Upon your heads – Is nothing but heart’s sorrow
They had been riding for many days now, heading west to the coast of the kingdom of Cornwall, to castle Tintagel. The journey had been quite uneventful, apart from a few skirmishes with some renegades, the only thing really bothering them was the weather, and the closer they came to Tintagel, the worse it got. Their thick woolen capes were soaked and heavy with rain, their horses were plodding on with utter despondency, and a wizened Gaius kept shivering despite the two capes he wore, the outer one rubbed with beeswax to keep him as dry as possible. At night they all huddled under a tarpaulin; and they ate their food cold, or cooked on a struggling and sputtering fire.
Finally, after riding in a cold drizzle for days on end, they reached the coast of Cornwall and there, perched upon a jutting rock high above the sea, stood Tintagel, a massive, black shape outlined against a leaden sky. It was storming now, and foaming waves were crashing with great force upon the shore. There was only one path leading up to the entrance of the castle, a path strewn with sharp rocks and slippery seaweed. With the exception of Galahad, they all dismounted, took their horses by the reins and walked carefully over the path, hoping not to break a leg or worse, stumbling and falling into the churning sea and crashing on the rocks below. They heard Galahad’s horse whinnying as he tripped, but the horse managed to keep its balance. Galahad was not so lucky, he slipped from the saddle and landed unceremoniously in a pool of ice-cold water, his face mere inches from a giant jellyfish. A few feet more to the left and he would have fallen to a certain death. “Come here, you stupid animal,” he shouted at his frightened horse, took the reins and tried to mount again, a piece of seaweed still stuck on his helmet like a broken and mocking plume.
“Calm down, you moron. I’ve really had it with you, now stop mistreating your steed or I’ll kick you into the sea, quest or no quest!” Gwaine really was furious now, barely able to contain his anger. Percival just looked at Galahad, eyes burning with anger, his hands two huge balled fists, white at the knuckles, and Mordred had his hand hovering over the grip of his sword. Galahad sneered but said nothing, and with measured steps he followed the others, leading his horse by the reins. After a slow and perilous journey that seemed to last for hours, they finally reached the main gate, and not a moment too soon, for the sun was already setting.
Arthur knocked on the enormous wooden door, first with his gloved hand as there was no longer a knocker, then, as there was no answer, with the pommel of his sword. They all stood there shivering in the incessant rain, man and horse alike. At last they heard a sound, and slowly the heavy door opened wide enough for a face to be seen, the face of a haggard-looking woman.
“My name is Arthur Pendragon, King of Camelot,” Arthur said in his most commanding voice and yet trying to sound friendly, “we ask for a place to sleep for tonight, so we can dry our clothes and rest our horses.” No need to tell a servant the real reason for being here, he thought and he held his hands in front of him, palms upwards, indicating they came in peace.
The woman just looked at them and ever so slowly the door opened, creaking on its rusty hinges. Finally the door opened wide enough for both men and horses to walk into the courtyard, where they found themselves stumbling over broken flagstones and discarded pieces of rusting and decaying armour. Not a soul was to be seen, no voice broke the eerie silence of the place.
“Forgive me, Arthur Pendragon King of Camelot, we do not get many visitors here these days,” the woman said with utter sadness in her voice. “Please, in yonder stables you may put your horses, and there, in the Great Hall, we will meet you when you are finished, and you are welcome to dry your clothes by the fire,” and her hand indicated vaguely to a peeling door that once must have been alive with bright colours.
“I don’t like this place,” Gwaine said under his breath.
“Me neither,” Mordred answered and nervously looked around the courtyard. The woman had gone.
They stabled their horses and rubbed them dry using the straw from the floor. As there were no oats in the rack, they fed the horses with whatever little they had left, hoping to refill their stock when they left. Galahad looked absolutely livid. “This is no way to treat a knight of Camelot,” he exclaimed, “and where are the stable boys, do these clodhoppers expect us to tend to our horses ourselves? HEY!!!,” he suddenly shouted across the courtyard, “you lazy louts, get over here now and rub down my horse!” and he looked around, expecting at any moment to see a stable boy come running to do his bidding.
“Galahad,” Leon shouted after him, “get in here and tend to your horse. Do you want it to get sick? We tend to our horses as they were our children. So come in here right now or you can crawl back to Camelot for all I care!”
Furiously Galahad looked at him. Leon looked back, unmoving and unblinking, and with ill grace Galahad started to rub down his horse.
Later that evening they all gathered in the Great Hall where a fire was blazing in the hearth. They all huddled close to the fire, warming their bodies and trying to dry their sodden clothes. Apart from the benches around the hearth and a trestle table by the wall, the room was bare and cold. The slits in the walls were uncovered, letting in wind and rain. They had not seen the serving woman since their first encounter. Percival and Leon did search for her, or anyone for that matter, but they did not find one living soul, nor did any of the rooms seem inhabited, although most of the rooms were locked. They ate the last of their black bread and cheese, and washed it down with cold water. And as the heat from the fire warmed their bones and dried their clothes, so did their good spirits return. Even Gaius managed a weak smile.
“This is not the Tintagel I know from stories,” Arthur said, “It is supposed to be a thriving and bustling castle, so where is everybody? And the whole place looks like a ruin.”
At that moment the door opened and the woman that had greeted them earlier entered, a jug in hand. Behind her shuffled an old man, bearing a tray laden with steaming bowls and empty plates. “Please forgive me for my absence,” she said, “but I thought you might like some nourishment, so I made you a stew.” The man put the bowls and plates on the table, then disappeared again.
“Please, eat and afterwards I will tell you the sad story of why Tintagel is in such a state. So, please eat, for you surely must be hungry and thirsty,” and with these words she left the hall.
Everybody filled their plates and started to eat the watery stew, chewing the stringy pieces of meat and overcooked vegetables. Galahad looked at it with disdain and put his bowl aside. “I’m not eating that, it’s not even fit for a pig,” he said.
“You’re not eating that?” Percival asked and without waiting for an answer he took Galahad’s bowl and wolfed it down in no time.
Arthur ate another spoonful and suddenly he remembered that, years ago, during a famine in Camelot, he had eaten a stew that had tasted exactly the same. A stew Merlin had made, a stew with cooked rat in it. He winched, but forced himself to eat. No need to tell the others. This could very well be the only food they got here, and a stomach full of rat is far better than a stomach full of nothing.
Not long afterwards the man came back, collected the bowls and plates and left, never saying a word, nor reacting to the knights’ questions.
“Please, kind Sirs, we have prepared a room for you so you may get some sleep. It is not much, but the straw is fresh and fragrant, and the blankets are warm and clean.” The woman stood by the door, beckoning. “Please, Arthur King of Camelot, please stay a while for I have a tale to tell, a tale for your ears alone,” she said softly, and a sad note crept into her voice. Arthur nodded. “And you, Merlin, you may sleep safely tonight, there will be no dreams to disturb you this night, as they have disturbed you so many nights now. As for you, venerable Gaius, do not fear, and rest your weary bones in peaceful slumber.”
They stood there, confused and uneasy at hearing these words, and all thought the same: why does this woman know these things, how does she know them. Slowly they walked into the dimly lit corridor, an uncomfortable feeling in their gut for leaving Arthur alone with her. “Sleep well,” Arthur said, “I’ll join you in a minute.”
“Sire,” they said and left the hall, and at the end of the corridor a door opened and they saw a few simple beds and flickering candles.
“Wait for me,” Galahad said impatiently as he followed the others, took a few steps and suddenly he found himself all alone.
“Do you know how you were born?” the woman asked without preamble the moment she and Arthur were alone.
Arthur looked at her, a puzzled look on his face. “Do I know your name?” he answered back.
“My name is Celise,” she said, “but my name is of no consequence. Please sit and answer my question, however strange it may sound to you. Do you know how you were born?”
“My mother died in childbirth, that is all I know,” Arthur said, not quite knowing how to react, and he felt a pang of sorrow in his heart. “That is all I know,” he added, whispering now.
“But you did see her some years ago, didn’t you, and she told you things of the past.”
“But now it is time to tell you the real story, Arthur, for this quest may be about Merlin, it is also about you. You see, I was expecting you. No, please do not talk now,” Celise said as Arthur opened his mouth, “please hear me out. This place, this beautiful castle of Tintagel, is cursed, and has been cursed from the day you were born. People started dying, walls collapsed, all around us crops failed and the sea turned the water in our wells to salt. Only a few of us remain now, and we must do so until the curse is finally lifted.”
“And I am the one to lift that curse?” Arthur’s voice was almost inaudible now.
“In a way, yes, although it may take days, years or not at all, that, alas, is not in my hands.”
“What must I do to lift this curse?”
“That I cannot tell you, for you must listen to your heart to find that answer. Please, do not talk of this now, for I must finish my tale first. One day you will know what to do. You, Arthur Pendragon, you are a creature of magic.”
At this point Arthur could no longer restrain himself. He jumped from the chair and shouted, “What? How? I…” He felt hot and cold now, and utterly confused. “I am not made of magic!”
Celise put her slender fingers on Arthur’s forehead and slowly he calmed down. “I am not made of magic” A whisper now, saturated with incredulity as he sat down again.
“You, Arthur Pendragon, you are a creature of magic, for know that your mother, Ygraine, was barren, unable to conceive a child. She was inconsolable when she found out, and Uther could not bear to see his beloved wife slowly wasting away with grief, so he made a decision. He sent Gaius to the sorceress Nimueh, begging her to help them.”
Arthur was stunned now, every word Celise uttered felt like a punch, battering his body and his soul. Gaius, Nimueh… He wanted her to stop, he wanted to block his ears, flee Tintagel, but he had to listen, but he also wanted to know, needed to know. I am a creature of magic.
“Not long afterwards Ygraine was with child, for Nimueh had created a life in her womb, and both Ygraine and Uther were filled with joy. A great banquet was held, and a tourney, and finally the day came when you were born, here, in this very castle. But Nimueh had not told them of the price they had to pay, for to create a life, another must be taken, and so the moment you were born, Ygraine died.”
Arthur’s face was ashen now, his mind in turmoil. He had heard all the words Celise had told him, but they did not register. Not yet. He felt cold, so terribly cold. He looked at his white hands, unable to move them. His clothes were soaked with sweat, cold and clammy. Magic, I am a creature of magic. Magic is evil. I am evil. Magic killed my mother, and magic killed my father. I killed my mother. He could not think straight anymore, his mind a giant maelstrom of images. He heard Celise’s voice in the distance, and somehow he understood what she was saying. Nimueh was banished from Camelot and Uther began the Great Purge, killing anything and anyone magical. I am to blame, he thought, I am to blame for this purge, I killed all those druids and warlocks and sorcerers, I have brought death and suffering to Camelot. How can I still live like this? I am no King of Camelot, I am Camelot’s bane. I am the curse that needs lifting.
“And now Ygraine’s spirit still dwells within these walls, unable to rest until the curse is lifted and you, Arthur Pendragon, are destined to achieve this. Only then will Ygraine, your mother, find rest and will Tintagel prosper once more. You will know what to do, the answer is there, in your heart, and one day you will see it, we can only hope that day is not long in coming.” She fell silent now and bowed her head. “Rest now, Arthur Pendragon King of Camelot,” she said softly and touched his forehead once more. Arthur’s eyes closed and his breathing became more regular. She smiled a sad smile, yet there was hope in her eyes. The next moment she was gone.
One moment Galahad was following Leon and Gwaine in the corridor, the next moment he was all alone, standing in a bare room. No furniture, no tapestries, no candles, not even a slit in the wall to let in some light. “Mordred,” he shouted, “Percival, where are you?” With all his might he tried to open the heavy door, but he found it locked. He pounded on the door, but no answer came. “Come on, open this door at once! This is not funny. LET ME OUT!” he shouted at the top of his voice, and once more gave the door a beating until his knuckles bled, but it remained firmly locked. His stomach started rumbling now, and his throat was dry. I should have eaten something, he mumbled softly to himself, even that inedible pig feed would be welcome now.
“Have you noticed that there is light in this room even though there is not one slit, not even a crack, in the walls? Remarkable, isn’t it.”
Galahad’s eyes flew open and his hand went to his sword.
“I’m terribly sorry, did I wake you?”
Sword in hand, Galahad looked around, furious at himself for not noticing someone entering the chamber. “Show yourself,” he demanded. He stood with his back to the wall now, eyes darting to and fro, but he saw no-one. “Who are you, show yourself this instant!”
“These youths of today, they never seem to have heard of the word ‘please’, let alone utter it once in a while.”
Galahad was feeling scared now, but he kept telling himself: this is just a joke Leon and Gwaine and Percival are having at my expense. They are laughing their heads off now, for sure, well, I’m not giving them the satisfaction of appearing afraid.
A creature suddenly stepped into view and Galahad gasped, almost dropping his sword. “What are you,” he whispered hoarsely, cold sweat on his brow, his throat dry as hot sand, for there stood a creature surely not from this world, a creature of magic, bluish white it was, and all over his body he had spines like a porcupine. It smiled at him, a terrible and creepy smile. Galahad tried to speak, but no sound escaped his lips as he was mesmerized by the creature’s pitch-black eyes, ringed with red tissue. This no longer was a joke, this was real, or he was having a very bad nightmare.
“So you’re the one Merlin is relying on for his recovery. Any luck so far? Or are you too busy being an obnoxious prat and admiring yourself in the looking glass?.”
“Gwaine, Leon!” Galahad was shouting now as he desperately tried to open the door, “Percival!”
“Oh, they can’t hear you, you’re not really here you know. Well, in a sense you are here, but not… Forget it, you wouldn’t understand.”
“Who are you.” Galahad gripped his sword even more tightly now, its sharp point directed at the creature’s chest, “What are you.”
“Good question, I think you may call me Airy for now. That’s as good a name as any for a Spirit of the Air.”
Galahad nodded as he slowly sank to the floor, unable to stand any longer, his sword fell from his hand and it clattered loudly on the cold flagstones.
“Afraid, are we now, afraid as we’ve always been. Always afraid and hiding it behind that overbearing mask you’ve created, that impregnable wall so nobody can touch you anymore, and you’re doing everything you can to keep everyone at a distance, never helping, never caring. Oh, I know why, and you know it too, don’t you? Don’t look so startled, I simply know things. And now you’ve got to help someone. Someone you don’t even care about -do you even know his name? It’s Merlin by the way-, all you care about is you. Look at you, the high-and-mighty Galahad, look at you now: lying on the floor, crying like a newborn babe.”
Galahad said nothing, he sat slumped on the floor, afraid to meet the spirit’s penetrating gaze. He knew the spirit was right, he was hiding, he was afraid to show the world the real Galahad. And he also wanted desperately to become a Knight of Camelot, so his father Lancelot would be proud of him, even though he was long since dead. Nothing could stop him achieving that goal, and everything he did, everyone he met, it was nothing but a means to reach that coveted knighthood. He didn’t care about that boy he was supposed to save, he was just a stepping stone for the greater glory of himself.
“Are you going to say anything?”
Galahad blinked, fighting back tears.
“Then let me tell you something,” the spirit continued, “before this night has passed, you will be asked to do something. Fail, and Merlin dies. Fail, and Camelot will fall. But you can only achieve this if you truly believe you’re doing the right thing, for then, and only then, will you succeed. If not… well, you know the consequences. And before I forget, Galahad, try not to cheat, don’t do things simply because you are told to do so, for I will know…”
Galahad didn’t know for how long he had been lying on the floor. It was pitch-dark now, and he felt cold and stiff all over. “Hello,” he shouted, but the only sound he heard was his own, echoing off the walls. He tried to stand up, get some circulation back into his legs and arms and he winched at the pain of thousands of needles being stabbed in his limbs. He felt for the door and with all his might tried to open it again, but to no avail. It remained firmly shut. Galahad started to sob now, as he finally understood he was utterly alone now. Leon, Percival, they had all abandoned him, no-one was looking for him. Were they even missing him? The more he thought, the more depressed he became. “I’m sorry, father, I’m sorry I’ve been a disappointment to you. For all my life I strove to become a Knight of Camelot, just like you, and now I’m here in this dungeon, left to rot. All I ever wanted was to be the best, the bravest, to be respected.” He sat on the floor again, knees drawn to his chin. “And how am I supposed to do this… thing, being locked up in here!” he suddenly shouted. He was looking for something to throw, and suddenly his fingers felt an oddly-shaped stone. Galahad didn’t remember it being there, but he picked it up and the stone started to glow with an inner light, growing brighter and brighter. He let it fall, afraid of burning his fingers, afraid of the magical light. The stone remained glowing brightly and the whole room had a feel of being moonlit. Galahad looked at it, afraid to touch it again, afraid it might suddenly come to life, but it just lay there, glowing with that eerie inner light.
An gebyrt of twegan dead
Infindan stan, rudu gelice blod
Hæle ofeslæp belute wiðinnan
“Who said that,” Galahad exclaimed, looking wildly around him, “show yourself!”
“Do you know what is means?” came the voice of the spirit.
“No, yes… I…I… don’t know!”
“Yes or no, no or yes, make up your mind, Galahad. Look at the stone.”
Galahad obediently did so, but he saw nothing.
“Don’t stare at it, LOOK at it, into it. Believe in it!”
“Just tell me what you want with me and stop playing games. I can’t take much more of this, please, stop tormenting me like this.” There came no answer. Galahad’s eyes darted to the stone, afraid of what he might see. Nothing but swirling strands of light, glowing like mother-of-pearl. Mesmerized he stared at it, unable to avert his gaze. “Do you see it now,” a voice sounded in his head, and suddenly Galahad saw words appearing: a stone red as blood will cure the sleeping spell. “But how…” he mumbled, “No, this stone is not red, I must find another,” but there was none to be seen. His eyes searched the walls, the floor, the ceiling, but no red stone was to be found. He sat down again, rubbed his eyes, pinched the bridge of his nose. He suddenly felt so tired, so worn out, so utterly helpless. “I’m sorry, Merlin, I’m so terribly sorry,” he sobbed, “I want to help, but I can’t,” and he could no longer keep his eyes open. He slid to the floor and fell asleep.
The stone was there, that ominous white object on the black marble floor. Galahad looked at it, sword in hand. He saw flashes on its surface, burning houses, screaming people, Merlin with a face contorted in a soundless scream. He saw himself as a young boy, playing with a wooden sword, defeating his father Lancelot in a mock fight. He was laughing and screaming with pleasure as Lancelot took him in his arms and threw him in the air. He saw images of his friends and then everything changed; he saw walls erected between him and his friends and everyone he knew, he heard doors shutting, and echo after echo washed over him, until the sound became unbearable. I must prove I’m a man, a man worthy of Camelot, he heard himself say before a heavy iron door closed and he could no longer see himself in the stone. He blinked and the stone was white again, as if nothing had happened, but suddenly a drop fell on its surface, a drop red as blood. Another drop fell and another, until the stone was completely red, and still the drops fell. He saw it now, they were coming from the tip of his sword, but how could that be? He lifted the sword and felt a stinging sensation in his left hand. He looked at it and noticed he had sliced his little finger and with morbid fascination he continued to watch the slow trickle of blood coming from it. The stone pulsated now, like it was alive. Slowly he raised his hand, trying to stop the bleeding. Rudu gelice blod. Red like blood.
With a jolt he sat upright and immediately he looked at his hand. Nothing. He tried to calm himself, trying to dispel that awful dream from his mind, but it would not go away.
For a long time he sat there contemplating, looking at the stone, at his sword, at his hand. Could that be the answer? Without hesitation he sliced open his little finger and let the blood flow freely onto the stone. “For you, Merlin, I give this freely and gladly for you,” he whispered, and slowly the stone turned red.
“Wonderful, well done!” came the voice of the spirit, but Galahad didn’t care. He felt elated, proud, and he felt a strange sense of humility, something he has not felt in a very long time.
“Quests are such wondrous things, aren’t they? Everybody here seems to have one, and you have fulfilled your own quest this very day. Now, go and give this stone to Merlin, come on, don’t dally now,” and he indicated to a figure in the corner of the room, a man with an unruly mob of black hair, clad in a red tunic. Galahad looked nonplussed, surely he wasn’t there before? Merlin awoke and stared at Galahad. He looked as bewildered as Galahad. For a brief moment both men stood there, looking at each other, not quite knowing what to do. Then Galahad carefully took the stone in both hands and walked over to Merlin. “A blood-red stone to cure the sleep within,” Merlin said, as he took the stone into his own hands and he instantly crashed to the floor, eyes rolled in his head until they showed only the whites, he started foaming at the mouth and then he lay still, the stone clutched in his lifeless hands.
“Merlin!” Galahad shouted, as he looked with horror at Merlin’s ashen face, devoid of any colour, “Merlin, wake up! Don’t die, you can’t die now, we need you, I need you!” and he cradled Merlin’s head in his arms, sobbing uncontrollably now, and shouting with a cracked voice: “Why, spirit, why did you do this to me! You gave the stone to me, you made me kill Merlin!” He touched Merlin’s ice-cold hand, and said in an almost inaudible voice: “I killed Merlin.”
Brimful of sorrow and dismay…
Nobody saw the black-clad man on that dark and moonless night as he slipped without a noise through the postern gate of the castle of king Peredur. A horse was already waiting for him, its hooves were swathed with cloth, in order to ride as stealthily as possible, so they would not alarm the guards. At a safe distance from the castle he removed the cloth from the horses’ hoofs and rode with great haste to Camelot, this spy of king Arthur, and to tell the king of the many hundreds of knights and soldiers king Peredur had assembled, for he wanted nothing more than to take over the throne of Camelot. Even the farmers and day-labourers, no matter how old or how young, armed with their own pitchforks and flails, were forced to supplement king Peredur’s army; and the millers and bakers were ordered to give all their flour and bread to the king’s kitchens, and the blacksmiths were not allowed to forge anything but swords and battle-axes. “King Peredur has surely gone mad,” the citizens thought, “he cares nothing for us anymore, soon we will all die of starvation,” but they were afraid to voice their qualms, lest king Peredur would hear of it and throw them in the dungeons or perhaps even hang them.
And then, one fateful morning, not long after the spy had fled king Peredur’s castle, the whole army began their slow march towards Camelot.
Around the same time an unruly mob of soldiers, labourors and rabble of all sorts left king Maleagant’s castle, armed with a great variety of weapons and sharpened farming tools. Some said Maleagant was possessed by an evil spirit, others blamed his untrustworthy counselors, for all Maleagant could talk about was conquering Camelot, his rightful place, as he claimed to all who would hear it. No one knew where this delusion so suddenly came from, and most of them really didn’t care, eager as they were for war and the prospect of rich spoils, for Camelot must surely be very rich indeed, they thought.
And so this disorganized and undisciplined kludge plodded along, yelling and cheering, to Camelot and to victory.
He didn’t know for how long he had sat there, cradling Merlin’s head, and feeling his pulse over and over again, but every time there was nothing, not one single heartbeat, however feeble. He was almost beside himself, the thought of him having killed Merlin was too much to bear. “I didn’t want this,” he sobbed, “I thought I was doing the right thing, all I wanted to do was to help you.” He didn’t know what to do anymore, how could he face Arthur, how could he tell he murdered his servant, his friend. He thought about running away, running and running until he could run no more; and forever living in fear, fear of being found and killed or worse, forever living with the knowledge of being a murderer and a coward. How could he face Leon and Gwaine, Percival or Mordred, they would be furious, devastated and they would probably banishing him from Camelot forever, or simply kill him where he stood. And all that time Merlin lay there, the stone clutched firmly in his cold, white hand. Galahad felt so alone now, so utterly alone and utterly desperate. A tear fell on the stone and to his amazement Galahad saw the stone turning white now, it became almost translucent. A part of his wanted desperately to pry that murderous stone from Merlin’s fingers, but he dared not, afraid he might die also.
Slowly the realization came that there was no escaping his fate. He must go to Arthur and tell him everything, he must bear the consequences of his actions. “Father, please forgive me, I have failed you,” he whispered, “I have tried to become a knight of Camelot, I have tried to live up to your expectations, and all I’ve done is kill an innocent man.” Galahad did not see the spirit standing in a corner behind him, a smile on his lips. “I’m so sorry, Merlin,” Galahad’s voice a barely audible whisper now, “I truly wanted to help, but the others were right, I’m a good-for-nothing, I’m useless.” He tried to stand up, but his legs felt so heavy. He slumped down again, unable to stay awake, and the spirit faded away, still smiling.
There is a storm raging in my head, I can see nothing but a swirling red mist. It is so cold that it hurts. Another storm is coming, a white one, and it is colliding with the red. There are horses now, all made of mist, red and white horses, and they are galloping towards each other and clashing and dissolving. The noise is deafening, splitting my skull, suffocating me. There are all kinds of shapes now, horses, wild boars, dragons destroying towers, and all of them red and white, all doing battle and they are all shouting at me to help them, to defeat the others. I don’t know what to do anymore, I must fight it, and now I feel magic surging through my every fibre, red and white magic, powerful magic, talking to me, pleading, pulling me in every direction. I don’t want to fight, I just want to be left alone! Fireballs are exploding, spells are shouting, words are coming alive. I see Arthur, laughing, and Galahad, smirking. Galahad is all red now, I grab him and he is starting to turn white. Every second I hold him feels like burning a hole in my soul, but still I hold on. Then he lays there, sobbing, drained of all colour. There’s a stone in Galahad’s hand, a blood-red stone. Do what you must do to survive, I hear someone shouting and I pick up the stone and then I see a white blur, it’s grabbing me in its hands and I feel another battle in my head, I see evil magic now and good magic battling it out while that white thing is holding me, shouting. Fight it, it says, fight it or die and so I fight but what is it I’m fighting? I see that blood-red stone flying towards me and it shatters right in front of me, showering me with razor-sharp white shards and suddenly I find myself in a white room, at least I think it is a room, but it’s more like there’s clouds all around me, thick white clouds. Then I see him standing there, the Spirit I once met in that forgotten room in the archives, the one who gave me that scroll, the one who looks just like me. He is smiling broadly now, this spirit. The noise is gone, the silence is deafening.
“Welcome, my dear Emrys, welcome. So we do meet again! How time flies! And there has been a most wondrous event! Young Galahad actually sacrificed something in order to save you. He has played his part well. By giving his blood, and his compassion, to the stone, you were finally able to conquer that evil magic within you, and releasing all your true power at the same time. That sleeping-spell could only be eliminated with the unselfishness of another soul, and Galahad’s destiny was to be that soul.” His eyes now had a dreamy far-away look. “Destinies, young warlock, destinies are curious things and not all is clear. Arthur’s destiny is to become the greatest ruler Albion has ever known, and that destiny will be fulfilled as it is your destiny to protect Arthur even if it means your death and oh, don’t look so alarmed, you are not dead yet. I think. It is also written Arthur will die by a druid’s hand, and that hand could very well be Mordred’s, but it could be yours also, Emrys. Did Kilgharrah not tell you to kill Mordred, for he will be Arthur’s downfall? But you chose not to, didn’t you Emrys, and in doing so, are you therefore not Arthur’s murderer should Mordred be the one to kill him one day? But on the other hand, it could be someone we don’t even know, someone who isn’t even born yet. But enough of this gloomy talk, and let us turn our attention to more joyous matters, for, my dear Emrys, you have finally unlocked all that ancient magic within you and you are going to need it, for terrible events are about to happen. Be ready, young warlock, be ready… Sorry, gloomy talk again. Do you remember, of course you do, how could you forget, the first time we met, you said I looked like you, but it is a bit more than that, for I truly am you, I am the magic you unlocked…” and with these words the spirit started to fade, and wispy tendrils of a white, iridescent fog reached out to Merlin, touching him, absorbing into his very body. Suddenly Merlin felt a sharp and piercing pain in his head. He no longer could see anything, everything was white, one blinding flash of white light and then it was over.
“Galahad, where are you? Oh, there you are. We lost you there for a moment there. Why are you sitting alone in that room? Feeling too proud, too high-and-mighty to be seen sleeping with us?”
Galahad looked up and saw Gwaine’s face hovering above him. He opened his mouth to explain, but no sound escaped his lips. Quickly his eyes scanned the room, looking for Merlin, but he was not there anymore. And the door, it was suddenly open now. He must have been dreaming for sure. How did I get here?
“Look, you guys, our Galahad’s just crashed here, preferring to sleep alone on the cold floor instead of sharing a room with us. You really disgust me, Galahad,” and with these words Gwaine walked away, leaving a bewildered Galahad behind.
“Nice dreams,” Percival said, without bothering to stop or even to look at him.
“He was here, Merlin, he was here,” Galahad stammered, trying to stand up and he felt a sudden sharp pain in his little finger. With incredulity he looked at it, finding half his finger gone.
“No, Galahad, Merlin is already fast asleep, he was never here, he never left the Great Hall. We left him there just seconds ago, sleeping,” Leon answered sharply, “And don’t touch the mead again, you’re obviously hallucinating.”
“But….” Galahad tried to explain, but Leon too was gone. “What’s happening to me, I wasn’t hallucinating, I saw him, I saw Merlin, I killed him…” he said, and suddenly he remembered his maimed finger. Half of it was indeed gone, the wound already scabbing over. I did slice my finger to draw blood, he thought, but it was only a minor scratch. “Merlin,” he almost shouted, remembering Leon’s words, and he ran to the Great Hall, his finger forgotten. There, sprawled in a chair, was Merlin. With a trembling hand Galahad felt Merlin’s pulse and a great relief washed over him, there was a steady heartbeat. “You’re not dead,” he whispered.
“And why would he be dead?” Arthur said as he emerged from the shadows.
“Sire, I… I…” Galahad stammered, trembling.
With one quick motion unsheathed Arthur his sword and its sharp point touched Galahad’s throat. “Why would Merlin be dead?” Arthur asked again, his voice soft, yet ice-cold.
“Please Sire, please let me explain,” he faltered, “I only wanted to save him, it wasn’t my fault, I had a dream, I thought,… please Sire, don’t kill me.”
“Sit,” Arthur commanded, leaving his sword on Galahad’s throat. Galahad walked slowly to the chair and sat down. Only then did Arthur lower his sword. “Talk.”
And, with a lot of sobbing, faltering and stammering, did Galahad tell his story. Arthur remained silent. “Go and join the others in the sleeping quarters. We will talk about this in the morning,” he said after a while.
When Galahad had gone, Arthur closed the door and walked over to Merlin. His breathing was regular, and Arthur thought Merlin’s face looked calmer, more at ease. “Merlin,” he whispered, “Merlin, are you awake?”
“You just can’t let me sleep in peace, can you,” came the sleepy voice of Merlin.
“No, I just don’t want you sleeping in a chair, so you can complain the whole day tomorrow how sore your poor muscles are and can’t do any work, provided you actually have muscles.”
Merlin kept silent, a look of bewilderment on his face.
“What, are you actually, for the first time in years, at a loss for words?”
Merlin looked at Arthur and said: “I feel fine, Arthur, I actually feel fine. I actually feel awake for the first time in weeks.”
At hearing these words Arthur wanted to shout for joy, but instead he said: “That’s nice to hear, Merlin, that means you can actually start polishing my armour properly now?”
“Yes, YES,” Merlin was absolutely beaming now. “It worked! That stone did heal me, I’m sure of it!” He did not tell Arthur about his dream, about the ancient magic he now so strongly felt, about the spirit.
“So Galahad was successful,” Arthur asked thoughtfully, “he really was the key to your recovery?”
Merlin nodded, smiling broadly.
“I’d better talk to him then,” and Arthur almost ran to the sleeping quarters and shouted: “Galahad, I want to talk to you. Now!” and he turned on his heels, followed by a terrified Galahad.
“Justice at last,” mumbled a half-asleep Percival, before falling asleep again.
Galahad stood there with his head bowed, eyes firmly locked on the toes of his boots. His heart was beating like mad in his dry throat, the palms of his hands were slick with sweat.
“Merlin told me he feels fine now, like he’s cured. You were supposed to be the key to his recovery, and it looks like you’ve succeeded. I just wanted you to know this. Tomorrow morning I will ask Gaius’ opinion. If Merlin is indeed free of the sleeping-spell, I will honour my promise regarding a knighthood. If, however, Merlin is still under some enchantment, you will be banished from Camelot forever, quest or no quest.”
“Yes, Sire,” Galahad whispered, barely audible.
Without another word Arthur left the hall.
“Merlin has made a truly remarkable recovery, Sire,” said Gaius the next morning. He and Merlin already had a long talk beforehand, and Merlin had finally been able to tell the whole story to an overjoyed Gaius. “The sleeping enchantment is no longer there.”
Arthur and the knights cheered like mad at this most wonderful news.
“Galahad, come here,” Arthur commanded as he drew his sword. Galahad did so and fell on one knee before Arthur, head bowed. Arthur touched his sword on both his shoulders and solemnly said: “Arise, Sir Galahad, Knight of Camelot!”
“Thank you, Sire,” he said softly. Then he turned to the knights, who were standing there, saying nothing, nor smiling or cheering, and said: “I know I’ve been an insufferable person, and I can’t ask of you to be glad of this great honour bestowed upon me, but I know I can change, must change. Please, give me that chance, give me the chance to become a valued Knight of Camelot, a worthy son of the great Lancelot.”
Still the knights kept silent, then Gwaine said: “Very well, I am willing to give you a chance, but only because you were instrumental in healing Merlin.”
“Same here,” Percival said. Mordred and Leon merely nodded.
“That’s settled then,” Arthur said, “either you become accepted by the knights or not, and if not, there is no place for you in Camelot.”
“And remember,” Gwaine added, “earning our respect and your place among us will not be easy. For me, you’re not Lancelot’s son, far from it, you’re nothing but a stranger, and a yokel and lout to boot.” The rest nodded, thinking exactly the same.
“Thank you,” answered a now humble Galahad, determined more than ever to become a knight and do his father Lancelot proud.
“This is very serious indeed,” said Gwen after the spy had told his story. He stood there in the Council Chambers, panting heavily and still dirty from the long ride. Gladly he took the beaker of cool water from Cerdic’s hands and drank it all in one go.
For a short while Gwen was silent, thinking over the implications of what she just heard. Camelot was in grave danger, and something must be done quickly. “How many men can we assemble?” she asked her trusted advisors.
“A few hundred knights at the most,” said Sir Algovale.
“And of course all the men in the kingdom who are fit to fight,” said Sir Kay, “I’m sure they are willing to defend their land and families.”
“Yes,” chimed in Sir Bors the Younger, “and how about our allies of the neighbouring kingdoms? I think they will gladly give aid, for if Camelot falls, they are sure to follow.”
The door opened and Osgar, Master of the Maps, came in. He spread a giant map made of several sheets of vellum on the table. “My Queen, Sirs, the map you requested,” and he withdrew.
“First get Doran in here. I want him to go to Tintagel as quickly as possible and get Arthur here.”
“My Queen, If I may make a suggestion,” answered Sir Kay, his gaze still firmly fixed on the map, “I don’t think that will be necessary. I think it might be better to get Arthur to meet us here,” indicting a spot on the map.
“Yes,” said Sir Bors the Younger, “good idea. Maleagant and Peredur, these two are the only ones rebelling against Camelot? As I said, they will want to go through here, and so march together to Camelot.”
“Yes, as far as we know, there are no more kings plotting against us, but that may very well change of course.”
“So, if we can get our army here,” and Sir Algovale pointed at a piece of land, surrounded by a river and marshes, “we stand a good chance of winning.”
And so it was agreed. Doran was sent to Tintagel with precise instructions, and the Knights started preparing for war. They all hoped it would be a short and victorious one. And all the while Cerdic stood there, listening.
“Mistress Macha, there was a spy amongst king Maleagant’s household, and now the knights are preparing for war already. Camelot will be deserted for sure and can easily be taken. Only the women and children are here, and those too old and feeble to fight. I don’t know where the knights will put their camp, I could not see the map clearly, but I tried, really I tried, and a messenger has gone to get Arthur. Will you be queen of Camelot now, mistress Macha? Please don’t forget your loyal servant Cerdic.” Slowly Cerdic put the statue down, for Macha had severed the connection. He smiled, thinking he would be handsomely rewarded for all he had done.
Macha, in her cave, burst out in a loud and scornful laughter. Finally, she thought, finally the chance to take Camelot and to eliminate all the Pendragons! No more fooling around with nonsense like a poisoned mail shirt of a useless sleeping spell. Now she had the armies of two mighty kingdoms at her disposal, and they will crush Camelot’s army without any trouble whatsoever. Still she had a firm mental hold on both kings, they would do anything she told them to. “Do you hear, Morgana? We are about to conquer Camelot and then I will be queen!” Her laughter now sounded like a whole pack of harpies all screaming at once. “Queen at last! Free at last! Oh, your body will serve me well, everybody will think Morgana is on the throne, poor, little, evil Morgana! Did you really think I would let you go? Never, my dear Morgana, never! With your body, I can go where I please and escape this prison once and for all!” With another horrible laugh she merged with Morgana, ready to go to the battle-field and wallow in Arthur’s, and Camelot’s, utter defeat.
It was late in the afternoon when Arthur and the knights arrived at the campsite. An exhausted Doran had told Arthur everything and without delay they had rode to here, the plains near the Hill of Badon. There was a huge river and marshes, effectively defending the camp from that side, as the river could not be forded there, and the marshes were treacherous; and there were rolling meadows, dense copse and trees on all the other sides, giving the knights and soldiers plenty of room to fight and to lay in ambush. The camp was a beehive of activity; cooking fires were everywhere, filling the air with the smell of wood-smoke and roasting meat. Knights and soldiers alike were sharpening their swords and axes, mending their mail shirts and greasing the leather straps of their armour; and their squires were busy tending the horses and running errands.
Hundreds of tents and brightly-coloured pavilions were set up, dozens of pennants were fluttering in the breeze, a proud golden dragon on a field of red. In the centre stood Arthur’s pavilion, big enough to hold at least twenty men. A round table stood in the middle, strewn with maps.
“Welcome Sire,” said Sir Owain, and he held open the flap so Arthur and the knights could enter. Arthur nodded, threw off his cape and walked to the table.
“What’s the situation?” he asked, looking at the maps.
“The army of Maleagant is now here,” Owain said, indicating an area a few miles from the camp, “and Peredur is around here.”
They all looked at the map, and then Mordred said: “This land here is rather marshy, can we lure them to there somehow?”
“Good idea,” Arthur said, thinking it over, moving some wooden pieces over the map.
“We can take a small amount of soldiers to here,” Leon indicated, “and create a diversion, forcing Peredur to advance to here…” he added, and moved some other pieces on the map.
“”Leaving this open for Maleagant to take advantage of the gap, and he will, I’m sure of that, where we will have a large force hidden,” said Gwaine.
Arthur nodded, deep in thought. If they were to succeed, they must rely on the element of surprise, that much everybody understood all too well. They were outnumbered two to one at least. “Tonight, get half of the archers to this spot here. They will be well hidden until they start firing, and when Peredur wants to retreat or even advance, there will be knights on horseback here and here.”
If I were him, I would go to here,” said Arthur, stabbing on the map, “The trick is, get them as close to the marshes as we can.”
That night, under the cloak of darkness, hundreds of archers stealthily left the camp and took up their positions in the woods, hidden from prying eyes. Percival rode with a small group of soldiers to the enemy camp, making as much noise as possible and aimlessly shooting burning arrows, thus creating a diversion so a large group of Camelot’s knights could leave Arthur’s camp undetected.
The next morning horns sounded, piercing through the quiet morning air. The battle was about to begin.
From The History of the Kings of Camelot by Geoffrey of Monmouth:
And there was fierce fighting that day, and the air was heavy with the clanging of swords and splintering of lances and the groaning of men and horse alike.
And there King Arthur fought wondrously; he struck down all he met in his path, and no one got away unharmed. He fought so well that none dared face up to him, for no iron or steel, no matter how strong, could withstand his blows. And on that day there fell 940 men by Arthur’s hand alone, and no one struck them down but Arthur himself. And when the enemy saw him coming, they turned in flight, for they did not dare face up to him.
And there was Percival, swinging his sword which he held two-handed, hewing through helm and coif and splitting the enemy down to his teeth.
And there was Gwaine, striking this way and that, with his mighty sword drawn, fighting as fiercely as he were a wild boar.
And there was Leon, hitting the enemy so hard on the helm that he knocked off a big piece and sent it flying, and the enemy fell down in a faint.
And there was Galahad, striking the enemy with his lance, and brought horses and riders down in a heap.
And there was Mordred, fighting side by side with King Arthur, and his sword clove helm and mail and bone and all who saw him fled in fear.
“We’re gaining ground, Sire,” shouted Gwaine hoarsely, his armour splattered with blood, some of it his own, trying to make himself heard above the terrible din of the battlefield. The grass was red and sticky from spilled blood from knights and enemy alike, the air heavy with a cloying stench; and there were flies everywhere, buzzing ceaselessly.
They saw the remnants of the armies of king Maleagant and king Peredur slowly but surely retreating, and the Knights of Camelot started to fight with renewed vigour, driving the enemy further and further into the treacherous marshes.
Then, from the corner of his eye, Mordred saw a Saxon warrior from Maleagant’s army running towards Arthur, a short but lethal sword held high above his head, ready to slay the king. Quickly Mordred turned on his heels to block that fatal blow, and in doing so his own outstretched sword sliced through Arthur’s mail shirt, gambeson and body, thus grievously wounding the king.
It was as time itself came to a standstill. Merlin saw Arthur bleeding profusely, and every drop seemed to hover in the air before slowly falling to the ground, each fallen drop sounded like thunder in Merlin’s ears. He saw Mordred, bloodied sword in hand, mouth open in a soundless scream, eyes full of disbelieve and horror and his sword fell ever so slowly from his hand.
Arthur shall die by a Druid’s hand. Merlin relived his dream again, vividly and in every detail, his dream in which Arthur was killed by Mordred. He saw himself lifting Arthur’s dying body again and he felt the enormous grief he had felt in his dream over and over again.
Time crawled and Merlin saw Arthur fall, saw the death in his eyes, saw his face contorted with pain. The whole world now had stopped, birds hung motionless in the air, horses stood unmoving and still Arthur kept falling. Then it was all over.
“Nooooo…,” yelled Mordred. Merlin stood stock-still for a brief moment before he came to his senses and started running towards Arthur. Both he and Mordred knelt by the fallen king. Blood spurted from his gaping wound, his face had turned ashen, his breath came in ragged gulps. Tears streamed from Mordred’s eyes as he tried to staunch the wound and stop the bleeding.
“We must use our magic,” he whispered, but Arthur could no longer hear them, for he had fainted. Mordred cast a powerful healing spell, whispering lest Arthur should awaken and hear him. The blood started to flow more slowly and Mordred heaved a deep sigh of immense relief. Merlin too cast a spell, his eyes golden: “Licsar ge staðol nu”, he whispered, and there was a mere trickle of blood now, the wound had almost completely closed, but Arthur had lost so much blood, too much blood; and there was no way of knowing how much damage there was to his intestines.
“We must get Arthur to his pavilion as quickly as possible,” Merlin said, “there he can be examined properly. Gaius will see to that.”
But before Mordred could answer, a loud thunderclap sounded, splitting the very air, frightening both men and horse alike.
“Hello boys,” sounded a mocking voice and Morgana appeared as from nowhere, a sardonic smile playing on her cruel lips, “having fun?”
(my thanks to the Arthurian Vulgate, volume 2: Merlin, and the Historia Brittonum for the inspiration for Geoffrey’s account of the battle)
For the final chapter, please see new post.
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For the love of Camelot!