In the author's The Skystone (1996), set in the last years of the Roman occupation of fifth-century Britain, the sword Excalibur was forged, presaging the reign of King Arthur years later. This time, the narrator, grand-nephew of the forger of the sword, is none other than that (traditionally) eerie being, Merlin the sorcerer--sanitized here to the most high-minded of soldiers who survives wars, betrayal, and a tragic love affair. Caius Merlyn Britannicus, born in a.d. 401, is the son of the Commander in Chief of the forces of the fortress/town of Camulod, a community of Romans and Britons. Merlyn's best friend from boyhood is his cousin Uther Pendragon, a mighty warrior and the son of a Celtic king, though with a terrible temper that can show itself off the fields of war. Torturing Merlyn is the suspicion that it might have been Uther who brutally beat the waif whom Merlyn will name Cassandra after she violently resists Uther's sexual games. The deaf and dumb Cassandra (her real identity will be a surprise) is healed and then secluded, eventually becoming Merlyn's wife until her savage death. There are wars and invasions, waged principally by King Lot of Cornwall, wars that bring awful innovations like poisoned arrows. There are also theological conflicts, since the free-will doctrines of Pelagius are condemned as heretical by the Church. Merlyn's trek to a seminal debate of theologians is marked by skirmishes--he rescues the warrior/bishop Germanus at one point--and by the discovery of a half-brother. All ends with the deaths of those fierce antagonists Lot and Uther, and with Merlyn holding up Uther's baby son by Lot's dead queen, a baby who has ``the deep golden eyes of . . . a mighty bird of prey . . . a King perhaps, to wield Excalibur.'' With plenty of hacking and stabbing, pontifications, dogged sex, and a few anachronistic mind-sets: another dipperful from the fertile Arthurian well, sans magic but brimful of action.