Eight years ago, a young red-haired boy discovered that he was the reincarnation of Arthur, once High King of Britain, master of the Round Table, wielder of Excalibur and the Holy Grail, fated to one day reclaim his throne and lead the world into a new golden age.
Almost immediately, people started trying to kill him. Arthur has been on the run or in hiding since he was ten years old.
Four years ago, after a climactic battle between the resurrected Knights of the Round Table and a dark magician determined to warp the powers of the Grail to his own evil purpose, Arthur Blessing spoke to television cameras, and therefore the world. He told them the time for hatred and fear was over and that a new time of peace was at hand.
Pursued as a new messiah, Arthur disappeared to a small farm in the American Midwest, surrounded by his Knights, protected most of all by Hal, most recently an FBI agent, but, long ago, Sir Galahad.
Now Arthur is eighteen, and Merlin has come to bring him to his destiny. There's just one small problem.
Arthur. What is he going to do as High King? How can he unite and heal such a deeply wounded world? No one believes in all that chivalry stuff anymore, and besides, he's not sure mankind is worthy of the powers of the Sword and the Grail.
Yet those powers are needed, now most of all. Now, with a master terrorist preparing to strike Cheyenne Mountain, to blow up the heart of America's nuclear arsenal and spread radioactive death across the planet. Now, with a psychopathic killer on the loose, a man determined to personally slaughter the Knights and Arthur himself. Now, with a chance to find Guinevere again, to put right their love that was spoiled and betrayed centuries ago.
Arthur Blessing. The Once and Future King. Now he must choose his fate.
"synopsis" may belong to another edition of this title.
Molly Cochran was written more than 25 books, both fiction and nonfiction, including the bestsellers Grandmaster, which won the Edgar Award, The Forever King, and Dressing Thin, a nonfiction work. Born in Tokyo, of Japanese and Irish-American extraction, Cochran graduated from the University of Pittsburgh, studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, and has lived in many countries.
Cochran's other novels include World Without End and two sequels to The Forever King, The Broken Sword and The Third Magic. She has taught writing at numerous writers conferences. Cochran lives in Pennsylvania and is the mother of one.
THE BLUE MOMENT
JONES COUNTY, SOUTH DAKOTA
At the end of every day there is a fleeting time, easy to miss, when the sky is so deeply, purely blue that it casts its color on everything around it. The grass is blue. The hills are blue. The rock fingers jutting out of the earth, the crooked creek, the pines that shield the full moon like lacy curtains, all stunning, eerily blue.
And then, in an instant, everything becomes black. The trees cease to look real, transforming instead into silhouette cutouts, crisp, intentional, bearing leaves etched starkly and perfectly against the sky.
Arthur Blessing had been watching the mountain, and the man dancing upon its summit, since the blue moment. The figure looked like a Kokopelli drawing, made up entirely of knees and elbows, his long hair standing wildly out from his head. An old man; that had been obvious even from a distance. A blanket was sometimes clasped over his bony shoulders, sometimes cast away as the figure, stiff and knobby with age, danced steadily, ecstatically, into the darkening night.
He might have been a Lakota shaman, Arthur mused, admiring the dancer. The Lakota were populous in this part of South Dakota, and the mountain, known to locals as "The Puma" because its shape vaguely resembled a sitting cat, was sacred to them. At certain times of the year, only Native Americans were permitted to climb the Puma's rounded flanks. Most of the Lakota ceremonies were held then.
But this was not one of those times, and the old man was not a shaman. He was something much more.
After a time, the dancing man crouched on the ground. When he stood up again, a bright rag of fire blazed behind him. Arthur smiled and leaned comfortably against a low-hanging tree branch as the moon rose full.
This was a gift, Arthur knew. It was his eighteenth birthday, and this performance was the old man's gift to him.
Now the dance began again, this time against a background of brilliant flames. Sparks shot up out of the blaze like fireworks so that, from Arthur's perspective a half mile away and a thousand feet below, it looked as if a fountain of light were streaming out of the moon-dancer's body and spilling over the Puma's haunches. As the spark shower reached its peak, the old man stopped stock still in front of the fire, his legs wide apart, his arms spread out to his sides, so that he was surrounded by a nimbus of moving light.
Then, gone as quickly as the blue moment, the spectacle vanished utterly: the sparks, the fire, the old man...all of it was gone, plunged into darkness.
In the awesome silence that followed, in which even the insects grew still, the full moon floated out from behind a cloud and shone again, huge and silver beyond the crouching shape of the Puma. An owl called; the stars reappeared. A hundred thousand cicadas recommenced their hypnotic drone. The meadow pulsed with the soft light of fireflies. But the mountain was bare now, still, empty.
Arthur licked his dry lips. "Thank you," he whispered.
"You're welcome," a voice answered back. A moment later a tree limb crashed behind him.
Arthur whirled around, startled. The old man stood behind him, scowling, picking twigs out of his white hair.
"Taliesin!" Arthur grinned.
"Hello, Arthur." In the moonlight, his snow white beard, which curled softly down to the middle of his chest, almost seemed to glow.
Somewhere between his dance on the mountain and his appearance in the woods, he had acquired clothes. Arthur plucked a sizeable branch bushy with leaves out of his collar. "Where have you been?" he asked. "And how did you get here? You look like you fell out of a tree."
"Nonsense. One just got in my way. As to where I've been..." He looked about him, as if he were trying to get his bearings. "Oh, I don't know. Here and there, I suppose. Why, has it been a while?"
The old man stepped back a pace. "Good heavens, that long! Are you certain?"
Arthur laughed. "I'm sure. I've looked for you at every full moon."
"Hmm. Well, you do look considerably bigger. How old are you now, Arthur?" He squinted at the boy. "Oh, of course. It's your birthday. I knew that."
Arthur gestured with his head toward Puma mountain, awash with moonlight. "I enjoyed the show," he said.
"I didn't come out of it very well, I'm afraid." Taliesin plucked more twigs and leaves off his clothing. "Would you care to accompany me the next time?"
"To the mountain?" Arthur cocked his head. "Any special reason?"
"Most special," the old man said. "The Lakota called the sort of foray I have in mind a vision quest. I'm sure you've heard the term."
"Yes," Arthur said, feeling his heart beat faster. He had not been out of Jones County for four years. "I've heard of vision quests. They're rites of passage, I think. You go to some solitary place--"
"I'll be with you," Taliesin said. "I'll have to direct the vision, you see."
"Oh. Yeah, that'd be fine." Arthur could hardly believe it. What sort of vision would a being of Taliesin's power conjure? And why? There could only be one reason. "Is..." He groped for the right words. "Is it time, then?"
"Time?" Taliesin arched an eyebrow. "Time for what?"
"Time for me to leave," Arthur said with quiet insistence.
"Leave?" The old man shook his head so vigorously that his hair nearly stood on end. "Oh, no, no, no, no, no. I can't just release you like a trout in a stream, boy."
"I'm eighteen now. I can get along by myself, get a job--"
"Don't be ridiculous. A job!" His beard trembled with agitation. "Have you spoken with Hal and the...er, the..."
"Uncles," Arthur finished for him, trying not to sound disappointed. He had lived by the old man's rules for nearly half his life. "We call them uncles now."
"Ah," Taliesin said. "And what do they think of your plan to run off and find work, like some itinerant laborer?"
"There's no point in even talking to them." Arthur felt hot with frustration. "They'd never let me leave without them."
"Good. Although you're alone now," the old man added suspiciously. "Where are they?"
Arthur took a deep breath. Everyone treated him as if he were some kind of trained monkey, amusing, even cherished, but not trusted to spend five minutes alone. "They're in the house," he said patiently. "Except for Hal. He's getting ice cream. They want to have a party for me."
"Oh, jolly good! Am I invited?"
Who could stop you? Arthur thought. "Sure," he said. "They're probably ready by now, if you'd..."
But by then the old man was gone. In an instant, like the fire on the mountain, like the blue moment, he had simply vanished.
* * *
He's nearly ready, Taliesin thought as the boy looked for him. The old man was actually standing in the same spot where he had been during his conversation with Arthur; it was just that he had chosen not to be seen any longer.
It was for the best. Arthur was showing signs of teenage rebellion, or whatever they called it these days. Get a job, indeed! It had been all Taliesin could do to keep from laughing aloud after that announcement.
"Taliesin?" Arthur peered into the darkness once more, then sighed and turned away. "Nice talking to you, too," he said, breaking a twig into pieces.
Oh, Arthur, Arthur. Taliesin stroked his beard, smiling. What a long way we've come.
* * *
The legend: Uther Pendragon, disguised by the Merlin's magic to resemble his rival Gorlois, enters Gorlois's castle and seduces his wife, Ygraine. As payment for his part in the deception, the Merlin takes the child born of that union.
The fact was that Ygraine, widow of the tribal chieftain Gorlois, was forced to marry her husband's enemy Uther Pendragon after her husband's death in battle. Uther had long lusted after both Gorlois's rich lands, which abutted his own in the far south of Britain, and his rival's beautiful young bride. By killing Gorlois, he was able to take both prizes.
Eight months later, when Uther was on his way to becoming the most powerful of the tribal chiefs--although far from the most popular--a son was born to Ygraine. The child was puny. "Because he was born early," Ygraine reasoned.
Uther was not convinced. Born early, indeed. He could count on his fingers. It took nine months from conception to birth; the child was probably Gorlois's spawn. And besides, he looked a weakling. If he lived to manhood, the boy would probably be sickly and die young.
No. No, this was not the child Uther Pendragon wanted as his heir. Three months after the birth, in the cold of November, Uther announced his decision. The boy would be left to die on the sea-swept rocks at the base of Tintagel Castle.
Ygraine's anguished cries of protest were met with stony silence as the child was carried to the inhospitable shore and placed inside a cave. In one final maternal effort, she begged Uther to call a holy man to pray over the child before it left the realm of the living. This small mercy was the least he could do for her, she reminded him scornfully.
Uther was glad to comply. After all, the isle of Mona, where the druids lived, was more than a week's journey away. By the time a holy man reached Tintagel, the child would already be dead, and even a druid's magic could not raise him. So at Uther's command, a lady-in-waiting was dispatched toward Mona.
It was by sheer good fortune that the lady had not ridden a quarter of an hour when she encountered a druid on Tintagel's very grounds.
Actually, it was not so unusual an event as it might seem. The druid was Taliesin, former bard and noble bastard, whose half brother was Uther Pendragon. Taliesin had been sent by the chief druid, a woman known only as the Innocent, ten days before to pay respects to his brother and his new wife on the birth of their child.
He had lingered along the way; Taliesin had never gotten along well with his powerful but rather stupid sibling. During their youth, Uther had reveled in finding ways to torture the frail and sensitive Taliesin, even though it had always been understood that Uther would inherit all their father's property. As a young bard, Taliesin had been summoned occasionally to sing ballads extolling Uther's greatness in battle, but he was never particularly well received, possibly because even Uther's dull mind could perceive that Taliesin's songs of praise were less than heartfelt.
The druid had heard only through gossip that his brother had married; he hadn't been invited for the wedding festivities. And so it was with some misgiving that the Innocent had sent him off to bless the child of this union.
"Has it even been born yet?" Taliesin had waffled. "That is, they don't seem to have been married very long." He hadn't questioned the Innocent's assertion that a child had been born, even though no one else seemed to know of it. The Innocent knew everything.
"The child is alive, and in need of you," she had said, her blank eyes boring into him.
"Yes, well...thank you," he'd concluded unenthusiastically. The druids at Mona were permitted very little time with their birth families. Taliesin had certainly never objected to this; he had no one to visit anyway. "Actually, though, in our preparations for the Winter Solstice--"
"You will miss the celebrations," the Innocent said flatly.
Taliesin's last hope faded. "Very well," he mumbled, and took off at a snail's pace toward Tintagel.
Of course, after he'd encountered the lady in the woods, who had slid off her horse to kneel before him and kiss his hand in gratitude, he saw the Innocent's hand in the matter.
"Please, sir!" the lady shrilled. "My lady begs you to pray over her small babe, that it may not suffer as it passes into the Summer Country!"
Taliesin felt a hot pang of pure rage as he put the pieces of the puzzle together. The child was born small, just has Taliesin himself had been small, and therefore an object of contempt for the brute sensibilities of Uther Pendragon. He remembered the times when Uther had led him into the woods and abandoned him there, laughing as if it had all been a huge joke when Taliesin came back days later, hungry and filthy. Those forays had not only given him an excellent sense of direction, but had taught him how to live in the open countryside--a skill which put him in good stead with the druids when he came to join them.
"I will give the child my prayers and more, lady," he answered, and moved ahead without waiting for her.
As he was on foot, the woman was sure she would overtake him on the way back to Tintagel, but he seemed literally to have disappeared. The lady-in-waiting spent several hours calling and looking for him. When she finally returned to the castle, perhaps, she thought, to be rebuked for losing her mistress's last hope for her baby's soul, she found the druid already in Ygraine's chambers.
But of course, she thought. He is a druid. He travels by magic.
* * *
For several minutes Taliesin stood by silently while Ygraine wept with gratitude over the baby he had brought back to her and which was now suckling at her breast.
"He is warming now, my precious boy," she murmured. "Uther thought he would die in an instant, but my son is stronger than he looks."
Uther can sit on a thorn, Taliesin thought, but remained still.
Suddenly Ygraine looked up, her eyes still red and brimming with tears. "You have to take him," she said. "Please. You can do this. Take him with you to whatever strange realms in which you dwell. He can become a druid. It will be better, at least, than death."
Taliesin couldn't help smiling. Ygraine's plea was so urgent and heartfelt that he felt no offense at her words. Worldly people held the druids in awe and fear, as if they were demons. For her to choose what she believed to be a terrifying life for her son rather than death revealed her attachment to him.
"Don't worry, my Queen," he said gently. "I shall not take him to Mona. He wouldn't be accepted there, in any case." The only children permitted on the island were those born to the druids themselves, conceived during the Great Sabbats.
"No, I did not mean--" She reached out a desperate hand to him.
"Shh. I will take him with me. But he shall be raised in the home of a nobleman, in keeping with his true station. Then who knows? One day perhaps he will succeed Uther."
Ygraine looked down at the child. "No, I do not believe Uther will ever recognize this child."
And who says Uther's opinion will matter a fig? Taliesin thought. Still, it would be necessary to tell him about the child. Too many people already knew that the baby had been brought back to the castle. If Taliesin were to leave so soon after his arrival without mentioning the child, Uther would be suspicious. And it would take no more than a suspicion to send Uther into a rage that might harm Ygraine and her servants. The druid understood tyrants: The best way to keep a secret from a man like Uther was to tell him just enough to bore him.
And so Taliesin approached him the next day. "I was coming to visit you, brother, when I chanced upon a baby lying naked on the rocks," he said, sounding bewildered.
Uther rolled his eyes. "And what did you think it was, you superstitious fool, a sea spirit?"
Taliesin laughed lightly. "Perhaps."
"I suppose you made up a song...
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