In Britain in those days there was a leader among those families of Roman extraction who still lived on the island. His name was Constans, and he was generally recognized as the Dux Britanniorum, or Duke of Britain. He had three sons: Constans, Ambrosius Aurelianus, and Uther. He also had a steward named Vortigern, a clever man on whom he greatly relied. When he died, the young Constans succeeded his father, but he was still quite young. Therefore the lords and barons chose Vortigern to be his regent, and Vortigern did all his will in the land as if he were himself the Duke. And being a competent men, he calculated very well how to gain the support of the people. However, the cities and towns soon began to be harried by Saxon raiders, and when Constans came to him begging that Vortigern should defend the Roman people of Britain, Vortigern put him off with delaying words. The young Constans, a valiant young man by then, attempted to organize a defense, but it failed completely, as if the Saxons knew beforehand what he would do, and the people began to grumble against the Duke, saying that if Vortigern had led them, they would not have been defeated. Then the lords and barons, whispering in secret, came to Vortigern and offered to recognize him as Duke of Britain.
But Vortigern was not a fool, and with a pious folding of hands, he replied, "My lords, there is already a Duke, whom you yourselves have set me to serve, and I will serve him with honor and devotion for as long as he shall live. Being a man who respects the law, I would not accept the Duchy from you unless our good Constans had died." The barons knew what he was about, and took thought for how Constans might be killed, for they considered among themselves that those who gave to Vortigern the office of Duke would be forever his friends indeed.
Then twelve of them came together to slay the Duke, and few there were who even resisted them. The blood had not yet dried upon the floor when they came to Vortigern saying, "Duke Constans has died; be now our Duke."
Vortigern, however, knowing well how to gauge the moods of the people, responded to them with simulated anger, saying, "You have done a great evil and violated your oaths; flee now lest the people have you put to death."
The cunning Vortigern then gathered an assembly of the people and told them of all this in fair and seemly words. The people were greatly affected by the tale, so that the remaining lords and barons proposed that Vortigern be made Duke of Britain, and this suggestion was made to joyful acclamation by the people. Thus did Vortigern usurp the office with the support of the barons and the people.
There were two noblemen who watched all these happenings with shrewd eye, the elder of whom was named Kyner or Cunerius. To them had been chiefly entrusted the educations of Ambrosius and Uther, whom they had come to love greatly. They suspected that the two boys were in danger, so as soon as Vortigern was acclaimed Duke they fled with them to Gaul, to a place called Benoit. There Ambrosius and Uther would grow to be strong and valiant young men. There too would Kyner have a son of his own, whom he called Ector.
After Vortigern had seized the Duchy, the slayers of Constans came before him in public and accused him of ingratitude. Vortigern, however, feigned that he had never met them before, and as they had confessed with their own mouths to the slaying, ordered that they be executed by being drawn and quartered.
"For," said Vortigern, "it is not for any of us to lay an unkind hand on those who are our superiors. Nor can any man be trusted who will slay his lord; having done it once you would surely do it again."
The men had many powerful friends, and war broke out. The friends of the executed barons raised a great host, but Vortigern fought with cunning and after some time drove them all from the island. When he had done so, he attempted to consolidate his rule. His means of doing so were so harsh that there were many uprisings against him, some of which were able to gain the support of other tribes in the island. Vortigern, however, responded by making peace with the Saxons and the Jutes, whom he offered lands in Britain and generous mercenary pay as soldiers. The Saxons landed in Britain at the Isle of Thanet, in Kent, which was separated from the main island by a very narrow channel; they came in three ships, and their leaders were named Horsa and Hengist, great warriors among their people. They fought for Vortigern, but the numbers of Vortigern's enemies were multiplying, so Hengist and Horsa sent word to their peoples, speaking in bold terms of the worthlessness of the British and the beauty of their lands. The Saxon host began to swell.
Vortigern then began to be afraid for their strength. He went to the British tribes he had defeated with their help, raising them to fight the Saxons, and he also hired bands of Picts from Alba. They fought well, slaying Horsa in battle, but the Saxons waxed daily, so that Vortigern had to buy off Hengist with even more land, and he withdrew northward toward Cambria.
Vortigern, recognizing that he had lost the love of the people and not trusting the Saxons to be appeased, conceived a plan to build a mighty fortress, a castle that could not be taken. He gathered together all the masons and builders in the land and set them to building a mighty tower. But after the tower had begun to rise, there was a great shaking of the earth and the tower fell down. Vortigern had them rebuild it again, but again it collapsed. Again he had them rebuild it, and yet again it collapsed. Then Vortigern thought to himself that there was some cause of this, and being a clever man knew that if he could discover and remove that cause, he could build his castle. He gathered together the wisest men in the land, but no one could tell him the reason for the tower's falling until he threatened them with death if they did not discover it.
Then they, afraid, took counsel among themselves, saying, "This thing is a great marvel; surely it must be resolved by another great marvel."
But one of them said, "I have heard of no marvel on this order, except stories of a boy, seven years of age, who was born without a human father."
Then the wise men came to Vortigern and said, "Lord, in ancient times people would solve these problems with blood. But a great problem requires a commensurate solution. If you wish your tower to stand, you must place in its foundation the blood of a seven-year-old child without a human father."
Vortigern sent out twelve men to search his realm, two by two, for such a child, to bring back the child's blood. They searched high and low, and it happened one day that two of the pairs met together and journeyed on the road together for a while. They soon came to a town in which many children were playing the fields.
One of these children was Merlin, who at that time was seven years old. Merlin's mother and Blaise had deemed it wise to move from Brittany because of the attention that Merlin drew; however wise he might be, the child was prone to mischief. He delighted in illusion and trick, and loved to startle people and make them marvel. Thus they had crossed the water and come to Britain.
Seeing the four knights approach and knowing immediately their aim, Merlin took a stick in his hand and, going up to the child who was closest to them, hit the child on the shoulder, knocking him to the ground, and ran away. The child Merlin had hit began to cry and called him many names, saying among other things that he was misbegotten and fatherless. This caught the attention of the knights and they asked the weeping boy who had hit him. He told them what he knew, which was only that nobody knew who Merlin's father was.
Then Merlin came running up again, laughing, and said, "I am the child you seek, whose blood you are to bring Vortigern."
"Then you must come with us," they said.
"No," said Merlin, "for you might well kill me. But if you will give me your word that you will instead take me to Vortigern, I will tell him the true reason why his tower falls whenever he tries to build it. Let me only take leave of my mother and my teacher." To this they agreed, and Merlin brought them to his house to be fed, and had them tell all the story to Blaise.
As they set out to see Vortigern, Blaise offered Merlin to go with him for safety's sake, but Merlin said, "This is not the best way. Instead, look to find a land north of the River Humber, and I will meet you again there. Do not fear for my sake. This petty chieftain has no power over me, for I am destined to raise up the greatest of all the kings of Britain."
And Merlin said to his mother, "Fair mother, I commend you to Christ, for I am summoned to court and must leave you. And I fear our teacher Blaise must also leave you."
"Fair son," she replied, "surely it would be better if Blaise would stay."
"Alas, no," he said. "It would be much worse; he must go." And she knew him well enough to see that he was earnest, and she gave her leave. Thus Merlin and Blaise both set out, but they went separate ways.
As Merlin journeyed on the road with the four knights, they overtook a peasant with his cart, and on seeing it, Merlin laughed. When they asked why the boy laughed, he replied, "I laugh because it is funny. This man has bought new shoes, and takes such great pains with his cart, but he will be dead before he reaches home and, although he will wear the shoes, he will never wear them on his feet."
The four knights wondered at this, and decided to test it; two followed the carl as he turned down a different road and two remained with Merlin. The two who followed the peasant had hardly done gone half a mile when they found him dead on the road. His cart had been ransacked and his new shoes were hung around his neck, for he had been strangled with the leather thongs used to tie them up. They swiftly rode back to their companions and told what they had seen.
Then one of the knights, a young half-Saxon warrior whose name was Ulf or Ulfius, said, "Surely the men who recommended that this child be slain were not wise, but great fools."
He said this quietly to his companions so that Merlin might hear, but Merlin said, "I thank you, Ulfius, for your good will. Because of it, you shall play a greater part in these matters than you know."
Some time later, they came across a funeral procession carrying a dead child to church to be buried in the cemetery. Priests went before it singing psalms, and the people who followed it wept with sorrow. When Merlin saw the funeral, he laughed again and said to his companions, "This is truly a wonder."
"What do you mean?" asked Ulfius.
"Do you see the man who follows behind the bier, weeping that he has lost his son?"
"Yes," they said.
"Do you see the priest at the head of the procession?"
"Yes," they said.
"Then know this. The child was not the son of the weeping man but of the singing priest. Go to the mother and ask her why she weeps. When she says that she does so for her son, tell her that it is not her son but the son of the priest, and hear what she has to say."
Two of the knights took the woman aside and did as Merlin had said to do, and the woman, frightened, begged them not to tell her husband of it. They went back and reported the result, and the four knights were astonished.
So they came to Vortigern. Then two of the knights said, "We will go before you to inform Vortigern that we have brought you; but Vortigern had commanded that we bring back your blood, and he may not take it well that we have brought you back alive. We beg you, give us counsel as to what we may say to him."
Merlin replied, "Speak as I tell you and you need have no fear. Tell him that you have found me, but that I claim to know the true reason why his tower falls, and more than that, show him how to make it stand enduringly. Moreover, I shall tell him the true motive of his wise men, who are lying."
The knights then did all that he asked and, returning, brought him to Vortigern. For Vortigern, being a man of schemes, easily believed that others were scheming against him, and, being a cunning man, was forever afraid that others might make a fool of him, and would not put Merlin to death before he had heard what he had to say.
Then Merlin said to Vortigern, "If you give me leave to speak to the wise men, I will show you the truth so that it cannot be doubted."
"If you do as you say," said Vortigern, "I give them to your power; you may do as you wish with them."
Then Merlin spoke to the wise men, asking them why the tower fell.
"We cannot say why the tower fell; we can only tell by divination what will secure it," they said.
But Merlin said, "You think to make the Duke a fool. You knew that you had no answer, and if you did not provide one, he would kill you. You thought instead to delay him, and hoped that I might kill him to prevent him from killing me."
Vortigern, watching all the wise men closely, could tell from their reactions that what Merlin said was true. "Then what is the reason for the falling of the tower?"
"Sir," said Merlin, "beneath the earth here there is a great mass of water and in the darkness beneath it are two great stones. Beneath the stones are two dragons. One is white, the other is red. As you build the tower, it presses downward into the earth, and the stones begin to weigh heavily on the dragons, at which they rise up against the stones, creating a wave in the water and shaking the earth until the tower falls."
"This seems unlikely," said Vortigern drily.
"You may see it for yourself," said Merlin. "Bring forth your laborers and let them dig deeply."
Then there was a great earth-working, and soon enough the laborers came to the water and could not dig farther. Vortigern was astonished and asked how the water was to be moved.
The child replied, "Make deep ditches all around and draw it off by gutter." And he drew on the ground to show them how this was best done.
They followed the child's plan, and as the water ran out, Merlin said, "When the dragons are uncovered, they will fight a great battle and one will slay the other. For safety's sake, bring your men, and summon people from all over your realm to come. Many should see this wonder, for it is a sign of great things."
Thus Vortigern did, and as the water was drained, they saw the stones.
"We shall solve the problem of the dragons easily," said Merlin. "As soon as they feel each other, the two great worms will fight until one dies."
"Which shall slay the other?" asked Vortigern.
"This is a great secret," said Merlin, "but in secret I will tell you and the four knights who brought me to you." When Vortigern had withdrawn with the four knights and Merlin to a private chamber, Merlin continued, saying, "That you may know that all that I say is the truth, know that the white worm will slay the red worm, but shall be gravely wounded. As for the rest, it must be seen."
Then they pulled up the stones in the early morning, and the people saw the dragons and were afraid, because they seemed fierce and deadly. The dragons sprang up and fought together tooth and claw, scraping and biting in a great noise, until midday. At that time, it seemed that perhaps the red dragon would win, but the white breathed out such a terror flame that the red dragon, screaming, was burned up. The white dragon lay down to rest, but its wounds were so terrible that it died within three days.
"Now you may build your tower, and be assured that it will not fall," said Merlin.
"Tell me the meaning of all this," Vortigern said.
"I will gladly do so, if you honor your promise to give the wise men into my power, and further promise your protection of me before all the people, and guarantee me that no one shall do me harm throughout your realm."
When Vortigern had done this, Merlin pardoned the wise men who had sought his death, on condition that they would do penance for it, and said to all who were assembled, "Hear now the meaning of the dragons. You, O Duke, are the red dragon, and the sons of Constans are the white dragon. You have taken their heritage wrongfully, and thus one of you, the red or the white, must die. You seem to have the upper hand, but by their power they shall burn you. Your tower shall not be finished before you fall."
Then Vortigern was afraid and, being afraid, grew angry. "Where are these children now?"
And Merlin said, "They are even now at sea, with a great host. They will arrive in vengeance within three months."
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