Merlin, the Wild Man of the Woods, had a dream one night. He dreamt of apple-trees and he saw one in blossom, but that could not be, for it was not the right season. Dark red those blossoms were and flecked with gold, and they were growing and growing and suddenly he was a little stamen in the heart of a giant red-and-gold blossom and he heard his name: “Merlin”. He looked around but he saw nobody and again an impatient whisper: “Merlin!” Then those golden flecks began to grow and they were golden dragons now, golden dragons on a field of red and the voice whispered again, urgent now: “Merlin!!!”. The blossom started dissolving and Merlin felt himself falling and falling, forever falling and now he is lying in a boat, in a bed, in an orchard and he is hearing “MERLIN!!!” all around him, shouting, whispering, pleading and then silence.
He woke up screaming and drenched in sweat, but still he could hear it, the whispering. He slept no more that night.
But the dreams kept haunting him, and on that night, after Gaius had told his story and he slept in the cave again once more, lying on soft and fragrant leaves and ferns, he heard the voice again: “Merlin…”. The voice reverberated in his skull, getting louder and louder; What am I going to do with you Merlin. You had to open your mouth didn’t you Merlin. Don’t be such a girl Merlin. Describe dollop-head // in two words? // yes // Prince Arthur. And the pounding in his head became almost unbearable and then he saw a face, very vague it was, and yet very familiar, and the face smiled. Merlin’s eyes flew open, he sat straight up in bed and there stood a man eating an apple.
“You’re completely useless aren’t you Merlin, you must be the worst servant ever,” he said and took another bite, “How many times did I have to call you, but did you listen? No Merlin, you did not. As usual.”
“Arthur,” Merlin said, trying to get nearer to him, “Arthur, you’re back,” and a huge smile lit up his face.
“Almost. When you see the apple-tree in blossom, come and find me there.” With these words he started to fade. Merlin tried to say something, but Arthur had vanished completely.
And then Merlin remembered it all.
The next morning, at first sunlight, Merlin jumped from his pallet and exclaimed: “He’s coming back. Arthur’s coming back, Gaius.”
Gaius, still sleepy and only half awake, couldn’t believe what he was hearing. He sat there, stunned. “Merlin, you’re talking again,” he said, emotion creeping into his voice and a tear glistened on his cheek, but all he heard was Merlin’s voice, and not his words. He placed his hands on Merlin’s shoulders, beaming. “You’re talking again. What was it that you said?”
“I saw him. Arthur. He’s coming back.” And without another word or glance, Merlin hastened away, leaving a perplexed Gaius behind. You saw Arthur? Where? When? He shook his old head, Merlin must have been dreaming again, poor boy.
There, in a cave, on a bed made of pure gold, he motionless lay. Blond hair framed his waxen face and on his naked chest scars could be seen, scars from grievous wounds, wounds that had almost killed him. Nine women stood by the bed, the nine sisters they were.
“He is almost healed,” they chanted in unison, “he is almost there.” Their slender hands wove patterns in the air and their mouths mumbled spells of healing as they had done for many years now. They had seen the little boat as it floated towards the Isle of Avalon, a place of lakes and woods and lush meadows. They had seen Merlin standing by the shore. They had seen the tears on his face and the tears in his soul. Gently the nine sisters had taken the grievously wounded king from the boat and laid him on the golden bed, and without further ado they had started the healing, for the spirit of King Arthur had almost fled his body. And for many a day and many a night they chanted their spells, for they knew the prophesy of the king who one day must return.
“He is reaching out,” they said, “he is reaching out to his most loyal servant, his most loyal friend,” and never did their chanting waver. “He is getting stronger,” they said, “soon he will depart from here and rule Camelot once more,” and they sensed Arthur desperately reaching out to Merlin. They let their energy flow into Arthur so he may reach Merlin and tell him of his return. They closed their eyes and they saw Arthur and Merlin together.
The nine sisters then spoke as one through Arthur and said: “When you see the apple-tree in blossom, come and find me there”, for they knew when the apple-tree would be blossoming and they knew Arthur would at that very moment be completely healed again. Then they felt their strength fleeting and they withdrew. On the golden bed Arthur peacefully lay and his pale lips were starting to colour slightly red.
“Have you heard?” the man said as he came storming into the dimly lit tavern, “Have you heard?” and he breathlessly leaned over a table, “There’re coming!” He ran to another table. “There’re coming! We’re doomed! We’re doomed!”
“What are you talking about, Eadweard, calm down will you, who’s coming? The tax collectors?” Laughter erupted.
“No, even worse, the Saxons… the Saxons are coming. I heard them talking…”
“Who, the Saxons?” More laughter, but it was a nervous and tense laughter, for they all had heard the rumours of the Saxons marching north, of villages razed to the ground, crops burned and villagers killed; and they saw knights and soldiers exercising more than usual, but they choose to push it aside in their minds.
Eadweard took a tankard of ale and downed it in one gulp, shaking visibly now, but whether from fear of anger, that they could not tell.
“Calm down and sit down,” the patron said as he gave Eadweard another tankard of ale.
“There came knights in king Ban’s the castle, knights of Camelot, the last knights they say, well, that’s what I’ve heard from the cook who heard it from the bottler who heard it from---”
“Come on, Eadweard, we get the picture!”
“Camelot has fallen…” There was no laughter now, only deathly silence descended as his words sunk in.
“No, that can’t be,” one of the men said, “Camelot can never fall, it just can’t.”
“If Camelot has fallen, all is lost,” another one said gloomily.
“Are you sure?”
Eadweard nodded. “Yes. The Saxons are heading north, or so they say, and the knights of Camelot are trying to gather a huge army to retake Camelot, and drive the Saxons away, or so I’ve heard from the cook.”
The man sitting quietly in a dark corner slowly put down his tankard, for by the word “Camelot” his sunken and lifeless eyes had suddenly got a tiny spark of life. He wiped his hands on his faded, sleeveless red gambeson. “Camelot in danger?” he muttered, shaking his head. He stood up and grabbed Eadweard by his tunic, lifting him effortlessly off the floor. “Tell me more,” he said hoarsely, his faces mere inches from Eadweard’s, “what’s that about Camelot you’ve just said.”
“Please, master Percival, please put me down.” And Percival lowered him onto the floor, and he felt ashamed for treating Eadweard thus.
“I know no more, master Percival,” he said, smoothing his wrinkled tunic, “this all the cook told me, the Saxons have seized Camelot, and there are horrible things afoot if the Saxons come here.”
“And Gwen, queen Guinevere, what have you heard about her? Tell me, please tell me!”
“I don’t know, master Percival, but I heard the cook say that she is still alive. Locked up, but alive, but please, master Percival, I don’t know for certain, please believe me.”
“I believe you,” Percival muttered, and for a moment he was standing there like a man unsure of what to do next. “I must go to the caste, I must join that army.” He threw a few coins on the table to pay for his ale. “I must help save Camelot,” and with these words he ran from the tavern, towards the castle. For almost five years he had lived there, in this little village far from Camelot, wallowing in his misery, trying to forget Camlann, trying to forget Gwaine’s death, Arthur´s death, and failing miserably, for not a day went by without him thinking of that fateful and atrocious day. He slowed his pace, panting, for all those years of inactivity had made him weak, and he tired easily; and with great effort he finally reached the gate. “Percival, knight of Camelot, offers his services to the king,” he barked, banging with all his might on the heavy door. “Please, let me speak to king Ban!”
“You a knight?” the gatekeeper chuckled, for he knew the man who stood before the gate, a man who did nothing but drink all night and sleep all day, and who was never seen holding a sword, let alone using one. “Everyone can put on a red gambeson and claim they’re a knight of Camelot.”
“Open this gate right now,” Percival hollered, getting more and more angry, “I challenge you, sir, just give me a sword and you’ll find out soon enough that I’m a true knight!”
“Right,” the gatekeeper said, getting bored now, and he opened the little door in the gate, saying: “you may come in now.” And if you are a Knight of Camelot, the gatekeeper thought, those knights who are now conferring with King Ban will know you, if not, they will surely mock you and taunt you and chase you away, and you will be running back to the tavern where you belong. “You will be wanting to go to the Great Hall, where King Ban will hold audience, so please present yourself to the steward.”
“I know how it works,” Percival said curtly, and with great strides he traversed the courtyard, headed for the Great Hall. He did not hear the gatekeeper’s scornful laughter.
“Hello, my princess, how are you today?” came the grating voice of Maleagant, the words reverberating off the cold, stone walls. He halted right in front of Gwen’s little dungeon cell, lips curled in a sneering smile. “Lovely day today. Oh, wait, you can’t see that of course. How sad…,” and a opprobrious laughter followed his words. “I have a present for you…” He beckoned to one of the guards and opened the grille.
The guard threw something large and heavy into her cell and immediately the grille was closed again. “How about that, it almost looks like a knight. Have fun,” Maleagant said with a voice dripping with sarcasm, and his derisive laughter filled the dark corridor as he walked away. All the while Gwen had sat there, in a corner of her dungeon cell, not speaking nor reacting to Maleagant’s words, but haughtily looking at him, showing him she was not afraid, she was still the rightful queen of Camelot. As soon as the noise died down, and there were no more footsteps to be heard, she carefully took a few tentative steps to what must be a human being. “Hello,” she whispered, and involuntarily took a step back as the man, for it surely must be a man she thought, groaned softly. Gwen took a deep breath and tried again: “Hello. I’m Gwen.” The man groaned again, as if in great pain. Gwen knelt and touched his shoulder, for the man was lying face down on the floor. “My queen,” the man said with great difficulty, as he slowly turned his head. “It’s me.” Gwen took the bowl of water and moistened his cracked and bloody lips, and then she brushed the hair aside that was obscuring his face; and then she saw his face: “Leon,” she exclaimed, “it is truly you. What have they done to you?”
“Beat me up a little,” Leon managed to say, “Need rest,” and his eyes started to close.
Gwen found herself unable to move him, so she put some straw under his head instead. Leon didn’t even notice it as he drifted into sleep.
After what seemed like an eternity to Gwen, Leon finally woke up. He groaned again as he tried to move, but he kept trying. With much difficulty he managed to sit up and crawl a few feet to the wall so he could rest his back against it. He was panting heavily, and Gwen noticed he dragged his left leg behind him. “Oh, Leon,” she whispered, “what have they done to you? And what have they done to your leg? Here, I’ve got a bit of soup left. It’s not much, but it’s all I’ve got. There will be more tonight.”
Thankfully accepted Leon the cold and watery soup and gulped it down. “Thank you, my lady,” he said, “That vermin of a so-called king said there are no more knights, I’m the last one it said, but not for long, and that they would bring me to you. The queen and her champion, that fraud befouling your throne said, the last remains of Camelot, slowly rotting away. I am, however, still quite shocked to see you here, my queen, and not sitting on the throne, where you belong. Pray tell me, my lady, are those Saxon rats treating you well?”
“I am alive, Leon, alive and unhurt. But please, tell me your story. And why did they put you here?”
Leon slowly shook his head. “I don’t know, my lady---”
“Gwen, please call me Gwen.”
“Gwen… I don’t know. They must have put me here for a reason. To get information perhaps, they might be listening, or it is simply their warped sense of fun, I don’t know anymore,” and he started to whisper just in case. “And if that thing on your throne wanted us dead, he would have done so already. As for me, it happened a few years ago, two, three, I don’t know anymore, while I was patrolling the outlying villages when suddenly a sack was thrown over me and I got hit on the head. When I woke up, I found myself in a dirty and rat-infested dungeon. It turned out to be a Saxon stronghold in the south, and they wanted information from me, information regarding Camelot. How many knights there were, how was it defended and so on. I will spare you all the details, my la… Gwen, but I did not betray Camelot, although the pain they inflicted almost made me. So after a few weeks they finally threw me back into the dungeon, more dead than alive, yet somehow they wanted to keep me alive, and I’ve been planning to escape ever since.” Leon’s voice faltered, his strength had all but left him and he breathed heavily now. Sweat had broken out on his now very pale face. Gwen offered him a little water.
“Please rest awhile, Leon, we will talk later.”
“And at some point some Saxon vermin broke my leg, and it never healed properly. I tried to do it myself. The pain was unbearable, and I didn’t have the right tools, but I managed alright. I can still walk, and ride a horse if need be. And I finally managed to escape, after all those years in the dungeons. It took me months to get to Camelot, weak as I was, and as I was hiding in the woods, a Saxon rat saw me and captured me. I am sorry, Gwen, but I was exhausted and I didn’t have much strength left. Some knight of Camelot am I, letting myself captured like that!” Leon felt ashamed now, ashamed for letting Gwen down, letting Camelot down. He spoke no more, and turned his face from Gwen’s.
“It’s alright, Leon, you’re here and we’re both still alive. I’m sure everything will turn out fine,” but the tone of her voice said otherwise.
And then one day, not long after Leon was captured and thrown in Gwen’s dungeon, a great tumult broke out, and they could hear heavy stones pounding the walls of Camelot, and frantic yelling and screaming; and they looked at each other with both hope and fear in their eyes.