“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.
“So you’re the great Percival,” Ywain said with a haughty voice, “I’ve heard so much about you,” and he looked disdainfully at Percival, for he had heard the tales of Percival’s flight, how he had ran away like a coward under the cover of a moonless night.
“Percival,” Gareth said curtly, and turned his back on him, pretending to admire a tapestry. Gaharis and Kay just stood there without speaking. Only Lamorak smiled, clasped Percival’s arms and hugged him. “It’s good to see you again, old friend,” he said.
“Friends don’t run away,” Ywain said, and his tone was scornful and full of barely contained disdain, “Friends stay loyal to their comrades, to their king and queen, to Camelot.”
Percival stiffened, his eyes hardened, but he kept his calm, albeit with great effort.
“Let them,” Lamorak whispered, “they weren’t there, they don’t know anything,” and then: “Yes, Percival left Camelot and personally I don’t blame him. Do you have any idea how hard it is to see all those you love die? He had seen how his family got slaughtered, and then all those deaths at Camlann. And you, Ywain, you weren’t even with us back then, you don’t know all he’s been through! And don’t forget, Percival had been a knight for only a short time, and seeing all those deaths all around him was too much to handle, so no, I don’t blame him, and I still consider him my friend!”
“Thank you,” Percival whispered, and then, facing the knights, he exclaimed: “Yes, I went away, and for a very good reason. Arthur, my king and my friend, was dead; Gwaine, the bravest knight there ever was, was dead too, and I was the one who held him as his last breath left him.” Percival saw it all again and his eyes became moist; he felt once again holding Gwaine’s head in his hands, foreheads touching, and he felt Gwaine’s skin rapidly losing warmth, and then his eyes went dead and his skin turned cold as ice. He saw himself sitting there, frozen in time, cradling Gwaine’s head in his hands, rocking to and fro; and then he suddenly saw the burned and razed village of his parents again, and he felt surrounded by the ghosts of all his loved ones. “Pecival,” he heard, a whispering voice in the distance, “Percival, are you alright?” Slowly the world came into focus again and Percival, in a broken voice, continued: “I had nothing left to live for, and so I went away. You think it was wrong, and maybe it was, but it was the only thing I could do at the time, and now the time has come for me to fight for Camelot once more.”
“I’m sure you can still use a sword,” Kay said as he walked towards Percival and offered him his hand. Percival took it.
“True Knights of Camelot do not run away,” Gareth said, “Never!”
“Well, you’re here, aren’t you, don’t you have a Camelot to defend?” Percival was really getting upset now, for Gareth’s unbending words had cut deep into his very soul.
“That’s different,” Gareth exclaimed, turning red and he clenched his fists, ready to attack Percival.
“Really… Care to explain?”
Without warning, Gareth’s fist slammed into Percival’s gut, and almost immediately Gareth felt Percival’s fingers clutching his throat, squeezing hard.
“That’s enough!” Lamorak thundered, his fist slamming on a table, “I won’t have you fighting amongst yourselves. What are you? Barbarian Saxons? We are knights, so let’s start acting like knights instead of a bunch of spoiled children! For once, let the past lie in the past, and look to the future: how to retake Camelot! I’m not asking you to be friends for life, but at least try to behave like knights!”
There was great tension in the air now, as Gareth, nursing his throat, once more turned his back on Percival, but Gaharis reluctantly offered Percival his hand, which he, Percival, gladly took, and the Ywain did likewise, which made Percival glad, for wanted nothing more than be friends with them all, even Gareth.
Every day, from dusk to dawn, Merlin sat by the lake, and never did his eyes stray from that single apple-tree, but blossom it did not. And every night he slept fitfully, waking up countless times, but there were no blossoms to be seen.
And on the tenth day, as the sun slowly ascended from the calm water of the Lake of Avalon, lifting the veil of an airy mist, he saw on the apple-tree one tiny bud which was about to burst. His heart filled with joy and his eyes filled with tears. “Arthur can’t see me like this,” he mumbled and with a sharp knife he cut off his long and unkempt beard and scraped clean his chin the best he could. Then he cut his hair and when he saw himself reflected in the water he almost felt like the old Merlin again. And on the apple-tree more and more buds appeared, and soon the tree was in full bloom. The sweet scent filled his nostrils and made him dizzy. Gently the blossoms swayed in the breeze and Merlin felt more emotions in him then he could handle. He was overjoyed with the prospect of seeing Arthur again, for he knew in his heart his dream had been real. Feverishly he paced up and down the shore, never straying far from the apple-tree which was so heavy with blossom now. Slowly the sun rose higher and higher and it warmed Merlin’s skin and bones.
Then he saw it: from afar the prow of a small boat appeared. Slowly, very slowly, the rest of the boat came into view and it glided towards the shore, hardly making a ripple in the water. Merlin’s heart sank and his heart turned ice-cold, for he saw no Arthur in the boat. And he started softly lamenting as the boat floated nearer and nearer until it reached the shore. Merlin, with great fear in his heart, ran towards it, but when he reached the boat he saw Arthur lying there, his new mail shirt sparkling in the sunshine, his sword lay across his chest, his breathing was calm, his face serene and full of life.
“O Arthur,” Merlin sobbed, “Arthur, you have come back,” his fingers brushed Arthur’s cheek and a salty tear fell on Arthur’s lips. Then Arthur woke up.
And every day more and more knights and men-at-arms came to Dinas Emrys, the kingdom of king Ban. There was king Caradoc of Cambenic, and he brought with him five hundred knights in full armour. And there was king Brandegorre of the Distant Isles with one thousand men-at-arms all clad in sparkling, finely linked mail shirts, and it was a wonderful sight to behold; and they all encamped on the fields surrounding the Castle of the Pond of Dragons, for thus was king Ban’s castle called. And there was king Tradelmant of Estrangorre, with two thousand men in iron armour, carrying shields and lances. And when the Knights of Camelot saw all this, their hearts filled with joy and pride, for they knew the Saxons could be beaten.
Soon the fields were completely covered with tents and pavilions of all sizes and colours, and countless banners were to be seen waving in the wind; and numerous campfires were lit, and the air was soon filled with smoke and fragrant smells of roasting meat. And still more allies were coming: there was king Alan of Caerwent, who brought with him eight hundred men all riding good horses; and king Belinant of Ebrauc came with seven hundred ironclad men, all fully armed.
And so the army left King Ban’s kingdom, but the pace was slow, for there were many carts laden with helms and hauberks, swords and maces, food and livestock; and there were carpenters, blacksmiths, bakers, cooks, jesters, jongleurs, druids and physicians; and several imposing trebuchets drawn by spans of fine, strong oxen; and there were many men-at-arms, foot soldiers and knights, too numerous to count. “For Albion,” they all yelled, “for Camelot!”
“Arthur,” Merlin whispered anxiously, all but fainting from happiness at the sight of his king, his friend, alive again, after so many years of tormented uncertainty.
“Wha…” Arthur croaked, but speech did not come easily, for he had not spoken for five years.
“Don’t talk, don’t talk. Oh, Arthur, you’re back, I knew it, I…,” and his voice broke.
“Water,” Arthur managed to utter in a weak and rasping voice.
Merlin quickly took his water-bottle and carefully let a small trickle of cool water fall onto Arthur’s lips.
“I can’t remember…,” Arthur whispered, “There was… was… Mordred… darkness… voices…” His eyes closed again as he tried to remember what had happened to him.
“What am I doing in a funeral barge?” Arthur suddenly exclaimed, “Mordred, I… I…” His voice faltered as he now remembered those fateful last minutes, those last minutes, last seconds, the sword Mordred had thrust through his body, a wave of excruciating pain, and then a deep, dark nothingness; and now he saw in his mind nine women hovering above him, but who they were he did not know. His hands glided hurriedly over his mail-clad body, trying to find any holes in it, trying to find those mortal wounds inflicted by that treacherous Mordred, but finding them he did not, nor did he feel any pain or saw any blood. “Merlin,” he whispered, and there was sudden fear in his eyes, “Merlin, what’s happened?” He sat up, clutching the sides of the boat as he tried to stand, but his legs buckled and he fell down. He tried again, and with great effort he managed to disembark, and Merlin proved to be a great help, supporting his limp body. Leaning heavily on Merlin’s shoulder, they stumbled towards some trees and bushes where Arthur laid down again, his back resting against a tree, hidden from view, and there he lay for a long time.
“Have you been mucking the horses? Arthur finally asked, smiling faintly, “You look terrible. There’re holes in your boots, your tunic is all faded and torn, and what’s with the stubble?”
Merlin had to laugh, a nervous laugh, for he still didn’t know how to tell Arthur the truth about what really did happen.
“I keep seeing images,” Arthur said, “strange images. What has happened, Merlin? I see myself looking at you, you’re looking awful, unkempt beard, and clothes… clothes like you’re wearing now. Talk, Merlin, please explain.” There was a pleading in his voice Merlin had never heard before.
“I will,” he said, barely audible, and at that moment he fully realised what just happened. All those years he had been waiting, waiting for Arthur to return, Arthur who was killed by Mordred. All those years he had shut himself off from the world around him, and he had build impenetrable barriers in his mind, making him forget everything and everyone, but there was one thing he had never lost: his faith in Arthur’s return. Mad, they had called him, Merlin the Mad, Merlin the Wild Man of the Woods, but those names he did not recognise any more. “Gaius, we must go to Gaius,” Merlin mumbled, looking nervously around him.
“What happened! I got stabbed, a sword through my body, but there are no wounds anymore! I was lying in a funeral barge, did all of you think I was dead? Were you preparing my funeral by setting the boat alight? Tell me I’m not dead, Merlin, please tell me you weren’t trying to burn me… Tell me how long I was ‘dead’.”
For a moment Merlin closed his eyes and heaved a deep sigh. Yes, he thought, I must tell him, but how will he take it?
“Arthur,” he said at last, “Arthur, what I’m going to tell you won’t be easy.”
And so Merlin related the whole story to Arthur, omitting nothing save his own involvement as old Emrys, and Arthur was greatly distressed, and he grew more and more astonished at hearing Merlin’s words, for he knew it to be true; and that night he had a vision of the nine sisters speaking to him, telling him all that had happened.
The next day they made their way to Gaius’ cave, resting often, for Arthur was still very weak of limb.
Gaius stood by the entrance of his cave, looking, listening. The smallest sound made him jump: the rustling of leaves, the snapping of a twig, and every time he heard something, he thought that Merlin had come back. For weeks now there had been no sign of him, and Gaius was getting very worried. He has been gone for many weeks on end many times, he thought, I’m sure he’s fine now, he must be, but Gaius had an uneasy feeling as he recalled Merlin’s last words before he left: Arthur is back. He heaved a deep sigh and went inside, obscuring the entrance with thick foliage as he had done for countless times these last few years. But he felt restless and agitated, and the stuffy confines of the cave made him anxious, so he went outside again; and at that moment he heard noises, real noises, people were coming his way. Quickly he went inside, carefully putting the foliage in place, so nobody could detect the entrance. “I’m getting too old for this,” he muttered as he stood near the entrance, trying to hear who were coming, whether they were friend or foe. He dared not move a muscle, and tried to hold his breath. The voices were coming nearer now, he could almost discern the words spoken. “I thought I saw a stream here,” a voice said, “it must be on the other side though.” Footsteps now could be heard, and the clinking of chain mail. Very carefully did Gaius take a step sideways and turned his head. Through the foliage he could just make out shapes, shapes of fully armoured men wearing red cloaks. “There are footsteps here,” one man shouted, “must be from several men, by the look of it. Could be robbers or scoundrels, I don’t know for sure. Their hiding place could be near here. Shall I go and investigate?” Gaius’ heart nearly gave out and he almost fell through the foliage from fright. Then it hit him: they were wearing red cloaks, the colour of Camelot. He ventured another look and he saw a knight aimlessly slashing at some bushes with his sword. On his cloak there was embroidered that all too familiar golden dragon. Gaius felt dizzy and was about to faint. After all these years there came a friend to his dwelling. Thoughts were racing through his mind: are the Saxons finally beaten? Is Camelot safe?
“But suppose they’re Saxons dressed up like Knights of Camelot?” Gaius mumbled, wringing his old and gnarled hands, “They must not find me.” Cautiously he took another look and he let out a gasp, for it was Sir Kay he saw. Tears came to Gaius’ eyes as he stepped outside, startling the knights. With astonishing speed three swords were unsheathed and pointing at Gaius’ chest. No-one moved for a second or two, then Sir Kay said, in a voice filled with disbelief: “Gaius? Is that really you?” and he sheathed his sword, beckoning the rest to do the same. “Gaius?”
“Sir Kay,” was all Gaius could utter, for he could no longer speak from emotion. Kay walked to him and hugged him. “We thought you were dead, it’s so good to see you again. Ywain, meet the venerable Gaius, our court physician, long believed dead.”
“Sir,” Ywain said as he made a small bow and offered Gaius his hand in friendship, ”I have heard so much about you. All good things, I assure you.”
“My dear Gaius, I can’t tell you how glad I am to see you alive and well,” Sir Lamorak said, beaming.
“Merlin, have you seen Merlin?” Gaius asked, “he must be around here somewhere…” and he looked around, hoping to see him walking into view.
“Merlin is alive too?” Kay exclaimed.
“Who’s Merlin,” Ywain said a trifle bored, for he had not heard of someone called by that name.
“Arthur’s servant,” Kay answered, “But Gaius, I still can’t believe it, and Merlin, where’s Merlin?”
“I don’t know, he does that you know, disappear for weeks on end, and now that he…” and his voice trailed away. “But why are you here?” Gaius said, changing the subject, “And how is Guinevere, is she well?”
And Kay related the whole story to Gaius, who grew sadder with every word, and when Kay mentioned that Gwen was locked up in the dungeons, his face turned ashen. “There are thousands of knights and men-at-arms not far from here, ready to retake Camelot,” Kay finally said, “Please come with us, there’s plenty of room in the wagons.”
Gaius nodded, nervously looking around. “Yes… yes.. I might…”
“But you don’t want to go without Merlin, don’t you,” Lamorak said, sensing Gaius’ distress.
Gaius nodded, and at that moment a noise was heard in the foliage, uneven footfalls, panting. The knights quickly unsheathed their swords. Then Merlin emerged, with Arthur leaning on his shoulder, and both Gaius and the knights froze, a look of utter disbelief and bewilderment on their faces. All except Ywain, for he had never seen Arthur nor Merlin.
“Help me get him inside,” Merlin gasped, panting for breath, for they had walked a long distance. Ywain quickly laid Arthur arm around his shoulders and took him inside the cave, followed by Merlin.
“Who are you?” both men asked simultaneously.
“My name is Ywain, Knight of Camelot, and your name be…”
“Merlin, I’m Merlin. And this is Arthur. King Arthur.”
“Arthur?” Ywain exclaimed, “The great king Arthur of whom I have heard so much? But he is believed to be dead, killed by a traitor who went by the name of Mordred.”
But before they could speak again, Gaius, Kay, Lamorak and Gareth came bursting into the cave.
“I told you, Gaius, I told you Arthur was back,” Merlin said without turning around.
“This can’t be,” Lamorak whispered, “You were dead, are dead.”
“There is this prophesy that I know of,” Kay said, “I heard it years ago from the druids. It says that Arthur will rise again when Camelot is in inescapable dire straits, when all seems completely lost. If there ever was a time like that, it’s definitely now…”
And then Ywain who walked over to where Arthur was sitting and he fell on one knee, saying: “My lord, my king. I, Ywain, offer you my sword as I did to queen Guinevere.”
In a corner Gaius was shaking his head, he still couldn’t believe all that was happening. Arthur was indeed well and truly back, and he would finally go to Camelot soon.
They all spend the rest of the afternoon outside, so that Arthur could rest after his long and arduous journey. Only Merlin stayed with him, tending him.
And that evening and night there was a lot of talking between Arthur, Lamorak, Kay and Ywain, and the knights thought Arthur should go with them to the waiting army, and to take command, which he graciously accepted. Sleep did not come easy that night, for they all were still overwhelmed with emotion at finding Arthur alive.
to be continued…