Chapter 1 - By Trial and Error
The wind sang in his ears, a wild song of speed and freedom, a swooping melody punctuated by the scatter-drumming rhythm of his horse’s hooves as they pounded across the flat valley floor…This is life… thought a young Merlin, as well he might on a day when the sun shone and the wind sang for a boy all of ten years old. And who could blame for that limitless surge of self-confidence the foster son of Belasius, Grand Master of the Astari of Numenor, and his wife Niniane, Matron and High Priestess of the Order?
The waving trees were a blur, with their passing presences merely noted on the periphery of vision. No cause, though, for concern, because this valley of Kibil Natala was not truly forested, but - where not given to agriculture - more like parkland. The trees stood either singly or gathered in scattered clumps separated by broad stretches of grassland intersected by running streams and slow-flowing creeks that wandered into reed-fringed ponds, whose waters would be flat-calm until rippled by a breeze.
But all this the boy, seasoned by familiarity, took for granted as his mount’s flying hooves cleared stream and creek alike.
In fact the only things that might have been causes for concern were those scattered areas of cultivation… It’ll be the strap for me for sure if I charge through somebody’s vegetable patch again… And it would too, with his teacher Thoth - Messenger and Healer of the Astari - not being one to overlook careless and inconsiderate behavior. The boy, however, did not resent discipline, because this ’friend and confidant of Belasius’ was a great teacher. Moreover, Merlin had intelligence and curiosity enough to benefit from the most intensive of tuition. So discipline was simply a matter of his mentor seeking to ensure that the boy should not be spoiled into selfishness by the privileges inherent in his status and destiny… which is fair enough I suppose…
Not that this ten-year-old was giving a thought to destiny in those sweetly exhilarating moments, with the wind rushing up the wide sleeves of his white tunic, filling his chest with a delightful, billowy coolness. His gaze flicked briefly leftwards, casually noting the stark white circle of pillars that surrounded the open-air temple… nearly there… must’ve crossed the valley in record time… Then ahead, and again slightly left, was the square, squat, gray-stone school building… not much chance of bumping into that… Beyond which was one more stream and, finally, the white marker-post set up by Thoth, where the flat valley floor ran straight into the densely forested slopes of the encompassing hills.
The territory of Kibil Natala, which had been Merlin’s home for as long as he could remember, was a twisted knot of hills clad in jungle-like vegetation, enclosing the flat, almost circular valley across which he had ridden with such self-confident abandon. It lay at the northern end of the main island of the Atlantean empire.
The mass of this island - situated across the boundary line of the northern tropic - flung two arms northward, enclosing between those originally green peninsulas the long Bay of the Nagas… two emerald arms enclosing a blue expanse… The whole constituted a splendidly beautiful sight, especially when panoramically viewed from one of those ’winged disks’ that had brought the original Atlanteans to their island home, across the infinite expanses of starry space… from ancient Numenor, before the beginnings of our present history, when the worlds were still young… -
"Like children playing the vastness of the Cosmos," as Belasius had once said, "and, alas, as devoid of responsibility."
But for none of these things did Merlin care as he approached that last hurdle - the widest of Kibil Natala’s streams - for beyond it was the white marker post beside which Thoth stood, hourglass in hand… At least I’ve finally mastered the art of riding… The boy considered his confidence well founded, especially in view of the fact that riding had never been one of his strong points. In other sports he might excel, with good co-ordination and speed of reaction serving him well in the martial arts. In every branch of study might a strong intellect and inquiring mind revel… but horse riding? Alas, it had taken a long while before he could remain on the back of a horse, even with the aid of that new Atlantean invention the stirrup…
… and as for controlling it …
"Any horse with a spark of intelligence in its makeup will have the measure of you in no time," Belasius had once acidly remarked. But Merlin persevered… and now at last I have it…! So in a gesture of pure bravado he kicked his feet clear of the stirrups before putting his horse to that final jump. It was, of course against all the rules.
"You do not ride as though bareback until you have fully mastered your mount with both feet in the stirrups… and until he both knows and respects your will!"
It had been said time and time again, yet Merlin had seen the athletic Thoth ride bareback with such ease as to make him thoroughly jealous… so this time it will be different… With a shout of encouragement Merlin brought his feet back to clap the sturdy flanks, even while pulling on the reins… just enough… see…? -
"Because I have the measure of you my friend!"
Unfortunately, his mount was to prove that it was he who had the measure of his young rider, and not the other way around. The animal had obeyed the boy’s every command until this moment; but perhaps he sensed a youthful bravado and decided to correct it… Because, just as Merlin clapped his feet on the flanks and pulled at the reins - expecting yet another clear, arcing jump - the horse came to a sudden, totally unexpected, and scrabbling halt, with forelegs kicking sods of turf, while his back legs leapt skywards with spring-like elegance and speed, sending his rider, unprepared by over-confidence, sailing clear out of the saddle.
He was not afraid, because an intensive athletic and martial training had taught him how to fall soft like a wild animal, so there would be no injury, except to his pride. That, though, would suffer greatly, if only temporarily. Merlin instinctively curled into a ball while sailing through the air, and, with the wind still singing in his ears, could only curse himself as land and water rushed up to meet him. Then came that inevitable plummeting slap into the stream’s reed-fringed border, landing in mud and shallow water, with his ears assaulted by the rustling snap of breaking rush stems… and of laughter.
He was briefly winded and slightly bruised by the impact, but soon got to his feet and waded onto dry ground, covered in mud and water, with his feet still half tangled in weeds… Quite an audience indeed… was his sourly savored reflection; and not without reason since many of his peers, seemingly released from their schoolroom, had come out to watch his flying progress… flying literally, just about. Damn them, I’ll never live it down… while they stood on the north bank, enjoying the spectacle. He recalled an old, oft-repeated joke -
"See Merlin on a horse but be quick about it; he won’t be there for long!"
In the past it had been true… but this time it was meant to be different…and now here’s that stupid joke again… Yet what could he do but smile and appear to take it in good part, knowing that this humiliating end to what had been such a promising ride was entirely of his own making.
"Well you did cross that final stream", said Thoth when a wet and muddy youth limped up to the marker post with as much dignity as he could muster, "though not quite, perhaps in the way you intended." The Healer and Messenger of the Astari was not exactly laughing, but Merlin could see the merriment in his eyes. "At least, though, you know how to fall, so I assume you you’ve collected nothing worse than a few bruises…?"
The boy nodded, but his teacher was not quite finished. "I suppose you forgot what the wise say, about overweening confidence?"
Merlin’s response to this though was lightning fast, and much more than a nod. "O no Master, I have not!" He began to mimic the other’s tone. " ’Pride cometh before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall,’ as one of our distant descendents is going to say, in another world, in a far-off age, and in a very different time. Though I might ask, Master, how know you what a distant descendent is going to say, ages before he is supposed to have said it?"
"Mind your manners boy!" Said Thoth sternly, "You forget yourself." He waited long enough to allow Merlin time to mutter an apology, before continuing more gently. "The answer, both to your present question and to all those others asked over the years that have not yet received an answer, will begin to come to you, as of today, though, as you well know, the final secrets must await your initiation at the age of eighteen."
The teacher smiled… ’tis impossible to be angry with him for long… Of a surety, he’s the brightest student I’ve ever had… or will have, most likely… but his tone remained formal. "Just remember your manners and bear yourself as becomes an heir of the Astari." He relaxed, "and get yourself cleaned up. I expect Niniane will have a fresh tunic laid out for you. She’s bound by now to know what’s happened."
… O for sure… was his unspoken response… she’ll know alright… the whole bloody valley will know by now...! Yet what could he say but "Yes Master," to Thoth’s final instruction.
"Then meet me in the library when you’re fit to be seen. The excitements of this day might have ended, but the day itself has not; there’s work to be done."