This is a chapter of King Arthur and His Knights by Blanche Winder.
Merlin, the wonderful baby, grew up into a handsome youth, but nobody quite understood him, and a good many people were rather afraid of him. He never did naughty or cruel things, but he would often rock his sides with laughter for what seemed to be no reason at all. Sometimes he would disappear for a week or two, and it was whispered of him that he used to catch and ride the wild stags and that, when he rode a great antlered beauty, all the pretty does and their young followed him, so that the forest glades seemed alive with flying herds of deer. The gossips said, too, that the fairy people were building a house for Merlin in the deep green places of the woods — a house with seventy windows and sixty doors, where as soon as he was old enough he would live, quite alone. But when Merlin was stared at, on account of these things, he only laughed to himself, as usual, and went about his business unconcernedly.
Then, one day, a party of horsemen came riding along toward the palace in which Merlin had been born. They kept asking where they could find a certain handsome youth of whom all sorts of strange things were said. And, sure enough, as they drew rein before the gate of the city, there stood the slender boy, with his laughing mouth, and eyes so clear and free.
One of the horsemen sprang down, seized Merlin, and flung him onto his own saddle. Then he sprang up behind, set spurs to his steed, and galloped off in company with his friends. Merlin neither struggled nor cried out. He just laughed to himself; for, ever since he was a baby, he had known that this would happen to him.
On went the party of horsemen at full speed, until they came to a country far from Merlin’s home. Between the mountain passes they rode, and presently came out upon a low plain, where a lot of workmen were toiling and toiling to build a great tower. They had brought hundreds of stones together, which were lying about broken or piled into muddled heaps. Men on horseback rode to and fro, calling out directions or rebuking the workmen for their carelessness. The poor workmen staggered about, placing the stones one on the top of the other. But, however careful they were, the stones all fell down again!
Watching the work from a grassy mound stood a tall man in armor, with a crown on his head, and a cruel, yet a frightened face below the crown. Behind him waited a standard bearer in royal purple. And over his crowned head floated the flag that had floated over many a prince of a long, long line of kings.
The company of horsemen galloped up to the mound. Taking Merlin down from the horse, they led him, bound, up to the cruel-eyed monarch who stood there.
“Is this the boy?” asked the king.
“Yes, sire,” answered the rider who had first seized Merlin.
The king looked steadily and fiercely at Merlin, who smiled quite pleasantly, not at all afraid.
“You laugh, child!” said the king, with a heavy frown. “You do not know your fate! Do you see those stones where men have built the foundations of a great tower?”
Merlin nodded. He looked around at the heaps of unused stones, so many of which were broken and spoilt.
“In that tower,” went on the king, “I mean to find a safe refuge from the terrible enemies who swarm around my country and who will, assuredly, ride one day over the mountains, and, unless I take the necessary precautions, conquer my kingdom and kill me. Only a strong tower can be my haven. But, though I have tried for many months to build it, no sooner are the stones set up than they all fall down again!”
“Very likely! Very likely!” said Merlin.
“Wait!” growled the king like angry thunder. “I was told by a magician that only the blood of a youth of whom it was said he was half a fairy could give firmness to the foundations of the tower. You, I understand, are that unhappy child! My tower I must have, though your blood has to be spilled in order to build it!”
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Even this cruel king looked unhappy as well as frightened as he spoke. But, for all his sorrow and his fear, he was quite determined to kill Merlin so that he could go on building his tower.
Merlin laughed, bowed, and sat himself down on the grass of the mound.
“So? So?” said he. “But even my blood, great king, will not help you to build a tower on the top of a lake of water!”
The king frowned with perplexity and stared.
“Lake of water! What do you mean?” he demanded. “There is no lake here.”
“Set your workmen to dig around the foundations of your unfinished, tumbling-down tower, and you will soon see for yourself,” laughed Merlin, rocking himself to and fro.
The king —whose name was Vortigern— was so amazed that he actually did as the strange mocking boy told him! He sent for the architect and bade him order the workmen to dig around about the foundations with their spades. So the workmen stopped trying to set up the stones and started shoveling the soil instead. And, behold! almost immediately they were digging in mud, and up bubbled the hidden water through the mud, and down fell the banks of the ditches, followed by all the stones that had not tumbled down before. And, as the stones and banks slipped down, more and more water rushed up, till at last the whole of the middle of the plain was one great lake.
Then the king turned to Merlin, more afraid, now, of this strange boy than of all the people who, he expected, would come riding over the hills to kill him.
“What does it all mean?” he asked, trembling.
Merlin shook his head. Suddenly tears sprang to his eyes and rolled down his cheeks. He was sorry for the cruel king, though Vortigern had never been sorry for him.
“There is a great stone below the lake,” he said, in a whisper. “Two dragons sleep there — a red one and a white. One day, they will come out from under the stone and meet on the waters of the lake in a fearful battle. In the white dragon is the soul of your strongest enemy — in the red dragon, Vortigern, you may see the shadow of yourself.”
Then Merlin stepped down from the mound and went slowly away, and nobody tried to hold him. But Vortigern sat on the grass and stared for a week on end at the still-green waters of the magical lake.
And at last, while he stared, he saw the waters shudder and shake into great waves. The waves sprang higher and higher, like horses tossing their white and shaggy manes. Then up through the hills and valleys of the storm-lashed water came the white dragon and the red. The white dragon was as pale as snow, and the red dragon was as scarlet as blood. And from end to end of the fairy lake they fought each other, until, with a great cry, the red dragon fell dead upon the beach, among the green rushes and the broken stems of the water flowers.
Vortigern rose and fled. But he thought he heard the voice of the fairy boy echoing all around about him as he went: “In the white dragon is the soul of your strongest enemy — in the red dragon, Vortigern, you may see the shadow of yourself!”
The king reached his palace quaking with fear, but lo! his courtiers came running to tell him that the lake had sunk back deep into the earth and that now the workmen were building his tower as fast as ever they could. So Vortigern began his old, cruel, wicked ways once more. Then, as soon as the tower was finished, he shut himself up in it for safety. But at night, very often, he woke up panting with terror, for, in his dreams he still saw the mighty battle between the white dragon and the red.
And, surely enough, one day his strongest enemy came over the hills with a great army, for Vortigern’s people, racked with their king’s wickedness and cruelty, had sent out a pitiful cry for help. The king who rode over the hills was great and good, and he rescued the unhappy people and killed Vortigern. So the king reigned over the kingdom in his place and was called Uther Pendragon. The reasons for this name and some of the things that he did you will read about in another story.