THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XVII: THE BASTARD PRINCE ARTHUR
The journey from a cave on the Dead Sea back to Britain took Merlin and The Grail several months to complete. Dark-Age Europe was risky for travelers, and there were more than a few tense encounters with brigands or avaricious members of the nobility. But Merlin was not one to be trifled with, and now that he had The Grail to augment his powers, it would have taken more than such random pettiness to be a serious threat.
The days were filled with a comfortable companionship between the two of them. In the evenings they stayed at inns when one was available, begged shelter from anyone who would take them in otherwise. Merlin never met a stranger, charming peasant and lord alike along the way. I have pages of notes filled with history and color that, again, may someday be publishable. But nothing germane to the story took place until they reached the court of King Ban of Berwick, a loyal comrade of Uther.
Ban, at six-and-a-half feet a truly imposing figure of a man, spent eight months of the year campaigning with Uther, returning home to Brittany (or Less Britain, as Merlin called it; Northwest France, to you who are geographically challenged) during the winter to make up for lost time by repopulating the region with strapping boys. Merlin was introduced to the oldest of Ban‘s brood, a spirited chap named Lancelot, who could easily pass for a teenager although he was only ten. After seeing the lad destroying jousting dummies with his dull practice sword, The Grail was thankful he was destined to end up an ally rather than an enemy.
Finally the master druid and the magical cup crossed the English Channel and arrived at the holdings of Sir Ector.
* * *
The first time I saw Arthur, he was trying to hack his foster brother’s head off with a practice sword. Kay was three years older—a significant difference when you’re nine and twelve—but they were equally matched. Arthur’s quickness with a sword was coupled with fearlessness and insensitivity to pain. He also had Uther’s temper, which he kept in check most of the time, but which blazed into violence when provoked. Or when he was losing—Arthur hated to lose. My first impression was that Merlin had picked a good candidate.
Merlin settled into an abandoned woodcutter’s cottage about half a mile from Sir Ector’s estate; by the end of a month Arthur had become a daily visitor. Knowing him better only confirmed my early impressions. His heart may have been Uther’s, but his head certainly wasn’t. Sir Ector had limited the boy’s education to the knightly arts, but Arthur’s keen mind found the new challenge of book learning almost as fascinating. Within a couple of years he had devoured every scroll on history or military tactics that could be found within a three-day’s ride and was begging for more.
Kay spent even more time at our cottage, and would have just moved in if his father had allowed it. Arthur’s foster brother was awkward as well as slight of build—you could already tell he was never going to be a great knight—but his mental agility more than made up for it. Arthur never really cozened onto mathematics, but Kay ate it up like it was fresh bread with honey. Sometimes Kay and Merlin would play an early version of chess that Merlin had brought back from the Middle East; other times they would just match wits. Arthur was Merlin’s pupil and his hope for the future; Kay was more like a son.
Those were blissful years. After some carpentry work and a few helpful spells and wards, the cottage was cheerful and warm even in the English winters. Soon all the available surfaces were cluttered with piles of scrolls that just showed up from who knows where, dried herbs, sparkling crystals, bits of bone, and the like. Whenever the weather allowed, Merlin and the boys spent long hours scouring the countryside on horseback, exploring and learning. When the cold drove them indoors, they often lounged in front of the hearth reading while I watched over them and felt motherly.
Uther died when Arthur was twelve from a wound that went bad after he refused to stop campaigning long enough to get it treated. As far as The Grail knew, Arthur never even met his father. None of the kings was strong enough to succeed Uther as high king, and the nobility rapidly reverted to fighting each other instead of the Saxons. The needless death and suffering bothered Merlin intensely, but he’d made his choice; now there was nothing he could do but wait for Arthur to get a little older.
Which he did, of course, growing tall and broad while retaining his boyish quickness. His interest in history and the time spent with Merlin never caused him to neglect his warrior training, and long hours with a weighted practice sword turned his muscles to iron. Sir Ector hired a tutor from the continent, a swordsman almost as renowned as Uther had been, but before two winters passed Arthur could match him thrust for thrust, even besting him occasionally.
In Arthur’s 16th year, there came an opportunity to put his military training into practice: a Frankish incursion into Less Britain. Merlin persuaded Sir Ector to send Arthur, along with Kay and Bedivere, the son of the neighboring baron, across the Channel to lend support to King Ban.
Claiming that he was too old to go campaigning, Ban put Lancelot in charge of his forces. At seventeen the hulking Lancelot was already one of the best knights in the world, and he wasn’t even finished growing yet. But unequalled prowess with sword and lance doesn’t make one a leader. Young Arthur soon found himself riding at the head of a band of willing but largely inexperienced men-at-arms, eager to do cross swords with the enemy but having only the vaguest ideas about how to go about it—at least in the beginning.
Merlin went along to advise, but he quickly realized that he was superfluous. Arthur’s feel for what the enemy was going to try next was almost as accurate as Merlin’s scrying bowl, and his command of soldiers was exemplary. It was as if this was what he’d been born to do, which of course he was.
I was frankly quite disquieted about the prince’s safety—a little motherly over-protectiveness, perhaps—but Merlin refused to listen. “First of all,” he lectured me in that maddeningly pedantic manner he sometimes slipped into, “the boy has a good head on his shoulders, despite being brave to a point some might label foolhardy. Second, he really is one of the finest swordsmen in the realms, his youth notwithstanding. Third, Lancelot is, or at least soon will be, the greatest knight that ever lived; I would be much more worried if Arthur were sparring with him every day instead of fighting mere Franks. Last, but more important than any of the others: I already know how Arthur is going to die, and it isn’t on some forgotten battlefield in Less Brittany. True, the gods are whimsical, and if you tempt them overly they may change your destiny out of celestial spite. But Arthur’s fate is so deliciously ironic that no self-respecting god would be enticed by this puny caper.
So we left the young men to their fun and returned to Britain to begin the process that would end with Arthur becoming the high king.
* * *
Merlin had foreseen a total solar eclipse coming the day before Beltane and chose that coincidence as the perfect time to make a move. So he spent autumn and part of the following spring visiting each of the kings in turn, inviting them to a meeting of the Grand Council at Amesbury.
Wherever they went, Merlin was received with the highest courtesy, even by those kings who were suspicious of his motives. Invariably there would be a feast in his honor, and feasting meant wine. After the party had been going a while, Merlin would slip The Grail out of his robe and exchange it for his goblet. Then, he would steer the conversation until his host asked why he was out traveling. At that point he would begin his spiel.
First he eulogized about the glories of Britain when the strong hands of Ambrosius and Uther held the reins of kingship. Of the sorrows and bloodshed that had afflicted the land since Uther had died without naming a successor. And of the power of the Saxons, growing every day while good Celtic men killed each other over petty concerns.
Then Merlin would announce a Grand Council to be held at Stonehenge—Merlin called it the ‘Giant’s Dance’—during the three days ending on Beltane. At that feast, he pronounced, all of the kings would come together in peace and choose a new high king. A hero who would unite the true warriors of Britain and drive the Saxons out once and for all. Merlin shamelessly hinted that whichever king was hosting them was one of the frontrunners for the crown, and likely to be chosen.
Of course, every one of them bought it. Dreams of power and visions of glory so filled their heads that not a single one asked who was calling the council. Even King Lot from far away Orkney, who had hated Uther and therefore trusted Merlin about as far as he could piss into a stout Scottish wind, agreed to come.
By the time the visits were completed, the trees were beginning to bud. Many preparations for the gathering still remained unfinished, with not much time to do them. Arrangements for food and lodging had to be made, the synod of druids consulted, and a visit to the Lady of the Lake to persuade her to officiate at the Beltane feast. Fortunately, Merlin was an absolute wizard about such things, and everything was done with time to spare.
Meanwhile, one last spring campaign broke the rogue Franks for good, with the shattered remnants fleeing back into Gaul. The seasoned and cocky Arthur was ready for more. Having drunk deeply from the chalice of battle, he would never again be content to explore Sir Ector’s forests or read peacefully in front of Merlin’s fire. He was honed and ready to make a bid for his destiny. It was fortunate that Merlin had moved when he did; with an eager sword and idle time to look for things to stick it into, the prince was certain to get into trouble that could threaten his ascension to the throne.
With Bedivere, Kay, and Lancelot at his side—Lancelot had pledged himself to Arthur as his father had to Uther—Arthur strode through the crowds of Britain’s nobility. A buzz of speculation rose about who this proud, handsome youth might be.
THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XVII: OUTTAKES
Merlin settled into an abandoned woodcutter’s cottage about half a mile from Sir Ector’s estate; by the end of a month Arthur had become a daily visitor. Knowing him better only confirmed my early impressions. His heart may have been Uther’s, but his head certainly wasn’t.
“So who do you suppose he got his smarts from?”
I’d say from his mother. His half-sisters Morgause and Morgan le Fay were both smart at hell, even reputed to be able to read.
“Wasn’t Morgan le Fay an evil witch?”
Patience, Bradley. The tale will be told in good time.
* * *
“So is it safe to say that you considered yourself the missing mother that Arthur never had?”
Of course. Both the boys—Kay’s mother had died in childbirth, and I loved him every bit as much as Arthur. Although as far as I know, they were never aware of what I was.
But in a way I was Merlin’s mother as well. Certainly not a girlfriend or anything so mundane. He tended to be absent-minded at times and needed someone to help him keep up with the details.
“Or he was so smart that he just pretended to be just to keep you out of his hair.”
For once she was speechless.