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by Fred Saberhagen
Published by JSS Literary Productions
Copyright (c) 1995 by Fred Saberhagen

Proving that there's still abundant life in the oft-told Arthurian legends, Saberhagen's reworking weaves together distant past, near future and fairy realm into a compelling and intriguing whole. In the past, a troupe of traveling players is pursued by a rampaging conqueror. Amby, the youngest of the novel's several narrators, uses his powers of second sight to his advantage as he and his fellow travelers enter the fortress protecting the bones of the recently deceased sorcerer, Merlin. In the near future, Dr. Elaine Brusen is confronted with the Fisher King, Morgan Le Fay and Mordred, all of whom want control of her hypostator machine, a device capable of altering fundamental reality. Elaine must follow her own twisting road through the realm of fairy and beyond, if she is to remain safe and find true love. the ensuing battles for Arthur's survival, Merlin's bones, the succession of New Camelot and Elaine's heart prove both suspenseful and delightful. Saberhagen's narrative juggling is dazzling and imbues the novel's many paradoxes with an elusive grace. ---PUBLISHERS WEEKLY

by Fred Saberhagen

1. An intoxicating blend of romance, adventure, danger and time travel.
-- Library Journal

2.Many have written of King Arthur, but in MERLIN'S BONES Fred Saberhagen has wonderfully connected Camelot, what came after, and what came before, with our own near future through the spiraling coils of time. Nothing is what you were told, nothing is what you remember, nothing is what it seems. It's terrific ! -- Robert Jordan, author of THE WHEEL OF TIME

3. It is one of the best of what seems to be a new genre -- Arthurian tales. -- Marion Zimmer Bradley, author of GHOSTLIGHT.

4. Merlin stretches a bony hand right through the pages to grab you by the throat . . . A total blowmind from fantasy's mastermind !
--Dafydd ab Hugh, author of ARTHUR WAR LORD (PART 1)

5. In the finest tradition of Arthurian literature . . . does justice to the dignity of Arthur's story . . . Saberhagen adds deft touches that draw other aspects of the legends into his basic tale . . . All these details are intricately woven together like threads on a loom, providing the reader with an incredible tapestry of a novel, rich and complex and thoroughly satisfying. --- The Herald, Rock Hill, SC.

Chapter One

* Amby *

    It was midnight, cold and wet, when a friend came running, staggering breathless into our shabby little camp, to gasp out the terrifying news that we were being hunted by Comorre the Cursed and his whole army. The name of the runner who thus saved our lives was unknown to us at the time, but the sincerity of the warning was unmistakable.
    Looking back, I am still impressed by the courage we displayed, poor outcasts that we were, all seven of us who had been camped together. We all had some idea of what Comorre was like—an evaluation based only on hearsay, though it was to prove terribly accurate-and we could readily imagine what the Cursed One might decree as punishment for poor fools who had held him up to ridicule. And yet, despite our terror, none of us collapsed in hysterics, and we all remained together.
    Even now, remembering those days after a truly remarkable length of time—and, I hope, some gain in wisdom—even now I wonder that most of us did not panic and scatter wildly in our flight. In that case the luckier ones might have drowned individually in bogs and streams, or fallen over cliffs, while the unlucky would have been rounded up by our pursuers. I doubt that any of us would have survived for more than a day or two. Possibly we were constrained to stay together by some strand of magic, too subtle for me to detect at the time. If so, the question of whose magic it might have been is a profound one.
    Some of us could certainly have traveled faster on foot than our old wagon could roll behind our two lame oxen—but no, we took the time to break camp in an organized way, not abandoning our belongings. Through all the late hours of the night we plodded willingly along beside the wagon. Bran's young wife Jandree was the only one who rode the whole way, along with whoever happened to be driving. Sometimes Maud was in the wagon too, to care for her.
    Young Jandree lay wrapped in ragged blankets, swaying and jolting with the bumps in the road, clutching her swollen belly and praying semiconsciously to all the gods whose names she could remember. She was full nine months pregnant at the time, actually going into labor, and therefore had no choice regarding means of transportation. Bran, her husband, was fiercely determined to stay with his wife in her time of trial, and the rest of us had come to depend heavily on Bran. No doubt much of our apparent courage could be explained by the fact that each of us was mortally afraid of being left alone.
    As I have said, we all were poor outcasts, each in his or her own way. Each had been brought into Bran's company by some unique chain of accidents. As a group we had been together most of the winter, traveling more or less at random up and down the land. Some of us, Flagon-dry and Maud and Ivald, had, like the oxen, seen better days. Jandree and Vivian were young adults, by the standards of the time, Bran on the verge of middle age. I was only ten years old and had not seen very many days at all.
    We were a troupe, and for the most part we worked well together. I have since been witness to many performances much worse than ours, some of them on fine elaborate stages. In some ways we were genuinely talented. Among us we played the roles of mountebanks and jugglers, singers and horn-tootlers, drum-beaters and dancers, storytellers and fortune-tellers and would-be magicians. We had been stopping and starting and dawdling our way back and forth across the countryside, earning enough in food and coin to keep ourselves going, depending for the most part on Bran to tell us what was going to happen next and tell us what we ought to do—and then suddenly, one midnight just past the end of winter, after being roused out of our camp at the edge of a poor village, we were all fighting to control our panic, and fleeing for our lives.
    At least the weather was no worse than wet and blustery, not the fierce, deadly cold it might have been.
    The one small advantage we thought we possessed over our pursuers—and, with the stories about Comorre in mind, we did not doubt that there would be pursuit—was that the land would probably be unfamiliar to them. Comorre the Cursed and most of his soldiers came from Brittany across the sea, from whence they had been drawn, like other tyrants and would-be conquerors, by the news of Arthur's death. Comorre was already calling himself a king, and his hope was to carve out and hold a kingdom for him-self.

    Jandree, I think, must have been twenty years old that spring, give or take no more than a year. She was fair-haired, as were most of our crew, with wide blue eyes that more often than not made her look a little frightened, and a generous womanly body. There was something out of the ordinary, truly beautiful, about her. Her singing voice was lovely. Looking back as best I can through the eyes of my ten-year-old self, I remember her as a good companion when she was not in pain. Jandree of course was the chief reason why Bran insisted so fiercely on keeping the wagon and the oxen. Though he would have been stubborn about giving up the wagon in any case; it would also be vitally useful again when we had got far enough away from Comorre to think of stopping to put on a show.
    Bran was a sturdily built, middle-sized man who looked to be thirty or perhaps a little less. His fair hair and beard both had a tendency to curl. At some point in the past his nose had been broken, but notwithstanding that, his face could be whatever kind of face he was required to present at the moment. He was a juggler and singer and storyteller who had seen the little band accumulate around him, while he, effortlessly and even somewhat reluctantly, became its leader. He was generally quick with a clever word—sometimes, as with his little jokes about Comorre's watery eyes and bad teeth, too quick for his own good.
    Next let me mention spare-bodied, one-handed Ivald. Ivald had come, by what precise route I never learned, from somewhere in the wave-pounded, cold-bitten land of the Northmen. He spoke our language with a notable accent and blamed the loss of his left hand and wrist on an encounter in his homeland with a berserker—a warrior maddened by the worship of Wodan. Whatever the details of that encounter years ago—I never learned them all—it had left Ivald almost dead, permanently maimed, and his family wiped out. Ivald's face and body were eroded with the scar tissue of many wounds, his eyes were a washed-out blue, his hair and scraggly beard as gray as ice at the end of winter, though he was really only a few years older than Bran.
    In the months and days before the midnight warning that sent us fleeing for our lives, Ivald contributed to our common cause chiefly by doing a comic juggling act, that of a one-handed man perpetually surprised that he could never juggle more than two balls or cups or knives at best, and kept perpetually dropping things. A large segment of our audiences never failed to be enormously amused. Ivald also had a way with oxen and other animals, and had trained a dog to take part in his act, counting numbers with barks and head nods. When the dog died he started trying to teach one of the oxen.
    Let Maud be number four in my roll call of our party. She had been with Bran and Jandree longer than almost any of the rest of us. Stocky and graying, almost toothless but still energetic, she was a mother figure to the rest of us. She sewed up our shoes and clothing, told our fortunes, and cooked our food. She concocted medicines when necessary, and on the night we were forced to flee she rode part of the time in the wagon with Jandree, expecting soon to preside at the delivery of an infant.
    Then there was Vivian. Let me assign her number five—at ten I was somewhat too young to appreciate her properly. That spring Vivian was fifteen, tall among the women of those times, her hair an intriguing reddish blond, eyes green, her body thin but not too thin to display a woman's curves. Vivian did erotic dances—more or less erotic, depending on the audience—and helped out when we tried to introduce an element of magic into the proceedings. She could go into an actual trance on short notice—sometimes. At other times she only pretended to do so, or thought she was doing so, and was easily induced to behave hysterically. The dream of her young life was to become a real enchantress, and indeed she had some talent along those lines, but needed a good teacher, which she had never had. Viv was the newest member of the troupe, having joined about a month after I was brought aboard. Before that, she said, she had been a postulant at one of the earliest Christian convents in the land. This I supposed gave her a certain kinship with my mother, who had had some similar experience in a nunnery, though it seemed unlikely that the two had ever met.
    Let number six be Flagon-dry, a potbellied hulk of a man who from time to time, when we were trying to entertain an audience, performed feats of strength. Flagon-dry (his name had come to him in early manhood, he said, from his determination to leave no liquid in the bottom of a cup or drinking horn) was large and dark, and physically strong—but, looking back, I think not all that strong. Many of his feats he accomplished by trickery, such as substituting a horseshoe of lead or tin for one of iron, before he strained and grunted and bent the metal in his bare hands. He had exotic tattoos over most of his body. He was about Maud's age or slightly older, going bald and with his remaining hair twisted into a single pigtail in the back. Like Maud he was missing a number of teeth. When Flagon-dry let his gray beard grow, as he usually did, it gave him a certain air of massive authority and sometimes helped him convince the credulous that he was a wizard—which he certainly was not. He claimed to have spent part of his youth enrolled in a Roman legion, before the last of them had taken ship for other lands.
    I cannot very well get on much further in this tale without saying a little about myself—I have been putting off the attempt, for reasons having very little to do with modesty, and that is why I now appear as number seven.
    Bran and his people all called me Amby, which may have been short for Ambrose or Ambrosius. The diminutive was what my mother had called me, and was doubtless the only name I was able to give them when they first took me in from near-starvation at the roadside. My height was average and, despite my brush with serious hunger, I was solidly built and rather muscular for a ten-year-old. In my rare early confrontations with a mirror I beheld blue eyes, dark hair with a tendency to curl. A fatherless boy was I—at least my mother had frequently called me so, in tones of pity. By the time I was ten I could remember my dead mother only vaguely. Whatever combination of fate and accident had brought me into existence had blessed me with quick hands, quick wits—and certain other gifts, of which more later. At the same time, fate had given me less fear of the world than was good for my chances of survival. In return for being rescued from the roadside, I served Bran and his group by routinely doing a hundred chores and errands, helping the juggler and the would-be magicians; and once or twice, when a sufficient crowd had gathered for a performance, I had functioned effectively as a self-taught pickpocket. This enterprising theft did not become a habit, for when I thought to share the results, Bran did not appear particularly pleased.
    At the time of our flight from Comorre, much about my own origins remained mysterious to me. Vague and undigested in the back of my mind lay the knowledge that at some time before my memories began, my mother had been expelled from a Christian convent, for some reason I had never been told. Later in life I heard stories of how she had supposedly been visited in the convent by a mysterious, handsome lover. There was no doubt about the fact that my mother had given me a crucifix to wear, hung it around my neck on a leather thong when I was an infant, and for some reason I had it fixed in my mind that she had had that image from my father. The crucifix was of Roman or African origin (it was hard to determine which), carved from some unidentifiable kind of horn, and when it was hung around my neck was already polished by wear, in a way suggesting it was very old.

* * *

    During the months since I had joined Bran's minstrel troupe, our wandering trail had crisscrossed the land over a distance of several hundred miles. Then came the ill-starred night when in one of our performances in a small village Bran had started to make fun of Comorre—of that murderer's bad teeth and watery, teary eyes and deceptive air of general debility. We had thought the tyrant-invader a safe distance away, but unluckily for us there had been a witness who, according to our guardian angel, thought to curry favor with Comorre by reporting our transgression. Offenses seemingly milder than ours had in the past been more than enough to arouse his deadly anger.

    Nothing was easier on that first night of our flight than for us to lose our way in darkness, and that was exactly what we did. Nevertheless we pushed on desperately. If we kept moving, there was at least a chance of our putting a safe distance between ourselves and our pursuers before dawn. Once a well-placed flash of distant lightning revealed to us his mounted men, who at the time were still hundreds of yards away, and fortunately just in the act of taking the wrong road. But our two old oxen with their broken hooves, and our ramshackle wagon with its wobbling wheels, left a distinctive trail, and we could not expect that the hunters would stay with their wrong turning very far.

    It was some time after midnight when the road we had been following took an unexpected angle, and we found the direction in which we had been expecting to go completely blocked. We had come in the darkness to the top of a cliff overlooking the unseen sea—a high cliff to judge by the sound of the surf below. Bran and Ivald debated briefly and uselessly as to how we might have lost our way.
    We had had no intention or expectation of being as close to the sea as this—but here we were. Our despair became almost paralyzing when we realized that we had managed to get ourselves boxed in on a peninsula, no more than half a mile long and extremely narrow. An occasional lightning flash confirmed the terrible fact: we were indeed quite thoroughly trapped, with arms of the ocean to our right and to our left, and Comorre's people somewhere behind us. But with the stars all well hidden by thick clouds, finding directions had become a guessing game, and we must have taken a wrong turn a long way back.
    There was only the one road to be seen, the scant track we were already following, and I do not think anyone even suggested that we should turn back. We knew with a nightmarish certainty that Comorre's people were behind us, that by now they must have found their way back to the proper road, and that they were certain to be coming after us at dawn, when they would again be able to read the tracks of our two oxen and the wagon.
    It is a measure of our desperation that the next thing we began to hope for was to find a boat. The wind and intermittent rain—unfortunately not yet enough rain to wash away tracks—indicated that the ocean when we reached it would be dangerously rough. Still, it would be better to drown than to be captured. The stories of what Comorre did to those who offended him were not easily forgotten.
    Exhausted, we pushed on. But our efforts brought us to no beach or boats, but only back to the rough edge of a cliff—and then, when the winding of the road turned us away from that, we almost at once skimmed the brink of another cliff no more than a stone's throw from the first. Our peninsula was narrowing with an ugly swiftness that suggested that its extremity could not be far ahead.
    And now, when we peered in that direction, lightning began to show us what appeared to be some kind of fortified outpost. Here was a small complex of buildings standing with the tip of the peninsula at their back, behind an outer wall thrown clear across our little tongue of land.
    Roman construction, Flagon-dry muttered, as if he were trying to sound normal and matter-of-fact: a casual traveler commenting on the sights. Bran, disputing out of habit and without much force, argued that it did not look all that Roman.
    Again came lightning, like the smiting together of gargantuan flint and steel by playful gods. This time the explosion in the atmosphere fell on our landward side, the quick glare washing over us to reveal a stark landscape of rock and sea—and giving us a better look at the outpost and its wall. There, just ahead across the narrowest neck of the peninsula, where the land was no more than thirty yards or so in width, stretched a stone barrier some ten or twelve feet high—very smoothly, professionally built, out of keeping with the rough landscape. In front of the wall a shallow ditch had been somehow dug and broken out of the rocky ground, adding three feet or so to the height.
    Lightning played again, and the appearance of the stonework altered drastically in the abrupt alternation of light and shadow from one flash to the next. In fact the change in perception was quite mundane and natural—as mundane as lightning ever can be—yet somehow it keyed in my mother's old warnings against the witchcraft and enchantment in the world. From her I had picked up the attitude that magic was a tricky and fascinating business, sometimes irresistible though deadly dangerous for the unwary.
    At these repeated revelations of that wall I underwent a stabbing conviction, irrational but sharp and certain, that it was only the outward indication of some vitally important boundary, otherwise invisible.
Who or what might be waiting for us—for me in particular—beyond that border, I could not imagine. But whatever was there could not wholly belong to the same world in which I had lived my short years to date.