It is a great privilege that the gods have granted me: to serve as tutor and guide of the one who someday will serve as High King of this isle, uniting our people and thrusting back the darkness that has already overwhelmed so much of the world. This much my visions have told me.
I tried to keep those visions in mind one sunny afternoon in May, as I confronted an angry youth whose sole goal in life, it now seemed, was to provoke his tutor into murdering him.
I took a moment to gather together the books that my pupil had scattered about the table, though I ignored the ones that had fallen to the floor. Some of these books had cost men's lives to be obtained; more to the point, some of them had nearly me cost my life. I waited until my breath was steady once more before I turned and said coolly to the young man before me, "I am waiting, Arthur."
Uther's son glared at me, saying nothing. He had passed his fourteenth birthday the previous midwinter, and had shot up in height since then, leaving his limbs to fill in the flesh when they had the time. Until then he was lanky and somewhat awkward in his movements, giving all too many who met him the impression that he was nothing more than an untamed colt, like many boys his age. That impression vanished once visitors saw him at practice in the weapons-yard; it took longer for them to realize that his mind was as cutting as his sword.
Given that I could not attribute his silence to lack of wit, I sharpened my tone, saying, "I said that I was waiting, Arthur. I do not have the patience of a god."
Arthur mumbled something then, a phrase obviously not meant for my ears, but ten years of travelling amongst cutthroat barbarians had sharpened my hearing. I took a moment to shoo away a bird that had flown into the schoolroom through the open window and was inspecting some fragments of parchment that had torn off when Arthur dashed the books onto the table. By the time I was through doing this, I had steadied myself enough to say calmly, "Very well. Explain to me, please, why Homer, the greatest poet the world has ever known, writes . . . nonsense." I rephrased Arthur's appraisal into more polite terms.
For a moment, I thought that Arthur would continue in his black silence. Then abruptly he moved, with the swiftness that allowed him to better his elder foster-brother in arms, and pulled from the floor one of the books, spreading it out onto the table. Jabbing with his finger, he said, "Look at this! The Greeks have decided to fight the Trojans – they've been doing so for ten years, and victory still awaits them – and in the midst of it all, Prince Achilles decides to go off and sulk like a little child, abandoning his comrades!"
I looked down at the passage he was pointing at: "Meanwhile unstirring and with smoldering heart, the godlike athlete . . ." I refrained from saying that the description of young Achilles fit very well the description of Arthur at this moment. Instead I said, "Well, he believed that Agamemnon had stolen his girl from him. Desire can make men do foolish things."
"Foolish!" Arthur stared at me, his straight brows drawn down in fury. "It's madness, that's what it is! If the Trojans win, they will surely take revenge for the Greek assault on them, and Achilles' people will be among those who suffer. He's destroying his own land for the sake of a passing passion – that's unforgivable!"
He was standing erect, with all the authority of a royal prince making a pronouncement. It would have been a humbling portrait if he had not had a bit of dried honey left at the edge of his mouth from the midday meal. I felt my mouth twitch, but said gravely, "I am gratified to hear you say so."
Suddenly all the dark rage was gone, and he was biting his lip. He looked down, staring intently at his sandals for a moment, and then said hesitantly, "I was thinking of my father, actually."
For a moment, I could do nothing but blink – Arthur, like all of Britain, knew the tale of how his father had courted his mother, but I would not have expected the young prince to condemn Uther's lustful folly as severely as many did. Fortunately I said nothing, for Arthur continued, "He put aside his own desires for the sake of his land – he sent me here to be fostered safely, though he surely would have preferred to have me by his side all these years. That's how a true king should act, making sacrifices for the sake of his people."
I was silent again, but this time out of uncertainty of how to reply. Ectorius and Belin had chosen to give Arthur an abridged account of the events leading up to his fostering; it was Arthur who, adoring his royal father from afar, had placed the positive interpretation of Uther's motives upon those events. One of these days Arthur would have to be told the truth, but none of us wanted to be the messenger of ill-tidings. Most likely the task would fall to me. It usually did.
"On the topic of following one's royal duty . . ." I looked pointedly at the books on the floor.
"Oh." Arthur gave one of his bright smiles and bent to retrieve the fallen books. Placing them gently on the table, he said, "I'm sorry. I ought not to have mistreated them. I lost my temper, just like Achilles did."
The trouble with Arthur, I thought as I came forward to help him sort the books into order, was that he rarely offered me time enough to scold him; he usually ended up chastising himself before I had a chance to do so. Sometimes I wondered whether he really had need of a tutor, or whether he simply tolerated me as a friend of his father, to be given respect when I was nearby and to be laughed at when my back was turned.
We sorted the volumes in silence for a while, a pool of light falling upon the table from the doorway, which faced toward the courtyard. Faintly I could hear the sound of maid-servants chatting as they drew water from the well for cooking, and further off the sound of horses entering the courtyard. I saw Arthur raise his head at this, and I said, "Not Ectorius."
"No." He gave a half-smile. "He won't be back for weeks – the Picts are causing too much trouble at our northern border."
It was a wonder, really, that he remembered the name of his foster-father; a widower and a dedicated soldier, Ectorius had been on the field practically every day since Arthur's arrival here as a baby. When I had arrived here four years before, I had found Arthur to be a quiet boy, almost sullen, overshadowed by his foster-brother who would inherit his father's title. I had watched Arthur for three days; it was like watching a bright flower shrivel in the shade. Then I had announced – I had not been so tactful as to request – that I would take over his tutoring from the villa's priest.
Fortunately, Belin was a true follower of his god, without jealousy and only nervous lest I should introduce the boy to knowledge forbidden to one being raised in the faith of the Anointed One. This I had been careful not to do; indeed, there seemed no end of lessons I could give Arthur on matters that a future High King would need to know.
Now I stole a look at Arthur out of the side of my eye. He was no sheltered prince: his skin was browned by days spent in the fields, helping Ectorius' laborers bring in the harvest; his arms were crisscrossed with the faint lines of old blade cuts, for he refused the royal privilege to practice with blunted blades; and his hands were calloused by days spent helping the servants, after he had finished his own duties.
Not a sheltered prince; instead, the sort of prince that Britain had been waiting for since the Empire withdrew its protection from this isle. A prince that almost no one knew existed. And I had only my visions to depend on to believe that this would ever change.
"I don't think he even cared about the girl," said Arthur, as though there had been no change in our conversation.
"Perhaps not," I said, "but Achilles did care later about his friend Patroklos."
Arthur looked over at me, saying nothing. I took from his hand the book he was holding and folded it out until I found the passage I wanted. "Here," I said, pointing. "Read this, and you'll see what I mean."
I nearly laughed as I looked over and saw the expression on Arthur's face as he stared down at the Greek. "I've finished my translations for the day," he suggested hopefully.
I smiled, laid my hand on his shoulder, and left him gazing gloomily at the parchment.
I met Caius in the corridor; he was racing back from the courtyard, an opened letter in hand. I put my hand out to stop him and said, "News from your father?"
He shook his head. He was a big-boned lad, four years older than Arthur, with little taste for books but surprisingly skilled in numbers. Since I had virtually no command of numbers, he had made his assessment of me early on. Now he looked me up and down, as though I were a servant who had interrupted his betters. But the enjoyment of being the first with the news was too great; he burst out, "No, from the High King!"
"The High King?" I looked pointedly at the open letter.
He was far paler than Arthur, and I could see the flush travel over his neck. He said stiffly, "It was addressed to my lord father. Father said that I was in charge of the estate while he was away."
"Yes, of course." I had to remind myself that Cai was eighteen, well into manhood, and certainly qualified to run the estate in his father's absence. "And what is the news, if I may ask?"
This phrasing of the question pleased him. He said, with his chin raised high, "The High King has asked us to send troops to him. He is hard pressed by the recent attacks."
"Uther has always been hard pressed by the Saxons," I said. "Will your father agree to the request?"
Cai considered this question a moment, and then shook his head. "We have too much trouble to the north; we couldn't spare the soldiers. But—" He raised his chin once more. "I shall ask my father to send me, so that I can fight at the High King's side. The High King specifically asked for me in the letter."
This was news I did not want to hear – that Uther was so lacking troops that he must beg his lords to send their first-born sons. Here in the north, we were relatively sheltered from the dark waves of attacks that had devastated the south, leaving scores of villages and towns in smoldering ruins, with men killed and women and children led off to slavery. But I had no doubt that, if matters continued as they were, either the bloodthirsty Picts would travel south to overwhelm us or the heart of Britain would be lost to the scavenging Saxons. And then all the gods of the world would not be able to protect us from what I had seen in the old Western Empire.
I closed my eyes momentarily, haunted by a vision of young Arthur speared in his gut and left to die in agony. It was not a vision brought by my power; I must trust that the gods saw better than I did what lay ahead. Opening my eyes, I said, "Did the High King request that you bring Arthur with you?"
"Arthur?" Cai stared at me as though I had named a field-hand.
"Yes, Arthur. Your foster-brother."
"But the High King wouldn't want him around. He—"
He stopped himself, too late; it was forever Cai's burden that he stopped himself when it was too late. He bit his lip, and then bit harder as I grimly took hold of his arm and pulled him into the privacy of the summer room.
This chamber faced northward, toward the bleak hills that rose into cold mountains. Cai, as I released him, looked longingly toward the door, and then scuffed his feet for a moment on the mosaic of a merlin in flight.
"I have to go see Belin," he said, trying to sound manly.
"Presently," I said. "For now, explain to me why the High King would not want to see his own son."
He opened his mouth, closed it, then opened it again and said, "Look, I know. You don't have to pretend around me."
I raised an eyebrow and leaned back against the wall, folding my arms against my chest. This was the chilliest room of the house, being unheated year-round, but I was warm enough in my tunic and breeches. Cai, who stubbornly adhered to the older Roman style, was shivering under his toga, and knew it, and was glaring at me as though I were a Saxon he was assigned to spear.
"And what is it that you know?" I asked carefully.
"That Arthur isn't really the High King's son. That he's Gorlois' son, begotten upon the Queen before her old husband died. And that's why the High King sent Arthur away – because he's the son of the man who was traitor to the High King and raised a rebellion against him."
I was grateful that Cai had not eavesdropped upon the worst part of the tale, which was that Uther had been prepared to slay Arthur outright until I intervened. "Gorlois might have had a somewhat different perspective on the matter," I said dryly, "considering that Uther plotted to commit adultery upon his wife."
Cai frowned, chewing his lip. "But you helped him."
"I did, and not in order that a son of the Duke of Cornwall might be born. I helped the High King fulfill his desires because, on the night of Gorlois' death in battle, when Uther lay with the woman who had been Gorlois' wife until a few hours before, Arthur was begotten, the true-born son of Uther and therefore his heir."
Cai frowned yet further, biting at his thumb until he finally said, "But the High King doesn't believe this."
"The High King doubts it," I agreed, passing lightly over the furious bout of shouting between Uther and me that had led to him banishing me from his presence for the past fifteen years. "Yet even if Arthur were begotten by Gorlois, he would still be Uther's heir, for he was born when Uther and his queen were married, and Uther has fathered no sons since then. So rest assured that your little foster-brother, who is so unfortunate as to be better than you in arms, will one day be your sovereign lord."
Cai started to reply with fire, then saw my smile, stopped, and after a moment gave a grudging smile as he kicked at the mosaic. "He'll be a good king," he said, with all the eagerness of a virgin being raped by a barbarian. "It's just that he knows he'll be a good king."
"Which is very irritating, I'm sure," I said gravely. "But Cai, he will have burdens enough in years to come without the loss of your support."
Cai shrugged. "He'll have your support. That's all he needs."
I studied the face of the frowning youth before me, silently cursing myself. I had known for some time how deeply jealousy had poisoned Cai's feelings for his foster-brother; I had not realized that I was part of the jealousy. Yet it was plain to see how it had occurred. I, Merlin, known for my great works for the High King and for his brother the High King before him, had come to this part of the world where few visitors travelled, had made myself at home in the villa—
And had paid no attention to Cai. My attention had been focussed on the younger boy who would inherit, not Ectorius' estate, but the fate of Britain.
This was no small matter of brotherly quarrels. When Arthur finally emerged from this country hideout to claim his title, men would look to see who supported him, and without his own foster-brother's support, there was little chance Arthur could win his throne. I wondered whether it was too late to turn part of my attention to Cai. I suspected that it was; he was too old now to need a tutor, and I could offer him little help in running the estate. It would be Arthur who would have to sort through this problem. It seemed I had placed yet another burden on the young prince, and I found myself wondering once more whether Arthur would have sooner seen me gone from his life.
There was a hollowness in me that I could not understand – something that went further than the interest I had in the future High King's welfare. What it was I did not know, but I could feel my power pressing upon me, as though I were on the edge of seeing something new.
"This is even worse!" declared Arthur, looking up from the book with fire in his eyes.
I sighed, closed my eyes to steady myself, and prayed momentarily for a vision of how to refrain from hitting a fractious pupil. Since no vision came to aid me, I waited a minute more to calm my heartbeat, then opened my eyes and said steadily, "You cannot deny that he truly cares for Patroklos."
"Yes, but look what stupidity he commits in the name of friendship! First he says that he won't fight . . . then Patroklos dies and he says he will fight . . . Which is worse, to refuse to fight when you should, or to fight when your mind is filled with nothing but petty revenge? He desecrates the body of Patroklos' killer – you can't do that! The enemy will take its cue from you as to how it should treat corpses and prisoners in its care. Achilles is bringing his people into danger again – no prince worth his name would do that."
"Not even out of friendship?"
"Especially not out of friendship. A prince must not allow his feelings for those he loves most cause him to neglect his duty."
I stood in the doorway, looking at Arthur's face, which had turned hard as flint. He was standing erect again, as unbending as a spear, and his arms were folded, pushing up an arm ring I had given him as a present on his previous birthday. It was of an old Celtic design, but to appease Belin I had ordered it made with a small cross in the design.
My mind was functioning sluggishly; although I was trying to think of an appropriate passage from Homer, the only words that came into my head were, "O most unthankful . . ." I was being foolish; this was simply a boyish fit of temper, such as any young man might show. Surely Arthur valued what I taught him . . . surely he did.
I surrendered to the words finally – it was hard not to think of surrender when in Arthur's presence – and turned to a chest that lay in the corner of the room. Putting aside the heavy holy book that lay atop it – a gift from Belin, to aid in Arthur's Greek studies – I raised the lid. There was no lock upon the chest; it had not taken me long after my arrival here to realize that a lock was too strong a temptation for Cai's prying eyes. As it was, the sacred book atop the chest had evidently persuaded Cai that the contents of the chest were equally pious and dull, for when I pulled up the top I saw that the scrolls remained as I had laid them four years before, untouched even by dust.
I found the scroll I wanted and stood up. Arthur was watching me with the resigned look of a pupil with a foolish taskmaster; I had seen him give the same look to the villa's head groom, who was notoriously bad at training horses. Ignoring the coldness that had touched my stomach again, I stepped forward and opened the scroll, saying, "These two pages. Then you can go to dinner."
Dinner was still an hour away, but looking at Arthur's face as it returned to hardness, I wondered whether it would take until midnight before the prince deigned to finish his assignment.
Which meant that it would be well past midnight before I came to my own sleep. Sending up another prayer to the gods for patience, I left the chamber.
I had already reached the summer room before I remembered; then I cursed myself. For four years, against all odds, I had maintained good relations with Belin, and one of the reasons I had managed to do so was because I had always shown him beforehand any texts I would assign to Arthur. Belin had forbidden me to use only a handful of the texts I had shown him over the years; it took me little time to realize that this would have been one of the few.
I hesitated a moment, wondering what would be the best course to take now; then I molded my heart into courage and went searching for the priest, to make my confession.
I found him, appropriately, in the house's chapel. It had been a shrine to Mithras in the old days; Belin was not above desecrating other men's sacred places. To be fair to him, he probably thought he was bringing the shrine into the use that its original creators would have wanted, had they been so fortunate as to know of the Anointed One. Unlike some priests I had met over the years, Belin was refreshingly free of talk about pagan demons and their devillish followers; instead, he spoke of the fulfillment and summation of all good things in the Anointed One.
He was innocent of the fact that anyone might be offended upon being told that they adhered to a childish faith. I had not disillusioned him, partly because he was a good man in his own way, but mainly because he and his clergy friends were of too much importance. I had been in Ravenna when Rome's fourteen-year-old emperor was deposed there, partly because the Bishop of Salona denounced him.
Belin was not praying; he was reading from a bound wax tablet. At first I thought it was the letter from Uther, but as I came closer I saw that the tablet's seal was not red but golden.
He looked up as I stopped next to him, and I said, "Bishop Dubricius has written to you?"
He nodded; his face was shining with joy. "He has asked me to send him the treatise I told him of, on the Blessed Paul's denunciation of pederasty."
I sat down on the bench beside him. The chapel was small, having originally been part of the larger room beside it, and then walled off when some earlier priest had decided that this mixing of sacred and secular was unwise. A tortured man hung from the wall – Belin was fashionable in his artistic tastes, and he preferred this design over the bare crosses that hung in most churches and chapels that I had seen. I slid my gaze away from the atrocity – after all, I reminded myself, my own ancestors had not been adverse to shedding blood for sacred purposes, though they had not gone so far as to revel in the agonizing death of a god. The altar below the cross was more to my taste, having been consecrated originally to an older god, as could be seen from the fact that the lettering of dedication had been hacked away.
The chapel was otherwise beautiful, filled with candles and incense and spring flowers. I breathed in the spice of the incense – I recognized it as one of the spices I had brought as a gift from the old Empire four years before – and tried to think what approach I should take in my confession. It did not appear that this was the best time for raising such a topic.
Belin, thankfully oblivious to my thoughts, said, "He says that he would like to use the treatise to help him compose a homily on the subject."
"Indeed?" I said. "That is a great honor."
Belin nodded, continuing to smile. "That such a great and influential man should value my thoughts on the subject is humbling to me. I hope that he will not be disappointed by what I have to offer. All that I have done is suggest some scriptural support for the Holy Church's condemnation of pederasty."
Belin was always the most polite of men; he never used words such as "sodomy" in the presence of an unbeliever. I said, "Surely that is not a matter that is under debate among the Anointed One's followers?"
The priest shook his head, his smile fading. "You would be surprised, Merlin, what wicked arguments men will make in the name of God. The bishop has among his flock some men and youth who, having lapsed into this sin, refuse to show proper contrition, but instead argue that the Blessed Paul did not condemn pederasty but some other sin instead. They quote the Blessed Hippolytus, who said that the Blessed Paul was speaking of those who take part in the orgiastic rites of the mother goddess. But I believe this is a misinterpretation of the letter to the Romans, and that the true interpretation of the passage can be found by examining the letters' later use of the words arsenokoites and malakos . . ."
He continued on for some time in this vein, with me pretending to show great interest – and indeed, I can always stay attentive to a good discussion of translation problems, however trivial the text may be. When Belin reached the point where he was preparing to describe the use of malakos in Homer to refer to Achilles' "soft bed," I interrupted him and said, "But does your holy man Paul say why he is opposed to pederasty?"
"That is clear from the words he uses," Belin replied promptly. "A malakos is a soft man, an effeminate man, one who has allowed himself to be used for the sexual pleasure of another man, as a woman should properly be used. 'Men abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another . . .'"
This was tiresome; I had heard this argument made by too many would-be philosophers over their drinks. "I can see that might be true of men," I said mildly, "but we are not talking about men, we are talking about youths. Surely at that time of life, the role of a young man is to follow, not lead, and it would be as improper for him to serve as master over his lover as it would be for a woman to serve as master in a marriage."
Too late, I remembered that it is never wise to try to argue philosophy with followers of the Anointed One; they always end up appealing to their holy book as certain proof that their god ordained such-and-such an action. Belin, who had turned concerned eyes toward me, said, "Good Arnobius speaks of how the King of Pessinus sought to withdraw his son from so disgraceful an intimacy, but spurned on by the frenzied madness of his lover, the youth mutilated himself—"
I stood up hastily, my head swimming from the sudden rise. For a moment, I thought that I was on the edge of a vision, but then I saw before me only the priest, staring up at me with the benevolent concern of a holy man who has failed to assist a soul that has strayed from his god's ways.
"I am out of my depth in these matters, I fear," I said with a smile. "I would appreciate it if you would lend me a copy of your treatise so that I may learn more on this subject. For now, though, I must return to my pupil."
Belin nodded, satisfied with this excuse, and turned his attention back to the tablet. I left him in the chapel with the flickering candles and made my way hurriedly down the corridor as the bells began to chime for dinner. No, not a good time for a confession, I thought. My best course of action would be to take the scroll back and return it to its hiding place.
I could only hope that Arthur had not read far.
The schoolroom was red with the light of sunset by the time I reached it. The evening's long shadows accentuated the peeling of the walls' murals, the chips upon the paving stones, the cracks within the aging furniture. It had been many years since Ectorius' family had had the leisure to keep this house in proper order, and though Cai had proved to have a gift in such matters, even he could not keep the hypocaust running or the baths in repair. Not when most of the men on this estate spent the summer months at the border, holding back the Picts.
Arthur had already lit the brazier against the cool of the dusk; it was dancing brightly at a safe distance from the books in the chamber. The youth himself was not at the reading table but standing at the window, looking out onto the western part of the estate, where the field-hands were at work. So far Ectorius had been successful in keeping the Picts from ravishing his land, as the Saxons had done in southeastern Britain.
Arthur did not turn when I entered. This was not because he was unaware of my presence; I could be sure of that. Arthur might be isolated from court affairs in this northern estate, but Ectorius had arranged for him to be trained by some of Britain's finest men-at-arms, including a friendly Pict who had taught Arthur to hear a fieldmouse creeping up upon him. Uther would have been in awe of his son's war skills, if he had ever bothered to ask after them.
I looked at the reading table, and my breath whistled in. I had given Arthur one of the play's scrolls, but now all four scrolls lay upon the table. One was rolled up on both sides, and I opened it to see which portion of the text Arthur had been reading. Then I cursed myself inwardly once more. I had forgotten that the book was illustrated.
Little wonder that the boy was silent; he must be wondering whether my next action would be to introduce him to bloody pagan rites. I cleared my throat and said, "Did you finish the translation?"
"Not all of it." Arthur's voice was faint, and he did not turn. "The play . . . It's not like I thought it would be."
"Well, The Myrmidons is a very old play." I tiptoed carefully through the conversation, as though I were making my way through a hall of sleeping barbarians. "I obtained it from a man I met in my travels, who had taken it from a library. Stolen it, actually, but his motive was good: he feared for the book's safety, amidst all the upheavals in his country. And indeed, the library was burnt by barbarians a few months later. The book is several centuries old – that is why it is written in scrolls rather than bound as a codex – and the play itself is a thousand years old."
"Oh." There was nothing in Arthur's voice to reveal whether he was interested in what I was saying.
I said, feeling my way somewhat desperately over the treacherous ground, "The man told me he had asked others about the play, but nobody he spoke to had heard of it – he feared that this was the last remaining copy. Some of the people of his land were giving over their most valuable books to the priests and priestesses of their various faiths, whom they trusted would remain protected by their gods. But this man, who was a follower of the Anointed One, did not believe that he could give such a book to his priests, so he asked me to take it and protect it with my magic."
"And did you?" Arthur's voice was still colorless.
"Well, I brought it here, to a part of the old Empire that has not yet fallen to the barbarians. That is the best I can do."
"But you have not used your magic?"
I smiled. "You know better than that, Arthur. I am granted visions from the gods. Sometimes I have the power to help others to see visions. That is all."
"It is enough."
For the first time, there was a flash of emotion in his voice, like a spark leaping from the fire, and I waited to see whether it would illumine our conversation, but Arthur added nothing more. He continued to stand at the window, staring out upon the gathering dark.
After a long while he said, "The play is different from Homer."
"Yes, it was written several centuries after The Iliad was." I spoke more slowly; I could almost see the sleeping warriors springing up around me. "For one thing, as Plato points out in The Symposium, Aeschylus portrays Patroklos as younger than Achilles, although Homer says that Achilles is the younger of the two. Of course, by Aeschylus' time the nature of such friendships had changed. I suppose that, since Achilles was in many ways the master of Patroklos, Aeschylus found it difficult to imagine Patroklos as the older lover."
I waited, holding my breath, and after a time Arthur said, in a low voice, "Yes, I hadn't . . . I hadn't expected that. From the way Homer describes them, I thought they were just friends."
I waited a moment for further comment, and then said, "You have read references to such matters in other books I have shown you."
Arthur nodded, his gaze fixed upon some distant object. "But I always thought that it was meant to be symbolic, in the same way that the Song of Songs in the Bible represents Jesu and his Church. This was more . .. fleshly."
I was still holding open the scroll; I let it close and released my breath in a long sigh. "Arthur, I am sorry," I said quietly. "I should not have shown you this."
He turned then, in his usual swift manner. Though the room was darkening, I could see the surprise on his face. "I didn't mind you showing it to me," he said. "It's just . . ." He stared down at the scrolls, as though he could see again what was there. "You aren't married."
"No," I agreed, wondering what was on his mind.
"You can't marry, can you? Your power would be lost if you lay with a woman."
"So the traditions of my faith say," I replied with a smile. "I have never cared to test the matter."
"And . . . and if you lay with . . . That is . . ."
He was still staring downward; I could not catch his eye. I walked forward and knelt in front of him, putting my hand up to cup his cheek. "Arthur," I said quietly, "I am not a sodomite. I have never lain with a youth, and when I was a youth I had no opportunity to lie with a man. Put that fear from your mind."
He did not move from my touch, but his eyes were wide and he swallowed heavily, as though facing a mighty opponent. "Oh," he said. "So the pictures. . . You don't know what . . . I mean, you don't understand . . ."
It came to me then, like a thunderflash brightening a dark night, and I stood hastily, withdrawing my hand. Arthur swallowed again, and for a moment I thought he would retreat back to the window, but that was not his nature. He looked up, waiting.
I looked back at him, and I was seeing what I had known with my mind was there, but not with my heart.
"Youths, not men," I had told Belin, but if I had thought the matter through, I would have known that the two categories overlapped. Since his fourteenth birthday, Arthur had been a man – by law and no doubt by his own assessment. Certainly his body was that of a young man rather than a boy – though he still had the slenderness of a youth, his shoulders were beginning to broaden, and there were soft hairs upon his cheek that had not been there the year before. Even his voice was beginning to change.
It had not been so long ago that Arthur would come to me at night when he had an evil dream, and I would hold him in my arms until he had fallen asleep and could be returned to his own bed. When had he stopped doing this? It was not hard for me to remember: his visits had ceased the previous winter, not long before his birthday. No doubt he had been waiting since that time for me to acknowledge his entrance into manhood, and to change my lessons accordingly.
And I, fool that I was, had continued to treat him as a young boy. Yet who else was he to go to for such instruction? His foster-father was rarely home, Cai could not be expected to know much more than Arthur did, and Belin, good man though he was, would have turned pale with shock if he had been asked the sort of questions that a youth naturally has. I found myself wondering whether Arthur had despaired of being taught by other men, and had instead taken his own education into hand by tumbling the serving maids.
It appeared not; he was looking up at me expectantly, with the same expression his face had held on the day I introduced him to the mysteries of Greek.
I pulled forward a stool and sat down, using the time to frame my next words. Then I said carefully, in a matter-of-fact tone, "I have no experience in such matters, but certainly I have gained knowledge over the years. I have read widely the writings of the old Greek authors, who often spoke of such things, and during my visit to the old Empire I often saw pottery with decorations that depicted these practices. I also spent much of my time among soldiers and sailors, who are notorious for talking about how they spend their leisure hours."
I stopped then, deciding that it would be best not to reveal that I had also attended a number of decadent dinner parties where, if I had wished, I could have taken detailed notes. The youth licked his lips and nodded, apparently satisfied with my qualifications as an instructor. I continued, "If you have any questions, I should be more than glad to try to answer them."
Arthur looked down: the tips of his sandals now occupied the attention he had formerly focussed upon the scrolls. After a while, he said, "It's not so much questions I have . . . Not specific questions, I mean. I was just wondering . . ."
"Yes?" I tried again to catch his eye. It was not often that Arthur showed this much reluctance to face his opponent.
He raised his gaze finally; he had the look of a soldier venturing onto a battlefield where defeat has been predicted. He said, in a clear, unwavering voice, "I was wondering whether you could show me."
All was silent. The house's inhabitants had retreated to the east wing, where the kitchen and dining room were located. Even the birds had grown still with the twilight. Nothing stirred; no one spoke.
And in the end I saw what I had never thought to see in my life: Arthur retreated from the battle.
His flight put an end to my paralysis. I moved hastily to the door, but caught only a glimpse of the youth as he dashed out of the corridor through a doorway into the courtyard. I remained where I was for a moment, and then walked over to one of the corridor windows. Arthur was already at the well and was dashing water from a bucket over his face. His back was to me, and all I could see were his tunic and breeches, and his tanned arms, and his hair cut short, Roman-style. The shadow of the western wing, where I stood, fell upon him.
Not a boy, but a youth. Not a full-grown man, but a youth. And I was his tutor. He had asked this of me, as he would have asked no one else.
I gave no thought to myself. That was what I remembered afterwards: that I did not have to ask myself what my own feelings were. Sometimes my visions remain hidden within me until the moment I need them; this was the same.
What mattered rather was where my duty lay, and that was a harder thing to decide. I knew well what the consequences for Arthur would be if this were discovered by others. It had been many years since such activities had been openly practiced, and I had heard that, in what remained of the Empire in the East, there was talk of reviving the old laws against this. I knew also that this outlawing had come about, not only through pressure from the Anointed One's followers, but also through pressure from Romans who held to the older gods, but who had come to fear such alliances. "So disgraceful an intimacy . . ." The sentiment could be traced back to Plato.
I had made my mind up on such matters long ago, but Arthur had been raised differently than I. Was it fair to lead him away from the tenets of his faith? Or rather – I remembered Belin's complaint about the strayed members of the bishop's flock – to lead him away from the tenets put forth by the leaders of his faith? Arthur would have burdens enough in the coming years; why place yet another upon him?
I hesitated, and then walked to the doorway to the courtyard.
I met Arthur as he was walking across the courtyard toward the doorway. He had made the decision to return to the battle, and when he saw me, he did not hesitate, but came forward and said, in a voice too quiet to be heard by those in the eastern wing but nonetheless strong, "I wish to apologize, sir. I hope you will forgive me for making so offensive a suggestion."
It was as courtly an apology as Uther himself might have made, if Uther had been in the habit of making apologies. It was not a boy's apology, and it was not a youth's apology. It was the apology of a full-grown man, one who has put aside the lessons of youth and taken on the burdens of full manhood.
And that was what speared my heart. The day would come when this would be all that Arthur knew: the continued burden of having to be a full-grown man – and such a man as could never turn to others for leadership, for it is the added burden of the High King that he alone must make the final decisions. That was a burden I knew Arthur understood and was willing to take on, but it was too early, far too early. Before that happened, he should be allowed the opportunity that all young men his age had, of being guided by others into manhood.
That was why he had asked this of me; but he was willing to put his desire aside, if I did not want this.
I said softly, "I am not offended." And then I drew him into my arms, kissing him on his damp forehead as I did so.
He lay still within my arms, though he had placed his arms lightly about my back; his head, which was still a few inches below mine, was bowed upon my shoulder. After a moment I drew back, and he looked up at me, his face filled with uncertainty.
I would have liked to have embraced him again, but my back was prickling, and I had learned during my travels through the old Empire to heed my back at such moments. The one time I had ignored such a warning, it had taken me six months to recover from my injuries.
Raising my voice so that it could be heard by anyone standing nearby, I said, "You did not finish the translation?"
"No, sir." I could see the flash of disappointment in Arthur's eyes as I changed the topic, but he quickly hid his expression and waited obediently.
"Go and finish it now; then you can join us at dinner."
"Yes, sir." Arthur bowed his head; I suspected his main reason for doing this was to hide the tightening of his throat. He began to step past me.
I laid my hand on his shoulder, as I often did in passing, and said, in a low voice that did not carry beyond the youth next to me, "When the others are asleep, come to my chamber."
Then I walked past him, without looking back.
The fire in the brazier flickered, painting the chamber with dancing shadows, as well as bright sparks where some bit of metal had caught and held the illusive light. In the next moment, the spark would be gone as the flames shifted in place, and another spark would appear elsewhere in the chamber, flicking from spot to spot, always just out of reach. The smoke from the fire travelled through the window which, being far from the other sleeping chambers of the house, was open to the night air.
"I understand now about Achilles."
I turned my head to look at Arthur. He was lying on his back, with the blankets flung off despite the chill of the night. The firelight had molded his body so that the lines curved with sinuous clarity, like the winding branches of a tree captured by the setting sun. His eyes were remote, staring up at the beamed ceiling with solemnity and concentration; his voice was hushed.
"I thought you would," I replied. "Sometimes a tutor must make great sacrifices to ensure that his pupil understands his lesson."
This jerked him out of his thoughts. He turned his head toward me, staring openmouthed for a moment; then he burst into laughter, hastily smothering his mouth upon my chest, lest he be heard outside my chamber.
I put my arm around him, pulling him close. The cold of the night had affected me more than him, and I was trembling, but not entirely from the cold. With my free hand, I lightly stroked his right arm, unable to bear any greater grace than this.
After a while, his laughter subsided, and all was silent but for the flames and the whistle of wind outside and the distant sound of wolves on the prowl. Finally he said, "I liked about the thighs."
"Oh?" I let my hand wander away from his arm, exploring lower; his right leg was straddled over the gap between my legs, and I traced softly the top of his inner thigh, which was still sticky.
He sighed and snuggled closer, saying, "Yes, I didn't know it could be done that way. I thought it had to be—" He touched his backside briefly. "I was more nervous about that than anything else."
"'False to the holy union of our thighs, O most unthankful for those many kisses,'" I quoted. "If you'd finished translating the passage I assigned you, you'd have known about the thighs."
He laughed softly. The taste of him was still sweet in my mouth, but not so sweet as the feeling in my heart as I turned my gaze downward to look at him. I had never before noticed what a mixture of colors his hair was: raven black from his mother, who bore some of the blood of the older race of this isle; sun golden from his father, whose shining appearance had somewhat compensated for his lack of judgment as a ruler; a touch of red from his uncle, who had first tried to turn the Saxon-wolves from our shores.
Alas, red was also the color of Gorlois' hair. I bent my head and kissed the soft silk strands, breathing in his sweet scent.
Arthur sighed again, drawing yet closer. "I did read what Achilles said in Homer," he murmured. "'My greatest friend is gone: Patroklos, comrade in arms, whom I held dear above all others – dear as myself . . .'"
My hand withdrew from where it had been stroking Arthur – all too effectively, it appeared from the rapid thud of his heart – and travelled up to close upon his hand. "Arthur," I said, "are you sure that you want to do this?"
He raised his head from my chest; he was grinning. "You asked me that at least twelve dozen times before we started," he said. "Don't you believe the answer I gave you then?"
"There's another matter to consider besides the ones we discussed," I replied. "I'm older than you, Arthur."
The grin disappeared. After a moment, he scooted upwards to place his head in the hollow of my shoulder. "I know," he said quietly. "But Merlin, you're not yet forty. You'll live for many years."
"I trust so, but that's not what I mean." I hesitated, picking my way carefully through the treacherous territory of the coming topic. "You love me as Achilles loved Patroklos in Homer – the love of a young man for an older man. But the day will come, not so long from now, when you will be old enough to turn aside from that type of love. I don't wish you to believe that your natural growth into manhood will be treachery to the friendship I know you will always hold for me."
Arthur's fingers curled around my hand – slender, youthful fingers, still smaller than mine. He said, yet more quietly, "It's hard for me to believe that my love for you will ever be different than it is tonight. But whether or not you are right about that, I know that I shall have the duties of a High King – I shall have to take a bride for my queen. And I don't think—" He hesitated, and then said, "I don't think that it would be wise for me to sleep with anyone else afterwards. That could only bring trouble to this land."
So he had indeed listened to the stories about his father. I kissed the top of his head lightly before saying, "Uther is hardly the first king to have made plans to commit adultery, either by taking another man's wife or by leaving his marriage bed in favor of another love. It is a common practice; your father could not have anticipated how great a trouble would arise. But I agree with you that you would do better not to follow your father's example in that regard. Cornwall has never entirely forgiven Uther for what he did; nor has the Church. And you will need the help of the Anointed One's followers if you are to keep your throne."
His voice was small, so small that I reached over and touched the ring that still pressed upon his arm. "Do you believe you have disobeyed your god in doing this?" I asked somberly.
He did not reply at once, and I felt the breath catch in my throat. Then he said, "I'm not sure – not in the way I would be sure I was sinning if I committed adultery. If I were sure, if Jesu had ever spoken of this. . . But I keep feeling that, if he had, he would have spoken of the 'holy union of thighs,' and blessed what we're doing."
I murmured something then, an ancient prayer taught to me when I was a child, and he raised his head and kissed me long and hard. I could feel the desire growing in me again, and in him, and I turned him onto his back. As I did so, he said, gazing up at me with that remote, solemn look, "For however long we have. For however long or short a time that may be, I am yours, Merlin. I swear that by the Holy Book."
The chill covered me, biting through my cloak. It was still early morning, and a breeze played upon the hillside where I stood. To my right lay a great valley, shrouded in mist. To my left was the end of the valley: a hill rising upward, its shrubs hidden by arms and horses and men.
It was the greatest army I had ever seen, and it was well trained; scarcely a murmur arose from it as the soldiers awaited their enemy. The only loud sound came from Belin, who had raised his voice above the breeze and was telling the soldiers that God was on their side today: the Almighty Father would help them to slay the godless wolf who led the pack now approaching them.
Cai was there too: I saw his face, grim with determination and strength. Though he was a lesser fighter than Arthur, that meant only that he was a better soldier than most men – I could see that he had been given command over the right wing.
I was about to turn my eyes toward the banner flying at the front of the army when I heard Cai call out, and Belin heightened his hard denunciation of the demon-driven wolves. I turned to look. The enemy army was approaching through the valley, but I could see little of it as yet: the mist purled around the horses and men, shielding them from view. I looked back at Cai. Though his determination had not lessened, he had turned pale, and his chin was raised as it always was in moments of greatest tension.
Belin was calling prayers to his god now. I saw little need for such prayers: the army approaching us was minuscule in proportion to the British army, and the latter had the advantage of being on high ground. Even with a skilled war-leader – and the Saxons had highly skilled leaders indeed – Britain's victory in this battle was certain.
I turned my head. The enemy had nearly reached the end of the valley now; they must be brave men to continue on against such odds, and I felt a moment of pity for the men about to be slaughtered. I quickly sheathed my pity. It was their death, or the death of the good men near me: Belin and Cai and other upright Britons whom I recognized. I found myself hoping the slaughter would be quick.
Suddenly there was a break in the enemy ranks: a soldier at the front of the oncoming army spurred his horse forward, speeding ahead of the rest. As he reached the end of the valley, he broke beyond the mist, and I saw his face for the first time.
It was Arthur.
I awoke then, with a shudder and a wordless cry. In my arms was something soft and warm; it turned its head to look back at me. "Merlin?" it said.
I required a moment to catch my breath; my body was still shuddering. Arthur blinked at me, too drowsy to show more than mild concern.
"It was only a dream," I murmured, bending my head and kissing the youth on the nape of his neck. "Return to sleep, my love."
He obeyed me, dropping into slumber at once, as I had seen his father do many times. It was a skill that ran in his family: the ability to sleep immediately, even when surrounded by danger.
I envied him that skill. I was wrapped around Arthur's back; after a moment, I painstakingly disentangled myself and slipped from the bed, taking my cloak that hung nearby and placing it over Arthur to replace the warmth I had removed. He stirred but did not wake. I was shivering now, and since I had no cloak to wrap myself in, instead I dressed quietly, and then went to the far end of the chamber, standing a moment in the dark.
"Only a dream" I had said, but I could not fool myself into thinking it was so. What I had seen had the quality of my waking visions: the hard edges, the perfect clarity, the utter certainty that what I saw was true. The only question remaining was whether I had seen what would pass or what might pass.
The fire in the brazier had subsided to red coals; I touched the embers with a taper and used it to light a beeswax candle. Then I placed the candle upon my writing table and looked down.
In the anxious hours between dinner and Arthur's arrival at my door, I had thought to occupy myself with a book. This had proved to be impossible, but the volume I had taken from the shelf in my chamber was still there, lying untouched. I opened it, frowning as I tried to read the words before me. I had learned my Latin the way most men do, by hearing it spoken, and translating written words was still a struggle for me after all these years.
Eventually, I made out a phrase and translated it slowly into a whisper: ". . . carried her to bed . . ." And then I was silent, reading the passage that followed.
After a while I sat down, and finding the quill and ink where I had left them, I began to write.
By the time dawn had crept to the farthest corners of the chamber, I had finished my translation and was completing a fair copy of the passage onto a piece of reed-paper. I blotted the ink carefully when I was through, and then reached for the leather pouch lying near the gutted candle.
Behind me, Arthur asked, "What's that?"
I turned to look at him. He had wrapped himself in my cloak, being apparently more shy in the daytime than he had been in the night; at my gesture, he came forward and, without awaiting instruction, slipped into my lap. It was not the first time I had held him in my lap, of course, and as I placed my arms around him, there was no desire in me, only a deep love that soared above the cravings of the flesh.
"Just a piece of poetry," I replied. "I think that some day I may need to look at it again, and since it's possible I shall be away from this place when that happens, I decided I should carry the passage with me, rather than try to tote books all over this island again." I smiled, and gave Arthur's earlobe a small nip.
He went rigid, and I quickly withdrew my mouth, but he was not looking at me; he was staring at the scroll on the table. "The book!" he said. "Merlin, I was so befuddled with thought of you last night that I left The Myrmidons in the schoolroom, in plain view!"
"Ah." I pulled him from my lap smoothly, without haste, and folded the reed-paper, placing it within the pouch. The pouch was attached to a string, which I hung around my neck, tucking it into the top of my tunic.
"I'll put the scrolls away now," I said with a smile. "If anyone has found them, it's likely to be Cai, and he'll be too busy trying to puzzle out the illustrations to have told anyone. Most likely he'll want lessons from me as well."
Arthur laughed and walked toward the other end of the chamber, where his clothes lay. I strode to the doorway, undid the bolt, and stepped through; as I turned to close the door, I saw the cloak drop, and there in the sunlight he stood, lithe and smooth and honey-gold, with his manly hair still light upon his body.
Perhaps, I thought ruefully as I closed the door, my love for him was not so high above the cravings of the flesh as I had thought.
It was still early morning, but of course the servants had already awoken. I could hear the sound of them talking across the courtyard, and amidst them the chatter of women and children, easy and unafraid in their conversation. I had grown to miss that sound during my years with the barbarians. What I remembered most from my years in exile was the ravishing of women, the starvation of children, and the summary slaying of men. Here in Britain, alone of all the countries of the old Western Empire, it was still possible for peaceable people to live in peace. With the help of the gods, life would remain that way in this island; with the help of the bright prince I had left in my chamber, the darkness would not spread this far.
I turned into the schoolroom, and there I found Belin, standing before the brazier fire as he fed a scroll into it.
He looked up at me and said nothing. I said nothing in reply; I could see well enough that the reading table was now bare, and no other scrolls remained in Belin's hand. For a moment it seemed that we would continue forever in that deathly silence, the follower of the Anointed One facing the servant of older gods. Then Belin straightened, and with an edge sharpening his voice, he said, "I have always thought you to be one of the good pagans, Merlin – the sort of man that our Lord came to save, leading a life as upright as any man who is unsaved can live. Yet here I find you corrupting the purity of a boy in your charge, teaching him about vile desires, shameful lusts—"
"He is not a boy," I said, "and he is indeed in my charge, Belin. The gods sent me to care for him."
Belin took a deep breath and held it, as a man holds his sword while he judges the weaknesses of his enemy. I stood unmoved, watching the fire eat the last of the scrolls. I had suffered wounds to keep that play safe, but every part of my spirit was quivering, and I knew that I was on the cusp of something greater than the loss of a thousand-year-old tale.
It came then, emerging from the dark corner, in the form of Cai. "He did more than that," he told Belin eagerly. "He kissed Arthur!"
The morning breeze played at my arms, sending ripples of cold over the chill that had already entered my stomach. Belin looked from Cai to me, saying nothing.
"It's true!" cried Cai. "I saw Merlin kiss Arthur in the courtyard, and then last night, after Arthur thought I had fallen asleep, he crept out of our room, and I saw him go into Merlin's bedchamber. And he stayed there all night."
His voice was thick with jealousy. I wondered whether, before he had shown Belin the scrolls, he had read some of the play, and understood. He looked straight at me now, raising his chin and saying, "I think the High King was right to send Arthur away. He was right when he said that Arthur isn't his son, but the son of that traitor Gorlois. Bad blood begets bad blood—"
He stopped, his face turning white, and I knew before I turned that Arthur stood behind me in the doorway.
He was outlined stark against the light pouring into the corridor from the courtyard: a tall youth, his back unbent, his hands misleadingly relaxed. He had dressed himself neatly, and had even combed his hair, but he had not had time to bathe; from where I stood, I could smell the scent of my sex upon him. It made my skin ripple more than anything else had. He was not looking at me, though; he was staring beyond me to Cai, and his skin had turned even whiter than Cai's.
I looked back at Cai. It was a moment the older youth entered into often, when he had said more than he had meant, and he reacted as he always did, raising his chin higher and staring down the other person with grim determination. Near him, Belin's expression was hard.
I understood then.
I gave no thought to myself. Thought would come later, and pain. Ignoring Cai's final words as though they had not been spoken, I turned coolly to Belin and said, "Certainly I kissed Arthur, and I will continue to kiss him until the day I die. I kissed him on the forehead, and if that be sodomy, may the gods preserve us. As for the rest . . ." I turned toward the young prince, still standing motionless in the doorway behind me. "Arthur, Cai believes that you have taken me as your lover. Am I your lover?"
It was a chance I would not have taken with any other youth, but this was Britain's Achilles, and I had not been entirely truthful when I told Belin that no youth could master his lover. He awaited no sign from me, nor did he hesitate in any other way. He stepped forward in as cool a manner as I had spoken, and placed his hand on the book lying on a shelf nearby.
"No," he said, his voice unwavering. "Merlin is not my lover, nor shall he ever be. I swear that by this Holy Book, and by the blood that Jesu shed for me."
He addressed his words to the far end of the chamber, not looking my way. I had no need to turn and see the expressions change on the faces of Cai and Belin. In my four years as Arthur's tutor, I had never known Uther's son to withdraw from a battle or be defeated in one.
Even when it meant wounding those he loved most.
I found Arthur in the summer room, standing upon the tip of the merlin's outstretched wing as he stared over the bleak hills and mountains where the Picts live. He was fingering his arm ring. As I entered the chamber he said, without turning, "I shall have to spend time mending matters with Cai. The fault is mainly mine; I have not made enough effort to be a true foster-brother to him. I think I shall appoint him steward of my estates when my father dies."
"Arthur . . ."
I hesitated, not knowing what to say. He turned then; his body was erect and his voice gentle as he said, "It's all right, Merlin. Even if my father never acknowledges me, I shall behave in such a manner that men will know I am his true-born son. I will rule Britain in the end."
It was not a boy's speech, and it was not a youth's speech. It was the speech of a king comforting one of his subjects, and I felt my spirit as shaken as a mother's body is when a child is wrenched from her womb. It was too early, far too early . . . But there was no point in stating what we both knew. So instead I said firmly, "And I will be there to help you."
An uncertainty passed over Arthur's face then – not the uncertainty of a youth, but that of a full-grown man who is uncertain how to break terrible news to a friend. I closed the door to the chamber and came over to stand by the prince's side. The morning breeze had died, and the sun was warm by the window.
"No," I said softly to Arthur, "I did not misunderstand what happened just now. I meant that I will help you in every manner, except that."
He stared up at me. His eyes were glistening, but no tears fell, and his voice was steady as he asked, "Do you hate me?"
"Why should I? You did as I hoped you would."
"I betrayed you." Arthur kept his voice soft also; we were both conscious of the sound of Cai's voice in the chapel as he offered his confession to Belin. "I denied my love for you publicly. I had to, though: Belin is friend to the most powerful bishop in this land, and if I had lost Cai's support—"
"All this is obvious, young Achilles," I said. "I am relieved to see that my teaching has borne fruit, and you have not forgotten where your highest duty lies."
He continued to stare up at me, his many-colored hair bright against the May sky, his scent and mine mingling upon his body. "Oh, Merlin," he said in a whisper that could barely be heard, "I knew that our time together would be short, but I did not think it would be the space of a single night."
It was too much; in a moment more I would be weeping. Fortunately, this thought triggered another, and I pulled at the string around my throat.
"I know that Belin taught you your Latin well," I said as I pulled the reed-paper from the pouch, "but I think perhaps it is time that I turned your lessons from The Iliad to The Aeneid."
"Virgil?" Arthur was obviously puzzled by this change of topic but made no effort to return to our previous conversation. "Belin says that Virgil was a prophet of God, foretelling the coming of Jesu."
"So your priests say," I agreed. "He also wrote a sequel to The Iliad, telling of what happened to the surviving Trojans after their city fell to the invaders. A man named Aeneas led them to Italy, where they founded the city of Rome, to which both the Church and Britain owe so much." I handed him the sheet, saying, "This is a passage from the book. Aeneas is speaking to a woman whom he has met midway on his journey to Italy, and with whom he has fallen in love."
Arthur raised the reed-paper so that the sunlight from the window behind him fell upon my writing. He read aloud, "'Duty-bound, Aeneas, though he struggled with desire to calm and comfort her in all her pain, to speak to her and turn her mind from grief, and though he sighed his heart out, shaken still with love of her, yet took the course heaven gave him and went back to the fleet—'"
He stopped. Through the window came the sound of Belin and Cai murmuring prayers together in the chapel; the laughter of serving women and girls as they went about their chores; and faintly, on the edge of the wind, the howl of wolves as they prowled near the border.
Arthur raised his eyes to me. "Yes," he said quietly, "I should like to read this."
We stood still, gazing upon one another; for a moment I thought he would rise onto his toes and give my lips a final kiss. But he had sworn that I was not his lover, and he would not be forsworn. And so I laid my hand briefly upon his shoulder, as I had done so many times before, and then I bowed and left him alone in the chamber, as a king is left alone with his burdens.
As I passed through the doorway, the words that entered my mind were not, "O most unthankful," but rather the words spoken by Aeneas' forsaken love: "Let me die. This way, this way, a blessed relief to go into the undergloom. . . ." But I would not show less courage than my lord prince had. I turned my footsteps toward the chapel, making ready, as I would a thousand times more before my death, to use what skills I had to win Arthur support in his kingship. And as I did so a chill wind fell upon me—
—and I was on the hillside again, watching Arthur come forward with his small group of soldiers. He saw me in that moment and raised a hand toward me, for it was his trust in my vision that had brought us to this place. Then he shouted something to the soldiers facing him on the hill.
They shouted back, a mighty roar of joy at the arrival of their High King; I saw Cai wave his greeting and Belin smile in relief. Arthur's soldiers, catching up with him, had no need of orders; the men swung about at the foot of the hill, taking their appointed place as Arthur wheeled his white horse round and raced forward to place himself at the front of the vanguard.
And then all was silent, and the united army of Britain awaited the coming of the Saxons at Badon Hill.
The quotations from The Iliad and The Aeneid are from the Robert Fitzgerald translations. We know the sentence from The Myrmidons because it is quoted in the writings of other classical authors; only fragments remain today of Aeschylus' play.
Of course I am not the first author to write a variant on the Arthurian legends that tells of same-sex attraction. What has struck me about the various treatments of "gay Arthurian characters" is that they do not really give a sense of how volatile the topic of sexuality was during this period. I have therefore tried to recreate the ethical battles that were taking place at this time, some of which will be familiar today and some of which will seem strange.
Background may be needed for readers who are not familiar with classical views on sexuality. It is fairly well known that adult/youth attraction rather than adult/adult attraction was the primary model for homosexual desire in ancient times (though by no means the only custom). What is less well known is that the "boy" was not always legally a boy.
In Greece, boys become adults at age eighteen. Roman law, though, recognized two "ages of majority" for males: youths received certain rights when they were fourteen (which was regarded as the beginning of adolescence) and the remainder of their rights when they turned twenty-five. It was similar to the situation in many American states, whereby young people receive the right to vote at eighteen but must wait until they are twenty-one to be able to drink alcohol or buy property. Among the rights conferred upon males when they were fourteen was the right to marry, and it appears that males of that age considered themselves "of age" in the sexual sense. The Romans treated males younger than fourteen as children and may have had a law protecting boys that age from sexual advances by men.
We have no contemporary evidence about the exact age of majority for males among the Celts, although it seems to have occurred around puberty. Later Welsh law fixed the age at fourteen. Likewise, the Church accepted fourteen as the minimum age for males to consummate their marriages; this remained the case in the Catholic Church until the twentieth century.
The most heated classical debates over homosexuality were not about the ages of the participants but about the moral worth of sex between two males. These debates started long before Christianity came along, and it seems likely that the increasing opposition to homosexuality in late antiquity came from pagans as well as Christians. By the time of this story – which occurs just a few years after the traditional date for the fall of the Roman Empire – proponents of homosexuality were under heavy pressure to change their views and (where needed) their sexual practices.
It is hard to say who their opposition was. We have only a few documents from late antiquity, mainly the writings of Christian leaders whose ascetic beliefs may or may not have reflected the views of the average Christian. Likewise, it is not always clear what the pagans' views were on this matter. For example, what little information we have on the Celts' attitudes toward homosexuality comes primarily from the Celts' enemies. All that we can gather from these tidbits of information is that, if they are true, the Celts sometimes accepted homosexuality and sometimes did not. In this respect, they would have been completely in the mainstream of classical thought on same-sex love.
We simply do not know what the British believed about homosexuality during the Arthurian period. The only contemporary clue comes from the sixth-century monk Gildas, a man who was obviously prepared to charge his fellow Britons with every sin under the sun. Speaking of fifth-century Britain, he says:
[Luxury] grew with a vigorous growth, so that to that time were fitly applied the words: 'There are actually reports of such fornication as is not known even among the Gentiles'. And it was not only this vice that flourished, but all those that generally befall human nature – and especially the one that is the downfall of every good condition nowadays too, the hatred of truth and its champions and the love of falsehood and its contrivers: the taking up of evil instead of good, the adoration of wickedness instead of kindness, the desire for darkness instead of such, the welcoming of Satan as an angel of light. [The Ruin of Britain and Other Works, translated by Michael Winterbottom (London: Phillimore, 1978)]
All we can gather from this is that Gildas believed that Britons in his time were breaking church rules of morality, and that they were doing so in an unashamed manner. It is not too far a leap to conjecture that, among the Britons who unashamedly defied church law, some were practicing homosexuality.
Arthurian novelists have great freedom in portraying life in the early Dark Ages, for which we have so little information. I have taken advantage of this fact in my depiction of homosexuality in Arthurian times; it is interesting to speculate about what form it would have taken in this transitional period between classical times and medieval times. I have therefore suggested that, in contrast to much of Roman history, there was at this time a revival of the Greek concept of pederasty as being primarily for the purpose of sexual mentoring. This seems reasonable to me, given the increased seriousness of pagan writings on sexuality toward the end of the classical era, as well as the sharp challenge that Christianity's high ethics would have posed to anyone contemplating a pederastic relationship.
A millennium and a half later, the conversation about sexual ethics has changed, with much more consideration being given to the effects that power can have on sexual activity. What views the Arthurian characters would hold on pederasty if they lived today, it seems to me to be impossible to determine. Rather than try to remold my characters to hold modern beliefs, I consider it more honest to show the characters as they might have been, with all of the usual human frailties and strengths that will remain familiar to us in an era with very different attitudes toward sexuality.
Composed in January 2002.
This text was originally published at duskpeterson.com as part of the series Master/Other. Copyright © 2002, 2005, 2007, 2011 Dusk Peterson. All rights reserved. The author's policies on derivative works and fan works are available online (duskpeterson.com/copyright.htm).