Ocean’s Embrace, by Joy Myerscough

NOVEL EXTRACT

King Arthur was forced to give up his first wife, Helena in order to marry Guenevere, thereby securing peace for his kingdom.  But Arthur cannot forget Helena. After Guenevere falls in love with Sir Lancelot, Arthur begs Merlin to help him find Helena. Merlin agrees to fake his death at the Battle of Camlann. Arthur is now free to search for Helena across time and continents, but Merlin will only tell him that he will find her where oceans embrace.

Tintagel Castle,

Cornwall

Anno Domini 573

Helena,

I am here again in my chamber, where I have spent so many unhappy hours. It is now three winters since we parted.  I write to tell you to recount some of the events of the last few days with new hope in my heart.

Of late, I have been leaving the castle to wander the shore, and thus found myself there on Candlemas morning.  The shorelarks called to me from the cliff face as I traversed the sand. I paused to sample the salt drying upon sacking in the dunes. Its lavender color, prized across the world, restores spirits, it is said, but did nothing for my melancholy.

I walked to the headland, where the sea god Lir was at play, tumbling against the rocks in a great shatter of foam. Seaweed—which hereabout is called mermaid’s tresses—reached after him every time he withdrew. I picked up a shell and held it to my ear, hoping by some kind of alchemy to hear your voice.

The sun rose to its apex, though there was little warmth.  I saw something on the shingle—a mirror, I thought, glinting in the light. It shared a tide pool with a sand crab, which scuttled away at my approach. No, not a mirror: a bracelet of silver, traced with hieroglyphs, but worn and pitted. I touched it to my lips and found it cool and salty.

In a moment I saw you: on another shore. You hesitated at the water’s edge. A bright moon shone over the sea. The tide tugged at your feet, urging you on; your eyes were lowered and I thought you disconsolate. But you gathered your skirts and ventured out and I saw that our fireflies of the sea had come: come to pay you court. A million, million points of light surrounded you. You laughed and began to spin in the water, and all was lustrous, the ocean glowed: that same sparkling glory we found together. I started after you, so real the vision. You held your arms out wide. It was then that I saw the bracelet slip from your arm and plunge into the sea. And then, then you were gone.

I thought that perhaps you would come to me in my dreams, so I wore your bracelet against my heart that night, but my thoughts prevented rest. I left my bed and climbed the turret to the North Tower. I heard the ocean surging against the cliffs below, yet there was nothing to see; fog clung to the battlements and pinched out my candle. I smiled to myself, then, as I held your charm in my hand. Once England’s king, now alone in the bitter night, without even a flame for company. I returned to my chambers, and waited by the fire for the first brightening.

With the dawn I conceived a plan to consult John the Blind, the keeper of the Giants’ Dance—you must know of it, my love—known as the henge on Salisbury Plain, home of the Ancients. Indeed, I could not imagine why I had not thought of this earlier. I set out at once, having fashioned a pouch for your armlet, to keep it close.

The journey took five days. Along the way I hunted partridge, pheasant and grouse, gathered winter truffles from the black earth of the Forest of Dean, fished for trout at Lachrymose Lake. These were offerings for the hermit, for he shuns any gift from the sea. His parents made their living at the shore: harvesting seaweed to nourish the land, blue mussels, sweetest in late spring, and salvage from shipwrecks: ale, oranges from the edges of the world, tin.  But John’s eyes were plucked out by a Dalmatian pelican, that crudest of birds, as he searched for razor clams at low tide. The family moved inland, but soon perished, not having any skill other than sea-foraging. John was thus alone, but an eagle guided him to the Giants’ Dance where he remains, to serve the Ancients. Some say our ancestors built the Dance to commune with the stars. Others consider it a place of healing. All think it holy and none deny its majesty and power.

I left my horse in a copse of seven oak trees and approached on foot. Dawn was tardy and frost mantled the ground. Venus, the morning star shone in the east, though the night was at its darkest. A wind blew across the plain, bringing the smell of wood smoke, gray amber and mullein and I thought of your chambers, my lady, and the incense you favored, and wished myself back there once more, leaning against your knee with the fire blazing, warming us both.

John came to greet me, his boots crunching over the frozen ground. He wore a scrap of fabric across his eyes, but his cheeks bore livid marks, where the bird’s beak had gouged his flesh. I told him of my undertaking: how Merlin had freed me from Guenevere and my crown, to seek you, Helena. How he’d told me only that I’d find you where oceans embrace. I showed him the armlet and described the vision of you at the rim of some faraway sea.  I asked his help in seeking the counsel of the Giants. He accepted my offerings, but refused a satchel of gold, saying he had no need of it.

We approached the Dance from the northeast. Here was the Hele Stone, which guards the henge. He commenced circling the stones, beginning at the east, where the sun would cast its first rays. I waited, shivering. The guardian stone towered over me; my heart was filled with yearning, impatience and anticipation. John paused at the arch, which contemplates the west, lifting his face to the firmament. Some time passed. The birds of morning began to stir. I heard them calling one to another. He resumed his circuit, sometimes touching a stone with his fingertips.

At last he returned. Together we passed through the circles and crossed to the altar. The stones loomed over us, giants indeed. Each wore a cloak of frost, which glimmered in the moonlight. I heard whispers and snatches of song—a low keening lament—and pipes, thin and melancholy, and the hushed toll of a drum: the music of the Infinites. Now the sun flamed across the land, offering its gift of morning to the Dance. The dawn was rose and carmine, carnelian and amaranth, oxblood and vermilion.

I handed your circlet to John and he placed it on the altar stone as the night tendered its farewell and the sun took its place in the firmament. The music swelled, rose, gathered tempo. The stones shed their moorings. Their human forms emerged, each took a slow step forward, another. They bowed stiffly to the sun and again to the altar stone. They stamped their feet, the frost shimmering as it fell to the ground, and then joined hands and wheeled across the mount, now light of foot and full of exultation. They separated and came together, lifted their arms to the sky, inclined to the earth. Now each turned to his neighbor and offered his embrace. They curtseyed one to another, saluted, kissed. The dance began again. They moved faster and faster until all was a golden blur. I turned to John. His head was bowed, for of course he saw not.

At last the Dance slowed. Now each placed his hand on the shoulder of the one in front as they circled. They stamped their feet and a shudder ran over the land. Their procession grew more languid. The music faded and the stones were again before us, each in its place. Silence, like a deluge, moved across the plain. I too bowed my head.

John clasped his hands before him and thanked the Giants. He bade me leave your bracelet on the altar stone. I did so, though it grieved me—in truth, he was forced to take my arm and pull me from the circle.

John stooped to gather twigs for his fire, scraping away the rime with his bare hands. I asked him whether he’d learned anything, whether the Giants had knowledge of my quest. He tossed a branch onto the pile at his feet and turned to the altar. “Nothing lasts, nothing is finished, nothing is perfect,” he said. I did not understand and looked at him sharply, but he picked up his firewood, shouldered my gifts and strode away, his hand lifted in farewell.

I returned to the coppice. The trees churned, roused by a wind from the south. I pondered John’s words, but found them beyond my comprehension. My heart was again heavy: my quest failed once more.

I rode for many hours, I know not where. At last I came to a brook where I dismounted, so that my horse might rest. I sat down on a fallen elm tree to ponder and was soothed by the sound of water flowing over rocks tender with lichen. Slivers of pearly ice clung to the bank in the darker hollows, only to be chivvied free and carried downstream, to catch in branches cast from a nearby hawthorn. Tadpoles darted in the shallows, snatching at dappled leaves, dreaming of their future. A damselfly hovered above, its tail gleaming like a sapphire.

Nothing lasts: indeed our life together lasted for the beat of a butterfly’s wing. Nothing is perfect: I renounced perfection, our union—for the sake of peace in my kingdom. Nothing is finished.

A roe deer approach from the wood, her ears alert for danger. A moment later, her yearlings joined her and they lowered their heads to lap from the stream, though the doe trembled with anticipation of threat. She traversed the stream, moving delicately over the rocks. Her young followed, jostling one another. The last sun cast stippled shadows over their hides, and I admired their fragile grace as they reached for the fruit of an elderberry shrub. My horse turned its head, the slight movement caused them to startle and bolt and I was alone again, except for a flight of swifts passing high overhead.

Nothing lasts. Nothing is finished. Nothing is perfect. The swifts veered apart, splitting into two files as they skimmed the heights. Just as suddenly, they melded together again. I watched until they vanished into the distance.

Nothing is finished. Dare I hope, then that our long separation will come to an end? And our love might yet resume? I returned to Tintagel to consider how to proceed. All is made ready for your return. Lavender is prepared to perfume your bed linens. Rose oil for your bath. Wild chamomile to fragrance your chambers.

I will find you.

Arthur