Authors: Ben Bova
I told him, “You’ll have to find the way for yourself, my lord.”
He looked at me doubtfully.
“You can do it,”
I encouraged. “I’m sure you can. And by doing it, you will prove your right to be High King.”
Arthur shook his head dejectedly and turned to pace the snow-covered castle courtyard in the bone-numbing cold of early morning, with Bors and I on either side of him.
“We’ve got to get the body into the ground before he stinks up the whole castle,” Bors grumbled.
The sun had barely risen and the sky
was a wintry dull gray, oppressive and dismal with the threat of more snow. The two battlers stopped their thwacking, breaths puffing steam in the cold air. Immediately their squires threw heavy fur-trimmed robes over their heaving shoulders.
Nodding to Bors, Arthur said, “I’ll speak to the chamberlain. I know that Friar Samson has been making arrangements for the funeral with the bishop, from
The cathedral was little more than a stout stone church off in one corner of the courtyard, built more like a Roman fort than a place of worship.
“Kay should be bringing your bride and her father soon,” Gawain said, almost smirking when Arthur visibly winced. “You can hold the wedding right after the funeral.” With a laugh, he added, “Any leftovers from the funeral feast you
can use for the wedding banquet!”
Arthur looked at his friend and companion for a long solemn moment. Finally he said, “There will be no wedding until we settle who gets Cadbury castle for his own.”
Gawain laughed even more heartily. “I see. You want it for a wedding gift to Guinevere.”
Arthur looked as if he could have throttled Gawain at that particular moment.
The funeral could wait
no longer. Arthur asked Bishop Bron to conduct the ceremony. Stooped with age though he was, the bishop looked magnificent in his finest gold-threaded robes as he led the funeral mass. The dark thick-walled cathedral was so packed with the nobles who had come to Cadbury that mere squires were not admitted inside the church. I fretted out in the wind and snow, fearful that someone would try to assassinate
Arthur during the funeral.
The mass ended without incident, though, and the bishop led the long procession through the beginnings of a snowstorm to the burial grounds outside the castle walls. Ambrosius’ broadsword was placed atop his grave, fastened to the stone slab by rivets hammered in by a pair of beefy blacksmiths.
Once the bishop gave his final blessing to the kneeling knights, King Mark
of Cornwall got to his feet and asked in a powerful voice, “Well, who gets the castle?”
Not be outdone, Bors bellowed, “Who will be the next High King?”
“We have no need of a High King!” said Mark. He was a powerfully built man: not tall, but wide in the shoulders and with a body shaped like a barrel. Dark of hair and eye, his face was pockmarked, his beard thin and lank.
“Yes we do!” Arthur
shouted. “We must be united if we expect to drive out the barbarian invaders.”
“Easy enough for you to say, lad,” King Mark said. “Old Ambrosius favored you, everybody knows.”
“He is Ambrosius’ nephew,” said another. “Of course the old man favored him.”
“In truth, Arthur is not really Abrosius’ nephew,” Friar Samson pointed out. “The lad is a bastard.” Turning to Arthur, the emaciated friar
said more softly, “No offense, my lord, but the truth must be spoken.”
Arthur stared at the friar and the older men surrounding him, bewilderment clearly written on his youthful face. I wished that I could push my way through the crowd to be closer to him. If this argument grew worse, blood could be drawn and Arthur struck down easily enough.
At last Arthur said calmly, “I am the son of Uther
“Indeed!” King Mark scoffed.
“My foster father, Sir Ector, will vouch for that once he arrives here,” Arthur insisted. “Merlin will tell you!”
“The old wizard?” one of the knights countered. “Why should we believe him?”
“A pagan,” said Friar Samson.
“Where is he, anyway?” another voice demanded. “Why has he disappeared?”
Why indeed, I wondered. Apparently Hades had withdrawn
from the contest, leaving this nexus in spacetime for Aten to handle as he sees fit. Anya would have few allies among the Creators, if any. But I vowed to myself all over again that I would defy Aten and protect young Arthur to my last breath.
Bishop Bron raised both his hands, silencing the noblemen. In a surprisingly strong voice he said, “This is not a matter to be decided in the snow and
cold. Let us return to the castle and discuss it by a good warm fire.”
A few chuckles rose from the assembled nobles. Heads nodded. Someone said, “The good bishop has more sense than we do.”
Thus we returned to Cadbury castle.
Despite the blaze crackling in its huge fireplace, the great hall was scarcely warmer than the graveyard outside and still smelled faintly of decay.
The nobles asked
the bishop to mediate their argument. They all remained standing, crowding around the bishop, who was still decked in his fine robes spun with gold thread. All of the nobles were armed with swords at their sides, all of them eager to have their say in the matter. The talk went on for hours, some of the knights insisting that a new High King must be named, most of them refusing to accept the need
for a High King. Arthur’s seemed to be the only voice raised that called for a united campaign against the Saxons and other invaders.
“You’re the Dux Bellorum,” said King Mark. “You raise an army and fight the barbarians. But stay out of Cornwall! I can handle the invaders by myself.”
“None of the barbarians has landed on Cornwall’s shores,” a knight pointed out.
Mark smirked at him. “That’s
because the pagans know that I am king in Cornwall, and will deal with them sharply.”
“Or perhaps,” Gawain suggested, with a chuckle, “they know that Cornwall’s so bleak it’s not worth raiding.”
Everyone laughed. Except King Mark.
At length even the bishop gave up and suggested that they have dinner and continue the discussion later in the evening.
“Discussion,” Bors muttered as the knights
and petty kings broke into small groups and headed for their quarters. “This isn’t going to be settled by talk, Arthur. You’re going to have to fight for what is rightfully yours.”
Arthur shook his head. “We mustn’t fight among ourselves. We’ve got to settle this peacefully.”
Gawain clasped Arthur’s shoulder. “Not among these men, my friend. Ambition and greed always outweigh common sense.”
Before we could get out of the hall a serving boy scurried up to Arthur and, after bowing low, announced, “King Leodegrance and his daughter have arrived, my lord! The king asks for you, sir.”
With the expression almost of a martyr, Arthur followed the boy out of the hall, heading toward the courtyard. I followed close behind.
A gentle snow was sifting through the chill air as we stepped into
the courtyard to greet Arthur’s future bride and her father, together with the knights who had escorted them from Cameliard castle.
Leodegrance looked tired from his journey, his gray beard bedraggled, his perpetual smile drooping. Guinevere seemed bright and pert as ever, although she hardly glanced at Arthur as she descended from their wagon.
Even Lancelot, normally eager and energetic, appeared
drained and weary. “I’ve brought your bride safely to you, my lord,” said Lancelot, avoiding Arthur’s direct gaze.
Glancing at his foster brother, Kay, Arthur smiled at the younger knight. “I thought that Sir Kay was in charge of your journey.”
Lancelot’s youthful face flamed red. “Yes, of course, my lord. I simply meant…” His voice trailed off into an embarrassed silence.
shoulder, Arthur said, “Good work, sir knight. I thank you.”
As the other knights dismounted from their steeds and the wagons creaked through the castle’s open gate, Arthur offered Guinevere his arm, to lead her inside the castle. She took her father’s instead. Without saying a word, Arthur turned and led them toward the doorway, where the overwrought chamberlain stood in the stone doorway, out
of the falling snow, his hands on his hips and his face clearly showing dismay as Arthur’s knights filled the courtyard.
“Where am I going to put them all?” he wailed. “The castle is already filled to bursting.”
Arthur said, almost apologetically, “These men have followed me the length and breadth of Britain. They have dealt the Saxons and other barbarians many heavy blows.”
“But there isn’t
any room for them!” the chamberlain complained. “Where can I put them? How can I feed them?”
Lancelot said bravely, “We are accustomed to sleeping in the open. Find quarters in the castle for King Leodegrance and his daughter. The rest of us will camp in our tents here in the courtyard.”
“Not in the courtyard!” the chamberlain exclaimed. “There are too many of you!”
“Outside the walls, then,”
said Sir Kay, with an irritated edge in his voice. “We wouldn’t want to cause you any problems.”
The chamberlain didn’t feel his sarcasm. “And how can I feed such a host?”
“We’ll hunt for game!” Lancelot replied eagerly. “We’ll organize a gigantic hunt.”
Before the chamberlain could reply, Arthur said, “Well spoken, Lancelot.” Turning to the fussing chamberlain, he added, “You see? My men can
take care of themselves.”
Despite the chamberlain’s grumblings, Arthur saw to it that fully a dozen of his knights were invited inside the castle to have dinner with all the others in Cadbury’s great hall.
I waited patiently in Arthur’s quarters, watching as he changed into a fresh white tunic for dinner, wishing that I could sit beside him, fearing that among his rivals for Ambrosius’ inheritance
there was probably an assassin. Or perhaps more than one. Bors and the others were in rooms nearby, also preparing for dinner—and the debate about kingship that was to follow.
But just as Arthur was ready to leave his room for dinner, King Leodegrance rapped once on his door and entered, uninvited.
Without so much as a greeting, Leodegrance said bluntly, “I’ve been talking with the other nobles,
Arthur. Many of them are unhappy that you are claiming Ambrosius’ title.”
Arthur nodded wearily. “I know.”
His smile turning crafty, Leodegrance said, “I have a way to settle the matter, my boy.”
Surprised, Arthur blurted, “You do?”
Impatiently, Arthur demanded, “Well, what is it?”
Looking as if he could part the Red Sea, Leodegrance explained, “You bow to the will of the assembled
knights and withdraw your claim to be Ambrosius’ heir.”
“Hear me out,” Leodegrance said, raising both hands. “You withdraw, and throw your support to me.”
“You?” Arthur looked stunned.
“Yes, me!” Leodregrance’s face was wreathed with self-satisfaction. “You support me as High King. The others will agree, knowing that I am already a king among them.”
“You will continue
to be my Dux Bellorum,” Leodegreance want on. “You will marry my only daughter. When I die you will quite naturally inherit my title and powers. You will be High King!”
Leodegrance’s smile was full of teeth. Arthur looked perplexed. I could read his mind, almost. All Arthur had wanted was to continue as Dux Bellorum and keep on trying to drive the Saxons and other barbarians out of Britain. Sly
Leodegrance was offering him just that—at the price of helping Leodegrance to be named High King. I could see the conflict on Arthur’s face. He was asking himself, Can I trust this smiling man? And must I marry his daughter?
As before, the evening’s deliberations about Ambrosius’ heritage settled nothing. The noblemen assembled in Cadbury’s great hall were about evenly divided over the idea
of naming a new High King. Some of them saw the necessity for unity; others cherished their individual rights and privileges more than anything else.
As Arthur had told me more than once, the curse of the Celts was their stubborn individuality, their inability to unite even in the face of looming catastrophe.
At times the arguments turned into nasty, snarling quarrels, with one knight challenging
a rival’s right to claim the castle or even to dream of being named High King. Bishop Bron, frail in body though he was, stepped between the angry men and made them back down.
“Civility,” the bishop demanded. “This matter will
be turned into a brawl.”
At length the knights and petty kings retired to their chambers, Arthur frustrated and disconsolate.
“If only Merlin were here,” he said
to me as he entered his bedroom. “Merlin would know what to do.”
I said nothing, knowing that Hades, the Creator who had helped young Arthur as Merlin, probably now agreed with the Golden One that Arthur’s usefulness was approaching its end.
I wanted to stay with Arthur, but the squires were quartered in the stables. Even so, that was better than Lancelot and most of Arthur’s other knights had
to endure, sheltering in flimsy tents against the cold of the winter’s night.
“Sleep lightly, my lord,” I said to Arthur. “And keep Excalibur close to hand.”
He gave me a wry smile. “Would you prefer to sleep here, Orion, so you can guard me?”
Surprised that he took my warning seriously, I blurted. “Yes, my lord, I would.”
“Fetch your sleeping roll, then,” said Arthur, sounding resigned, regretful.
“You can sleep on the floor by the door.”
I did so gladly. And once I closed my eyes, I found myself transported to the realm of the Creators once again, to their timeless city of eternal monuments, on the flower-dotted slope beside the bright, calm sea. The sun shone warmly out of a nearly cloudless turquoise sky. Seabirds glided across the waves, hardly a wing’s span above the water.
its shimmering dome of energy the city was empty, lifeless. Its monuments stood mute, the colossal statues staring blankly. Even Phidias’ incredible statue of Athena, helmeted and clutching her spear—my Anya—was cold and dead.