattered crimson! I will be the plucking man, your bloom at my mercy!”

This was too much for the Dead, those who remembered issuing and defending against this proud boast. A boy was challenging them; tempers could flare, even after death.

The gates were flung open and five heavy horsemen pounded towards Kymon. The spasm left the boy at once and he dropped into the saddle, kicked his pony round, whipped it with the reins and streaked back across the plain towards the evergroves. He laughed as he rode, his sister by his side, crouched low over the withers of her own mount. Slingshot whistled past them, striking into the cover of the haven where I watched, but the two of them galloped into safety, each horse stumbling and throwing its rider but without serious injury.

The pursuing host spread out in a line, horses breathing hard, hard men sitting low, watching us through masked helmets.

Kymon returned to the edge of the groves, loosened his britches and urinated onto the turf, watching the enemy with cold eyes.

Angry though he was, Kymon refused to return to the valley. We waited until dusk, then he went to the grove where Urtha’s father and mother lay together, below a low cairn of stones. Kymon’s grandmother, Riamunda, had been a powerful woman in the land. It was through her strength and her cunning that the land of the Cornovidi had stretched as far as it did, and had come to take in the borderland with the Otherworld itself.

There were many stories of Riamunda. She could still be seen, a silver owl with wings of hazel, flying across the fortress each midwinter, keeping an eye on events down below.

She had clearly been unable to stop the sacking of her ancestral home.

But now Kymon sang a song to her, joined by Munda, who followed his lead. It was not a song of summoning, but of courage, of intent. He drew on her sleeping soul for the inner strength to do what he had to do. The cairn was simply the grave, but his voice would echo into whatever part of Ghostland she inhabited. Ghostland was a complex realm. It had its land for queens, separate from its land for heroes.

“Grandmother,” he finally whispered, “even if I am one against an army, your country will never come under bondage. I cannot wait for my father to return. He may never return. I am battle-eager. Send me hawks to strike from the sun and carrion birds to clean up the field. Fly low over me, and screech if I hesitate. But grandmother… come back to MaegCatha, and haunt the plain. I will draw comfort from your shadow.”

Robert Holdstock

Extract from The Iron Grail, 2002