Footsteps on the stone. My sisters, alive as always to the presence of the holy, congregate in wonder, kneel on the flags, and start to chant in Latin, Cymric and Greek that high canticle of Mary, the Ode of the Theotokos – Magnificat anima mea, Dominum ...
I cradle the sleeping babe to my breast and set off through the cloister, the nuns a candlelit phalanx around us. I glance behind. He who brought the boy to our door has departed. His pawprints recede in the snow. He has been true to his word. 'I will come again with the child,' he promised me fifty months ago. 'His name shall be Galahad.'
And so it began, that cool Advent morn, my heart and future torn between the convent here at Almesbury and the Lord Taliesin, the King's Poet and Captain of Horse, who graced my life at that time in such vivid, intense ways. I had travelled with him and my brother, Perceval, to the Roman fort of Rutupiae at the South East tip of Artorus' realm. Inspecting the new defences, they had left me alone to wander the jetties, the screeching gulls a bracing counterpoint to the incessant clink of hammer and blade. I found a quiet place to pray in, a mildewed old storeroom lined with fallen sandstone vaulting. But Merlin, the King's Mage, and his sister Brisen, were already there – watchful and alert, they knew where to find me – he with hair as dark as raven's pinions, her a vision of red and gold – a living flame – hot, fierce and bright, a second Brigid of the Gael.
They spoke to me of Carbonek – that charged, concealed place to the South West, which cannot be found on the maps. Whenever I had heard that name before – fleeting, flashing rumours in streets and squares – my heart would quicken and my face flush. Carbonek was my secret love – a magnetic pull, barely conscious, dangerously potent, yet without an outlet in my life. And here it all was – wounded king, wasted land, Grail castle and chapel, and most of all the wondrous child, whose coming, they told me, lies close at hand, the Priest and King who will bestow honour and glory on all corners of our land – from Canovium to Caerleon and Anderida to the Antonine Wall.
A dizzying conception spiralled within me – that I would be the mother of this child and this day my Annunciation. But Brisen, divining my thought, laid her hand upon my shoulder. 'No, Princess Dindrane. Your task is to raise and nurture the child, for his parents will be unable to. You are nearer to God than you think. There is no better woman.' But I shook my head, wrenched myself free and ran onto the quays, bumping blindly into workmen and builders, appalled by my hybris, a wild, weeping girl. I came to the foot of the great Roman Pharos – that brazen, flaming rod – eighty feet high, with its beacon brazier – recently relit by Artorus himself – blazing away on top. The light held and compelled me, and as I looked up I felt the cloud of indecision that had dogged me for months dissolve and disperse in the flames. A consoling presence descended upon me. My shame abated, and I discerned a deeper pattern, inscribed, as it were, in the fire – my God, my country, my child – interlinked and intertwined – directing me towards Almesbury and the strong, supportive arms of Tradition.
They were still in the storeroom, as I knew they would be. We joined hands in a triangle of power as the chant began. 'I will come again with the child,' Merlin assured me afterwards. 'His name shall be Galahad.'
I told Taliesin in the Praetorium as the sun sank low in the West, and there was sorrow and joy in our parting that night. I see him now, I see him always – shining brow, emerald eyes, shock of flaxen hair. But we write often, Deo gratias. Just yesterday, I read his account of the Thanksgiving Mass at Eboracum, ordered by Artorus after his Christmas rout of the Jutes, for Septuagesima Sunday:
'... I saw John the Divine and Mary of Magdala praying at the altar in the slanting sun, hands stretched out in blessing as Britain was consecrated to the Theotokos. Then, in Paternoster Square, our soldiers laid joyful hands on Artorus and tossed him high into the air, and every time they caught him they stamped their hobnailed boots and cried, "Hail Caesar! Caesar! Caesar!"
'So it was that our King became Emperor – the first in the West for thirty years – in the same city and manner as Constantine two centuries ago. Torches were lit and a space cleared by the statue of Mars. A makeshift diadem was fashioned out of winter berries, while a giddy young priest threw a purple chasuble across our captain's shoulders. Artorus unsheathed Excalibur and held it aloft as a universal shout of acclaim boomed around the colonnades. He spoke of what is past and passing and to come as one imbued with the gemlike clarity of the Holy Spirit. Britain, he declared, is the new Rome – the successor, the inheritor ... ' But from there I read no more.
My soul rejoiced – to a degree – at Taliesin's words, for I recall from childhood the streams of refugees seeking shelter in our house from Saxon sword and spear. Stunted, scarred and shocked they were, the legacy of Rome's departure and Vortigern's misrule. Our father, Gerren the Fleet Owner, was – and is – King of Dumnonia in the far South West. Again and again, in the years before Perceval and I were born, he petitioned Rome for help, though Rome, unknown to him, was but a smoking ruin. So he gave his ships to the fugitive princeling, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and when our victory came – first at sea and then on land at Dubroviae Bridge – the myth of Saxon invincibility was shattered and their power broken north of Vectis Water to the Abus river.
After the coronation, Gerren sent us to live in Ambrosius' capital, Venta Belgarum, for he knew what changes were afoot – scholars hired from Hibernia and Gaul to teach the young, and a mass construction of churches, cathedrals, and those thousand tiny chapels – votive lights glimmering through the night – that line our pilgrim pathways. I was six years old. Our father wished us to live at the center of this resurgence until it felt as natural to us as war and dissolution had for him. But Ambrosius died in his hunting runs – too young, too soon – skewered on a royal stag's tine. Yet under Artorus, his nephew, the revival he planted has bloomed into full restoration. For He has received his servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy.
And yet ...
Sleet spatters the windows as Galahad stirs in his sleep, squirming and wriggling, conscious perhaps of the treacherous undercurrents I sense and fear. Five years of marriage so far for Artorus and Gwenhwyfar and still no child, rivalries at court between Roman and Celt, the baleful influence of Medraut the Gaunt, and the ceaseless, insidious whispers surrounding Gwenhwyfar and Lanslod, the Emperor's right-hand man and Dux Brittianorum. Those who might stop the slide - Perceval, Taliesin, Merlin himself - turn the other way and pretend they do not see, blindsided by imperial pretensions as Artorus' glory curdles into pride.
Taliesin's missive told me too of Lanslod's nine-month disappearance. Our Dux, as part of his role, ventures often to far-flung regions and has been absent in the past for up to a year. So there is little concern at Venta right now, but they have no notion of how fast and wide the wheels are turning. Merlin and Brisen, claims Taliesin, lured Lanslod to Carbonek and tricked him into lying with Elayne, the Grail King's daughter, who Lanslod, under enchantment, mistook for the Empress. When he awoke he hurled himself out of the window in horror and disgust. Remorse collapsed into madness, a sickness possessing both body and mind as Lanslod grew backwards into a wolf, patrolling the scree and howling by Carbonek's gates, slavering for the blood of the child – soon to be born – that he unwittingly sired.
This very night I have learned the truth of this mad tale. Sat on duty by the door, just half an hour ago, I heard a snuffling and a padding on the snow outside. I lifted the latch and saw a pure white wolf with a babe in swaddling clothes tied in scarlet bands upon his back. I recognized the beast by his eyes – as black as raven's wings – and then by his voice. 'To overcome the wolf,' he announced. 'I had to become a wolf.'
I closed my eyes, prayed silently for Lanslod, then loosed the bands and held the baby up to the light. And the presence that consoled me at the Pharos breathed life and fire upon me once again – the light of men and daystar from on high.
Sister Seren has prepared the chamber, and once inside, alone at last with Galahad, my calling's weight and severity come crashing down upon me. My body stays standing but my spirit sinks down, down into the dark, down to the place of truth and revelation. My inner Carbonek.
And in the dark I find that I can see – what is past and passing and to come. The Saxons will return and seize this land, driving us into the West. The Empire will be restored indeed, but in a far off era and not by us. But first comes the Grail – soon now – with Galahad its Priest and King. Perceval will sup from it too, and also Bors, our Comtes Brittianorum. Taliesin will record these things and become our standard bearer once this façade of Empire falls. But the madness that made Lanslod bestial will strip Merlin of his puissance too, for he has deceived our Dux and misused the Grail, mistaking political necessity for spiritual reality.
No. Carbonek cannot be commanded – brought to heel and shunted around like the Frankish chess pieces in our father's house. Uncontainable. Uncontrollable. Untameable it is. It strikes and acts in ways beyond the range of Emperor and Mage.
Silence descends. Wind, sleet, snow all cease. The candles in the wall – one for each niche – cast a nimbus around Galahad's tuft of red-brown hair. And I gaze intently at that halo, for my fate alone remains hidden, and I have faith I will discern it there. But it is not the future that is shown me, nor the present, but the past, back through the Halls of Time – all the way back – to the Fiat Lux and beyond.
Our true names blaze out in letters of gold as a thousand bells resound in my mind. For Galahad and I have been here before, and we will come once more before the ending of the world. From age to age we appear – agents of Apokalypsis – unveiling, unmasking, transforming, creating. Where the darkness is thickest and Satan runs rampant, there are we sent, champions of the ancient light. Sometimes our ways seem strange, and earthly powers rarely comprehend. But we have lineage and pedigree – now and in eternity – for He is the Logos and I Sophia.
I was at Michael's side when he cast out the dragon. I laid the foundation stone at Carbonek Castle. At the world's inception I stood before the Throne, holding up a silver cross and chanting in Old Solar, the language the Logos gave me ...
'Your song is good, Sophia,' said the Father of Lights. And behold, the world was made ...
And goes on being made.
The gale snarls back, smashing snow on wall and windowpane. I tuck Galahad into his bed, make the sign of the cross on his brow, kneel beside him and pray, 'O You who fashioned a universe from my song, forgive our Mage and his sister their trickery and haste. May the boy bring peace and fullness of redemption ... ' But my eyes grow heavy and my words tail off. Time now for sleep, for I have work to do and a child to look after – as He watches over me too, in my waking and my sleeping – my brother, my friend, my comrade, my God.