THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XVIII: The Sword in the Stone
The first day of the Grand Council was given over totally to feasting and speech-making. A great pavilion had been erected not too far from the Giant’s Dance, but so many nobles and knights had gathered that all but the highest ranking were relegated to crude benches under the April sun. Beef and ale were the fare of the day, and the local peasants were doing some magic of their own (or at least some alchemy) transforming their scrawny herds or hogsheads of beer into pocketfuls of gold.
Nominations weren’t allowed until the next day, but every king present was allowed to address the assemblage. Some were notoriously poor at expressing thoughts that weren’t all that noteworthy. Unfortunately, as seems to be the case throughout the history of human oration, the worst speakers were invariably the longest winded. But somehow the flower of British nobility made it through a day of speeches and a night of drinking without anyone getting seriously hurt.
The next day was designated as the day for the election of the high king. Due to the excesses of the night before, the council didn’t reconvene until late morning. By tradition, only those of king’s rank were allowed to make nominations, and no one was allowed to nominate himself. But there were plenty of kings to nominate each other. Merlin didn’t mind the delay. He knew that without his guidance there was no chance that anything would be decided, and all of the blather and banter merely helped pass the time before the critical hour arrived.
Sure enough, midafternoon came and went without any danger of a high king being elected although the frontrunners had firmed up by then. The kings of the north were united behind crusty King Lot; those of the west tended to favor the dark and violent King Mark. A contingent of moderates supported the popular but aging King Pellham, more to prevent either of those two hot-headed candidates from attaining the throne than in any real belief in his abilities. A scattered few still clung to their own hopes for the office, but it seemed pretty obvious to all but the most oblivious that one of those three would ultimately get the nod.
It was just after King Uriens had delivered a long and circular argument in favor of his patron, Lot, that Merlin stepped up to the speaker’s log. The surprised silence lasted mere moments before being replaced with a growing chorus of excited conjecture.
I’ll let The Grail tell this part of the story.
* * *
Merlin thumped his staff once on the speaker’s log and held it up for silence. “Royal sires, noble warriors, lifeblood of Britain,” he began, holding me hidden behind his cloak. “In recent times, the tradition of the Grand Council is that none but kings are allowed to speak. But in the days of mighty Cuchulain, the first of the Celtic high kings, the highest ranking representative of the druidic orders present was accorded sovereign status. I beg your indulgence as I invoke that far more ancient custom.”
The hall and surrounding fields were quiet enough that he scarcely had to raise his voice to be heard by all. Even without me helping, Merlin was a commanding figure. It’s hard to put your finger on exactly why, but when he focused his eyes on someone, they listened. My contribution just made him that much more so, and no one questioned his right to speak.
Merlin addressed the lords and knights quietly for a few minutes, basically giving a summary of the speech he had made when he invited them to this gathering, outlining the critical need for a high king in these trying times, etc.
“But you know all of that,” he suddenly changed the subject. “That’s why you have traveled from far and yon. Yet unless you can reach an accord, you will have journeyed in vain. And I fear that no agreement will be possible without divine intervention. The problem is not a dearth of excellent candidates, but rather that so many of the candidates are too worthy. Just take the leading nominees. King Lot, with a reputation so fierce the enemies of the Northlands tremble at his name. King Mark, whose sword has spilled the blood of a thousand Irish invaders. And noble King Pellham, blessed with wisdom so renowned that owls seek his advice. So praiseworthy is each of these, it is not unexpected that support is divided so evenly.
“I feared this would happen when I invited you here. That is why I chose this most sacred of sites to hold our council. Here we can ask The Mother’s aid and be assured that she will assist us in making the right decision.
“If you agree with the judiciousness of that approach, I would ask you to accompany me over to the Giant’s Dance.”
Without waiting for a reply, Merlin turned and strode toward the shrine. He didn’t need to look back; the entire company rose as one and followed him.
The ponderous circle of towering stones was about three quarters of a mile from where the main pavilion had been erected. As we walked, the sky began to grow noticeably darker. Merlin, his senses acutely attuned to the elements, had timed it perfectly; the eclipse was beginning. Warriors who had faced Saxon blades without quavering began to glance up at the sky uneasily.
As Merlin reached the footstone marking the entrance to the rings of giant stone, he knelt and muttered an incantation. As if in answer, the wind, which had been calm up to that point, rose dramatically and began to tug at the cloaks and toss the hair of the assembled lords. Merlin rose and paced through the three concentric rings of stone to the very center of the Dance, the procession following him in utter silence.
When all were in place, Merlin raised his staff for attention again, although he needn’t have bothered. Fearful eyes clung to him as if he were the lifeline that could save them from this raw display of the power of nature. However—no amateur showman he—each movement added its theatrical effect to the drama that was occurring.
“As each of you can feel for yourself, The Holy Mother has honored our prayer for guidance,” he spoke suddenly, raising his voice a little louder now to be heard over the wind. The darkness was almost complete now, a twilight without shadows.
As he lowered his staff, a slight figure stepped out from behind one of the stones near where Merlin stood. A flowing white robe hid all definition save that she was a woman, and that she was holding a long parcel wrapped in white muslin.
When the woman reached Merlin she threw back her hood. A pale light with no visible source reached out to illuminate her features. There was an involuntary gasp as the audience recognized her as the Lady of the Lake, High Priestess of the temple at Avalon.
Without a word—indeed, without any sound at all—the Priestess unwrapped the bundle to reveal a magnificent sword. The crowd uttered an unconscious moan as the polished blade caught the same light that shone on the Lady and scattered it as flecks of fire across the faces of the men standing there. Reverently handing the sword to Merlin, the Lady of the Lake disappeared back into the gloom as silently as she had come.
Holding the ancient blade aloft for all to admire, Merlin slowly turned a complete circle, his blazing eyes seeking out the eyes of those standing around him. Then he began an incantation, singing a tuneless song in the ancient manner of the druids. For two or three long minutes, the chant rose and fell, evoking anticipation and excitement in the audience that was almost sexual. The spectators swayed gently without conscious thought as the song resonated off the stones.
When the end finally came, Merlin lingered on the last note, allowing it to fade into resonance from the giant theatre. After a long pause of utter silence—the wind had fallen to nothing as the melody echoed away—he spoke seven sonorous words in an unknown tongue and abruptly drove the sword deep into the rock on which he was standing. At that moment the sun broke from behind the shadow.
Merlin crossed his arms and spoke.”The Great Mother answers our behest thusly: whosoever claims possession of the sword from her embrace shall be the High King of England.”
The returning light began shooing the darkness into corners and niches. Excited chatter erupted from the gathered lords and knights as the tension of the vision they’d experienced firsthand faded with the unnatural dusk.
Lot strode forward, took the sword in hand, and gave a firm tug, as if he expected it to be sitting in a crevice rather than driven into the rock. He then grasped the handgrip with both hands, planted his feet firmly, and pulled until the veins popped out on his forearms and neck. The sword didn’t budge.
“Mark! Pellham! You try,” Lot demanded.
They did, as well as all of the dukes and barons and other lesser noblemen, in order of their rank, until all had taken a turn. Some tried more than once. Some prayed before they touched the hilt, some tried holding the blade itself in gauntleted hands rather than the hilt, some touched charms or spilled wine onto the stone or shed their own weapons and armor. Needless to say, the mighty weapon mockingly remained exactly where Merlin had thrust it.
Dozens of conversations broke out within the group. Lot was beginning to denounce the whole thing as some sort of trickery when Sir Ector escorted Arthur to the circle of sparkles that reflected from the sword and danced over the stones. From his brilliant white cloak to the shine on his polished boots, Arthur looked like an artist’s conception of a king. He stood calmly at Ector’s side, his hand resting gently on the jeweled pommel, as his foster father spoke. Made me so proud I could have just broken in two on the spot.
“My Lords, I bring a worthy claimant to try the sword. May I present to you the son of King Uther Pendragon, Prince Arthur.”
Pandemonium broke out. The tears glistening on Pellham’s cheeks spoke as loudly as the glare of hatred in Lot’s eyes. Cries of “Let Arthur try the sword” rang from all parts of the crowd.
King Caradog, another of Lot’s backers who was standing at the front of the crowd to Arthur’s right, moved first. “Take your filthy hand from that sword, you foul guttersnipe,” he sneered as he stepped toward Arthur. “No bastard offspring from some chambermaid’s mindless rutting shall disgrace the office of high king or the solemnity of this ceremony.”
Arthur’s words were low but distinct. “My mother was the High Queen Igraine, and I shall tolerate no insult of her.”
As if the rock were no more than a well used scabbard, in one smooth motion Arthur drew noble Excalibur from the stone and struck a backhand blow at Caradog. The blade exploded fire as it cleanly severed Caradog’s neck. His headless body took another step forward, then fell as if kneeling before Arthur before collapsing, blood pouring onto the altar stone.
Lot’s hand moved to his own weapon, but one look into the eyes of the fearless warrior holding that flashing blade convinced him that drawing steel would be tantamount to suicide, and he wisely held back. Few others in the group exhibited any such restraint, however. In a wild surge they swept the young king onto their shoulders, with shouts of “Long live King Arthur” ringing over and over from the ancient stone sentinels.
THE GRAIL’S STORY, PART XVIII: OUTTAKES
I didn’t do a very good job of summarizing this part of the tale. I couldn’t. Too much magic from my childhood wrapped up in these pages. Thankfully, it’s only words.
* * *
From his brilliant white cloak to the shine on his polished boots, Arthur looked like an artist’s conception of a king.
“No motherly bias there?”
If he’d been dumpy or plain, think people would still be talking about him today?
“You’re right about that. The taller candidate is almost always elected president. Or at least the more handsome. Makes you wonder how we got stuck with Nixon twice.”
Because he wasn’t running against Arthur.
“Nor did he win the first time, against Kennedy, who was taller and better looking. By the way, Kennedy’s time as president was referred to Camelot.”
Such a small world, wouldn’t you say?
* * *
“Sounds like Merlin was a polished enough speaker that he didn’t even really need your assistance.” We had reached the point in our relationship where gentle digs were expected and carried no sting.
I’ll admit that my aid was almost entirely in the persuasion department and practically not at all to improve eloquence. Even without my help, no one ever wailed or gnashed their teeth when Merlin spoke.