In Juliet McKenna‘s latest fantasy novel, the author re-imagines the Arthurian legend, focusing on the perspectives of four key women: Ygraine, Nimue, Morgana and Guinevere. To mark the upcoming release, Angry Robot Books have provided CR with the following excerpt from The Cleaving. First, though, check out the synopsis:
Four women, four destinies – the future of King Arthur’s court…
The Cleaving is an Arthurian retelling that follows the tangled stories of four women: Nimue, Ygraine, Morgana, and Guinevere, as they fight to control their own destinies amid the wars and rivalries that will determine the destiny of Britain.
The legendary epics of King Arthur and Camelot don’t tell the whole story. Chroniclers say Arthur’s mother Ygraine married the man that killed her husband. They say that Arthur’s half-sister Morgana turned to dark magic to defy him and Merlin. They say that the enchantress Nimue challenged Merlin and used her magic to outwit him. And that Arthur’s marriage to Guinevere ended in adultery, rebellion and bloodshed. So why did these women chose such dangerous paths?
As warfare and rivalries constantly challenge the king, Arthur and Merlin believe these women are destined to serve Camelot by doing as they are told. But men forget that women talk. Ygraine, Nimue, Morgana and Guinevere become friends and allies while the decisions that shape their lives are taken out of their hands. This is their untold story. Now these women have a voice.
Now, on with the excerpt, which is taken from a little way into the story…
A few moments later, and the tomb had a roof, elegant in its simplicity. All the evidence of those brutal deaths was hidden away.
Merlin’s forefinger drew swift shapes in the air. Letters appeared on the marble, deeply incised and gilded.
Here lies Sir Balyn the Savage, Knight of Northumberland and Camelot.
Here lies Sir Balan, Knight of Northumberland. Pray for our souls.
“Satisfied?” Merlin demanded.
Making this tomb meant nothing to him, Nimue saw. These deaths were acceptable losses as he focused on his ultimate purpose. What was his aim anyway?
“Shall we put their family blazon on the side?” he sneered.
That would serve no real purpose, Nimue realised. Even if they recognised the black boar, no one who stopped to marvel at such a memorial in this remote place would have any idea of the undeserved fate that killed these two men. No one would ever know the anguish of Sir Balyn’s last weeks or the heartbreak of his final moments. She was the only one who cared.
She could still feel the magic thrumming through the ground beneath her feet. Merlin had summoned the stone for this tomb from the far south of Logres. He had stripped the marble of its intricate patterns and colours to leave this bleak whiteness. This memorial was like a blank page in some book where he could write his version of events. She was the only one who could say different. She was the only one who could do more than stand witness to the truth.
Merlin raised his hand, intent on the smooth white stone. Nimue didn’t know what he planned and she didn’t care. She snatched the cursed sword from his unsuspecting grip, and hurled it at the tomb, scabbard, belt and all. Her magic made the white marble as insubstantial as fog. The evil blade vanished into the mist. A moment later, and the stone was impenetrable once again. The sword would lie with the men brought to their deaths by its sorcery.
“What are you doing?” Merlin was outraged.
Nimue seized his arm and plunged them both into the turmoil of magic far below. Merlin fought to free himself, but he had drawn deep on his power, first to come to Gwynedd, then to reach Viviane of the River’s realm, and finally with this profligate display. He could not break her hold.
Nimue sensed his growing unease as Merlin found he was weaker than he expected. More than that, the wizard realised Nimue was far stronger than he had assumed. His disquiet turned to apprehension.
What are you doing?
Our people have always held aloof from mortals and for good reason. I see that now.
Nimue focused on tracing the ripples of the wizard’s enchantments as he had forced the aeons-old rocks to do his bidding to build Sir Balyn and his brother’s tomb. Merlin’s magic had come surging back as the lands beyond Logres refused to yield to such mistreatment. Nimue found what she sought in the far west of Wales. The blue stones of those ancient hills had defied Merlin’s arrogant sorcery most fiercely of all.
Nimue didn’t attempt to force the rocks to obey her. Instead, she searched for a void. She found a crevice, then a wider chasm. It led to a cavern untouched by daylight. The still pool of water within had never felt the brush of a breeze. She slid through the gap, dragging Merlin with her.
As soon as their feet hit the cave’s uneven floor, he fought his way free of her hold. He was physically taller and stronger now that they had form and substance once again. The darkness was absolute, but that was no hindrance to their kind. “You will regret this.”
Nimue allowed him his moment of triumph. While he was distracted, she wove the spells that would keep him here. “Too late.”
“What are you talking about?” He looked around the cavern. “Where is this place?”
“This is your future. I will not let you bring disaster down on our people.”
Merlin laughed, scornful. “I think not.”
His magic reverberated around the cavern as he tried to step through the darkness. Tried and failed. These hills would not allow Merlin to leave. The land knew he was their enemy.
“Now I understand why you see wild magic threatening Arthur’s future,” Nimue told him. “You are the reason. Your interference has caused the grief that’s plagued Logres and the isles of Britain since you first contrived Uther’s victories in battle. You should have left well alone. You should never have drawn the Lady of the Lake and her sisters into your schemes. If you had not made that alliance, Viviane of the River would have no reason to fear her rival’s ascendancy. She would have no reason to attack Arthur.”
“You have no idea what you’re talking about.” Merlin walked in a slow circle, studying the walls of the cave.
“I realised something else. Viviane said she will repay the maidens of the lake threefold for any harm done to her people. I’ve been waiting to see you pay the price for your offences, without ever wondering who would exact such a penalty. Now I see we are all responsible for keeping the peace between our kind and mortals.”
“You dare to judge me?” scoffed Merlin.
“I do,” she said, steadfast. “And I say you must be stopped from meddling in mortal affairs.”
Merlin whirled around. Nimue was ready. She had seen his face harden as he completed his circuit and seen the truth. There was no way out of this cavern for him unless Nimue’s magic died with her.
Merlin’s body contorted as he sprang at her. He took on a great hound’s form, heavy enough to knock her off her feet. He snarled, showing teeth that would crush her bones and tear her flesh. Nimue dropped to her hands and knees. Now she was a hare, nimble enough to dart around the hound, too fast for him to catch.
As she crouched in the shadows, she saw Merlin change into a longlegged courser. Lithe, he bounded towards her with murderous intent in his dark eyes. Nimue sprang for the edge of the pool. She leapt and before her paws touched the water, she was a small silver fish.
She swam into the depths. The waters roiled as Merlin plunged into the pool. Looking up, Nimue saw he had become an otter. His sleek, muscular body undulated as his blunt head swept from side to side. His whiskers bristled as he sought out the slightest vibrations that showed where she was.
A drop of water fell from the roof of the cave. As it struck the pool, Merlin darted towards the ripples. The distraction gave Nimue her chance. With a beat of her tail, she raced for the surface. She was already changing shape as she left the water, growing azure wings and a beak like a dagger as she soared for the cavern’s heights.
Merlin emerged from a surge of bubbles as an agile hawk. Greybacked and pale-bellied, he had broad, blunt wings and a squared fan of long tail feathers. He darted this way and that, searching for his prey.
Nimue clung to the rough rock with her claws. She had left the water as a kingfisher, but as soon as she felt Merlin’s magic transform him, she swapped her form for another. Before he had those hawk’s sharp eyes, she became a tiny bat, dark-furred on silent wings. As long as she didn’t move, as long as she stayed hidden in this convenient cranny, she was as good as invisible against the dark stone. She drew all her magic inward, to bolster her sense of self against the bat’s nature and instincts.
Merlin persisted, searching the cave in the form of the bird. Eventually he tired. Falling through the cool, still air, he landed on the uneven floor. He still didn’t resume his human shape. A heavy-bodied hound with long ears and drooping jowls quartered the cavern to find Nimue’s scent.
Much good that would do him. There must be a maze of tangled trails in the darkness. She waited patiently. Some interminable time later, Merlin’s magic was finally exhausted. He appeared as a man and sat by the mirror-smooth pool, hugging his knees and brooding. Eventually he slumped to the floor and slept.
Nimue climbed higher up the crevice using her tiny claws. At long last, she eased herself into a nook where she felt a thread of air coming down from the world above. The stones let her pass. She had never abused them with her enchantments. Still in her bat form, she worked a swift and subtle enchantment to carry her back to Camelot.
Juliet McKenna’s The Cleaving is due to be published by Angry Robot Books in North America and in the UK, on April 11th.