By sunrise he came out of the woods as he did every morning. Long unkempt dark hair he had, and a dirty beard framing a gaunt face, skin stretched taut over his cheekbones, sunken eyes darting to and fro. Thin as a rake he was, his once-red tunic torn and dirty, and there were holes in his boots. Every morning he came here, to the shores of the Lake of Avalon and every day you could see him walking by the lake, his eyes forever on that small island in the middle, and every night he disappeared again into the woods as he has done for a long time now. The Wild Man of the Woods they called him, and some say they had heard him mutter words in a strange language, the same words over and over again, but what it meant they knew not. Some made fun of him, driving their carts with great speed as they passed him by, laughing and booing, narrowly missing him, but he never missed a stride, he kept on walking, oblivious to the world around him. Even the Saxons left him in peace, that crazy Wild Man of the Woods.
Sometimes he went to a cave, hidden deep within the forest, far from prying Saxon eyes. An old man lived there, very old and very wise. We know each other, the man had said numerous times, we know each other very well, but remembering it he did not. When he came to visit he just sat there, never saying a word, slurping the thin and tasteless soup the man usually gave him. He was kind, this Gaius as the man called himself, very kind. After finishing the soup, he invariably sat on the only bed, knees drawn up to his chin, arms around his legs and the man told him stories. Tonight Gaius will tell him a story he must have heard many times before, a tale of who he is and why they came here, but remembering it he did not.
“It happened over five years ago now I think,” Gaius said and there was a deep sadness in his voice now, “five long and lonely years ago. You were the servant of Arthur, king of Camelot. Great friends the two of you were, loyal to each other, respecting each other, regardless of ancestry. A young man of noble birth and a young man of humble origins, brought together by destiny.
“But you were so much more. You were born with magic in a time when magic was forbidden. Still is I should think. And your magic was strong, far stronger than anyone could imagine, stronger than even you could imagine. Many times with that magic you saved Arthur’s life and he never knew it. It was your destiny.”
He sat there, listening and drinking nice cool water, but remembering it he did not.
“Then one day disaster struck. In a fierce battle Arthur was mortally wounded. You brought him at great peril to yourself to the Isle of Avalon so he could heal from his wounds, but you were too late and Arthur died in your arms. Such a tragic day that was, with so many of our friends dead or dying. So, after you had gently laid down Arthur’s body in a boat, it floated to the Isle of Avalon and then you came back to Camelot. Mad with grief you were, mad with inconsolable grief. You thought you had failed your destiny, that Arthur’s death was all your fault.”
He nodded and his sunken eyes seemed to drink in each and every word Gaius told him, but remembering it he did not.
“It was not long after that, that we were forced to flee. It was getting far too dangerous for us in Camelot. Magic was still outlawed, no matter how hard Gwen tried to make magic accepted, but there were too many knights who were against magic, having been told to detest magic too many times by Uther and later by Arthur. Perhaps they were afraid of it too, anyway, one day a witchfinder came to Camelot, one of Aredian’s pupils as I found out later, and this one was good, oh so very good…” Gaius shuddered at the thought, and he saw again all those innocent people being beheaded or burned at the stake. He closed his eyes for a moment, unable to continue his story; and all the time Merlin sat there, listening.
“So one night we managed to flee, that witchfinder knew who you were, and he wanted you dead. We finally came here, I knew this place of old. You were still so broken-hearted, day after day you would just sit here, crying, and night after night you woke up screaming, do you remember?”
He just shook his head as he sat there, listening. Gaius was playing with a crude little wooden dragon, hoping it would trigger some memories in Merlin, for it was the dragon Merlin’s father Balinor had once made for him, so many years ago now.
“Slowly I started to lose you, Merlin, you were getting more and more depressed, building wall after wall around you, completely shutting yourself off from this world. Then one day you started to lose your magic, very slowly at first, and hardly noticeable, but losing it you did, making you even more depressed, and the more you lost your magic, the less you talked and one day you simply stopped talking altogether. I no longer could get through to you, Merlin, and then one day you were gone, gone for a few days, and as that happened more and more I followed you one day and I saw you walking by the lake, never stopping, gazing over the water. And now you are gone every day and almost every night.”
I don’t remember my name being Merlin, he thought.
“And now you have been walking there for almost five years, hoping for Arthur to return. Merlin, I felt so sad for you, but nothing I said or did had any effect on you, your mind was closed to all but yourself and it still is I’m afraid. I tried to help you, but in vain. I even tried magic, but to no effect, your mind was closed even to that. But one day you will remember, one day you will realise that Arthur is gone forever, one day you will be Merlin again.”
Arthur will come back, Merlin thought, I know he will, I’ve seen it.
That he did remember.
She did not know what day it was, she did not even know if it was day or night, for the dungeon was deep underground, no sunlight could penetrate there, there was only the chill rising up from the ground, making Gwen’s bones colder with every passing day, despite the straw that had been put on the floor. From time to time her guard, Ned his name was, came with some food and water.
“There you are, little princess,” he would say, flinging down a bowl of water, and precious drops sloshed over the rim into the densely packed mud of the floor; followed by a bowl of watery soup with a few pieces of stringy meat floating in it, and a piece of stale black bread. Quickly she gulped it all down, trying not to think what sort of meat it was. There was shouting outside her cell, and she saw Ned punching another guard. “Don’t you dare hurt her, or even touch her,” he shouted, “Maleagant wants her in one piece and alive, unlike you, remember Alfric!” And Gwen did remember: Alfric had tried to hit her repeatedly with a sharp stick, just for fun, and Ned had made sure Alfric could never hurt her again, by killing him where he stood. Another blow and the guard got hurled against the grille of her cell, followed by a kick from Ned. Gwen recoiled, but she also knew she was safe. And every day she got the same food; enough to keep her alive, but not enough to satisfy her hunger.
The noise in the dungeons was deafening. Every cell was filled with prisoners, and more were coming in every day. People from all over the kingdom of Camelot, innocent people. They fought over crusts of bread thrown into the cells, tearing it from each other’s mouths even. Sometimes the guards took people away, they shouted, pleaded, fought, resisted, but to no avail. They were taken away, never to be seen again. She heard talk of villages looted and burned to the ground. She heard talk of Ealdor and cupped her hands over her ears, she did not want to hear the fate of her beloved Ealdor, her beloved friends.
So Gwen lay there, listening and thinking, hoping for a miracle that may never come, hoping for Arthur’s return, and her thoughts went back some years ago, to the time of Arthur’s demise. It has been so difficult, Gwen thought, so very difficult, those first few months after my beloved Arthur’s death. I never even got the chance to see him after Camlann, I never had the chance to say good-bye. The knights had been helpful, giving advice on how to rule the kingdom. They had, after all, sat with my husband on all matters of state, they knew so much… they have done so much… I tried to rule just and fair and I think I succeeded. The people of Camelot lived in peace, trading was good, our alliances with other kingdoms were strong. Life simply went on as before, for the citizens of Camelot I was their strong queen, keeping Arthur’s legacy alive, but for me it was all a play: I may have been a queen during the day, but I was a grieving widow at night, every night.
And then one day the Saxons came.
But Camelot was strong and they could not take our kingdom by force, so they planted spies and instigators in the outlying villages, and even within the castle itself. They sometimes poisoned our food and water, set fire to our houses, killing our men at night. We found them out eventually, but by then it was almost too late. Camelot by then was corrupted from within, its foundations were shaking. And it was during those times that Gaius and Merlin disappeared. It must be almost five years now. A witchfinder came, finding sorcerers everywhere and having them killed. Nobody had seen Gaius and Merlin, nobody knew where they went, if they were taken, or where they were taken. I don’t even know if they are still alive or not.
And Leon, strong and loyal Leon, went missing too, but whether he was dead of captured to be ransomed later nobody knew, for his body was never found, and no request for ransom ever came.
But Camelot remained strong, we survived somehow and we defeated the Saxons time and time again, but all the fighting had taken its toll and Camelot started to grow weaker and weaker, and eventually the Saxons won, and now some brute is sitting on the throne, my throne, Arthur’s throne, but Arthur is dead, so many people are dead and Merlin and Gaius must be dead too, and soon I will be dead and there will be no more Camelot and…
Tears came to her eyes again and Gwen cried herself to sleep, oblivious to all the noise around her.
And northwards the Knight rode, stopping only to rest the horses or to rest themselves. They ate whatever meagre rations they could find, for the land was a wasteland, and they filled their water-bottles at every stream they came across. This land was free of Saxons, there were no more villages or supplies left for them to plunder. And so they finally came to the kingdom of Dinas Emrys which was still unspoiled, the Saxons had not yet come this far north. They rode until they reached the castle known as the Castle of the Pond of Dragons and asked for an audience with King Ban, for he had always been loyal to Camelot. They were asked to wait, and they could see dozens of archers behind the crenellations, watching them, ready to fire a volley of arrows should the knights make one false move.
They did not have to wait long. The drawbridge was lowered and the Knights, tired and hungry, rode into the inner courtyard where they were met with numerous fully armoured knights, swords drawn. King Ban was not taking any chances, for the Saxons could easily come to his castle too. Kay, Lamorak, Gareth, Gaharis and Ywain raised their hands, showing they came in peace. For a moment nobody moved, then a knight of king Ban nodded curtly, sheathed his sword and said: “Welcome Sirs,” and to his squire: “Take their horses and look after them well. See that they are fed and watered and be sure to groom those horses with great care and attention. Sir Knights, please follow me. King Ban is very anxious to speak with you, but perhaps you would like to freshen up first?”
“Thank you good sir,” Sir Kay said, “a little water perhaps, but it is better if we speak with King Ban first.”
And so with great haste they were shown into King Ban’s chambers. “My good Sirs, I have heard of the terrible Saxon attacks in the south. I gather there is something very wrong or you would not be here,” Ban said without preamble.
“Indeed Sire,” Kay said, “I am afraid Camelot has fallen into the hands of the Saxons. Guinevere our Queen is held prisoner in Camelot. We saw no other way than to leave Camelot and seek help.” With these words Lamorak looked at Gareth, but the latter did not show any emotion. Lamorak relaxed just a little bit. “The Saxons are making a stronghold in the south first it seems,” continued Kay, “before heading north and they will head north, of that I am sure, parts of the land has already been plundered. It is therefore that we stand here before you today, Sire, pleading that you, and all those who are loyal to you and to Camelot, will raise an army to retake Camelot and restore peace in our lands once more. This, Sire, we humbly ask of you. Together we can drive that Saxon vermin from our kingdoms. For if we do nothing, more and more kingdoms will fall, and those Saxons will rule over our beloved Albion.”
Ban sat quiet for a while, lost in thought. Finally he said: “My head knows you are right but my heart is worried. Many lives will be lost, including many of my own men.”
“Too many lives have already been lost Sire, lives of innocent children, innocent women. We all must unite now to save all those who are still alive, including your own citizens.”
“Yes…” Silence again. “Very well. I will sent envoys to the neighbouring kingdoms and urge them to come to your aid, to our aid. We hold Camelot in high esteem, for you have helped us in the past, and Arthur has always been a honest king, just as Guinevere is a worthy queen. Besides, as you said, one day they will be heading north, and that day will soon be upon us. Now, allow me to have you escorted to your chambers for a hot bath and hot food. We will talk further of this on the morrow. I must make preparations now”
The knights bowed deep.
“Thank you King Ban,” Kay said, “You truly are a wise and just king.”
to be continued…