A Guile of Dragons


In a Dark Wood

The Two Powers hated everything, each other most of all. When Torlan said, “Yes,” Zahkaar said, “No,” and when Torlan said, “I meant no, ha ha ha,” Zahkaar said, “I meant yes,” and did not laugh. It made their conversations tedious, but they were not aware of it: tedium was not something they could experience.

The Two Powers pervaded the universe; so it was written in the holy books of the Anhikh sorcerer-priests. Those-who-know, the fratricidal fraternity of magical adepts, gave them a more local habitation, in the accursed forest of Tychar, Laent’s dark-blue poisonous heart.

This is the history of the universe, according to the Anhikh religion of the Two Powers. In the beginning, there was nothing. Then one of the Two Powers came into being (some say it was Torlan, the power of Fate; some say it was Zahkaar, the power of Chaos—wars have been fought over this important issue). Its being naturally summoned its anti-being into existence, and they began to struggle. Time and the universe and everything in it is a consequence of that struggle. In the end, one of the Powers will vanquish the other, and time and the universe and everything in it will be swept away in that unending victory.

Those-who-know do not generally believe this. But there was no denying the existence of the Two Powers, nor their dreadful if ill-defined abilities, and sorcerers of every stripe of opinion generally gave them a wide berth. “Being an atheist is no protection,” as Guelph the Many-Minded remarked on his scaffold, “if a god decides to believe in you.”

Today, on the first day of the new year, the two gods had decided to believe in someone.

“Ambrosius,” said Torlan, the power of Fate.

“Ambrosius,” disagreed Zahkaar, the power of Chaos.

“We hate him,” Torlan said.

“Hate,” agreed Zahkaar reluctantly, then added, “I hated him first.”

“Liar. Liar.”

“You’re the liar.”

“All my decrees are true and eternal.”

“True and eternal lies.”

So the long day wore on. They enjoyed, insofar as they could enjoy anything, when they could disagree about something they agreed on. It made the inevitable cooperation less repugnant to their natures.

But the new quarrel, added to their endless ancient quarrel, did not stop them from executing the resolution arising from their clashing wills. They both hated Ambrosius. He would suffer for inspiring them to agree on anything.


Conversations in Broceliande

Worlds away, in another time (because we travel through time as well as space when we traverse the Sea of Worlds), Nimue Viviana was also thinking about an Ambrosius. More precisely, she had learned that she was pregnant by Merlin Ambrosius, and she was just deciding to expose the child as soon as it was born.

The decision was a painful business, but only the first of many. She still had to face the crisis of the disaster: tell Merlin she was pregnant, face his fury, and be driven away like a thieving servant.

That was the way things were. She knew it well enough. Merlin was a mysterious figure in young King Arthur’s court, but he was (as she had found) a man like other men. He had chosen her as his mistress, but she was not anywhere near his rank, just a Coranian peasant whose parents were dead. When a man picks a mistress like that, as Nimue had observed, he does it so that he can dispose of her when she becomes inconvenient. And there could be nothing more inconvenient than a pregnant mistress. If he were a peasant, he would leave her. As a noble, he could make her leave him.

Thinking this way, she felt she was waking from a dream. They had been happy; they had loved each other. But those were just feelings; they would vanish like mist at the squalling rise of an unwanted son. (By certain arts she had determined that the child was a boy.) She must anticipate this and act now, against her feelings. It was the sensible thing. Merlin, above all others, would understand that.

She’d met the stranger Earno a little more than a week ago. She was out riding in the forest Broceliande and passed by a tall man in a red cloak, standing in a clearing, watching her. She should have known better than to stop. But he called her by name as she passed, and spoke to her in the secret speech. She rode on at first, but then drew rein at the clearing’s edge. In the end, she went back to him.

And when she returned to Merlin that