“Are you sure you can joust?” a concerned Percival asked Leon, as he looked involuntary at the latter’s crippled leg.
“Of course I can joust,” Leon answered irritably, tugging a bit too violently at the straps of his vambraces while Loholt, his squire, was trying to fasten the cumbersome jousting gorget. “My horse must run, not me,” and his thoughts went back to the last few years, taken captive by the Saxons, the way they broke his leg, the way they tortured him to get information on Camelot’s strength and weaknesses; but Leon never spoke, for the one thing the Saxons could not break had been his spirit, his undying loyalty to Arthur and Camelot. Then the clarions sounded, and with a jolt Leon was back on the jousting field. “Now get me my helmet,” he snapped at Loholt, and feeling instantly ashamed for his behaviour.
Soon the knights were ready, eager to prove their jousting skills, and not thinking of the danger. The lances were made of a very light wood that would break easily, splinters could still fly through the eye-slits of their helmets or unprotected areas of their bodies, and even one splinter could maim or kill. There was great cheer from the crowd as the knights entered the tournament field and the herald announced them one by one. They all gave their token to the herald, each hoping their token would be the last one on the board, declaring them the winner. The knights mounted, assisted by their squires, for mounting a horse in full jousting armour is no easy task.
“Welcome, honourable knights, fair citizens of Camelot,” Arthur said, “I won’t bore you with a long speech, but I can’t tell you how happy I am to see you all after all these years, to actually be here, and to finally see a proper joust again. Please enjoy yourselves, and remember: last man standing wins the prize!” and with these words he sat down again, smiling, as the crowd let out a deafening cheer.
“Honourable Knights of Camelot,” the herald said as soon as the noise from the rambunctious crowd had died down, “welcome to this very first joust after many a year. This joust as you all know is open to the Knights of Camelot only, and please do not forget this is a joust à plaisir,” and the herald looked sternly at the row of mounted knights as he announced this: no killing or maiming each other.
“Sir Dinadan and Sir Ector,” he shouted and the first two knights took up their positions. They closed their visors, and shifted in the saddle, trying to get as comfortable as possible. A flag fell and two horses thundered toward each other, the knights balancing their lances, trying to see their opponent through the narrow slits in their helmets, aim their lance and hit the other at exactly the right spot.
Wood smashed into steel, splinters were flying everywhere, but they did not fall off their horses. Quickly both knights rode to the end of the field, took a new lance their squires held ready, and seconds later they made a second attempt of unhorsing one another. Steel-shod hooves were kicking up clouds of dust and clumps of grass, and another clash of wood on steel. Sir Ector was bending dangerously backwards, but by sheer determination he managed to hold on and stay in the saddle. He grabbed another lance and for the third time he raced towards Sir Dinadan, but now he was not so lucky. The iron fist at the tip of Dinadan’s lance hit him squarely on his shoulder, he felt himself gliding from the saddle and he crashed to the ground. His squire came running to him as the crowd cheered Sir Dinadan. From the corner of his eye Ector could see the herald taking his token from the board as he limped towards the pavilion. There would be no more jousting for him that day.
And so, as the afternoon progressed, more and more knights saw their token taken down until there were only two knights left: Sir Leon and Sir Lanval. With great difficulty, and with the assistance of Loholt, Leon had mounted his horse, for he was very tired, and his leg was throbbing painfully making him all but physically sick. It had taken all his strength and more to stay in the saddle today, and he could not give up now. He closed his eyes and took a deep breath, trying to calm himself, trying to ease the tension in his muscles, trying to forget the pain.
“I must win this one,” he muttered to himself, “I must prove that I am still a Knight of Camelot, fully capable to fight, and my leg is a mere inconvenience, easily forgotten.” And so, as he mounted his trusted horse, he clenched his teeth, trying not to scream out in pain. The flag fell, and within seconds it was all over, for, with one well-aimed thrust, Leon had managed to unhorse his opponent. His vision blurred, and for a fraction of a second his world went black; the jousting field turned into a dungeon with screaming prisoners, for the breaking of the lance had reminded him of the breaking of his own bones again, and he saw the Saxons hovering over him, sneering, breaking his leg, twisting it… He slumped in the saddle, almost falling off and the remains of the lance slipped from his fingers. Loholt quickly helped him slide off his horse, supporting him, trying not to show the crowd, the knights and Arthur how worn-out and near collapse Leon really was. Leon smiled as he saw his token on the board, the only token still left, and somewhere he found the strength to raise his arms in victory as the crowd cheered and applauded him. Arthur too was applauding and beckoned him towards the Royal Stand. Slowly Leon limped towards Arthur, unaided by Loholt who had stayed behind, thinking: Leon must do this alone, stand there alone, strong and without aid.
Meanwhile all the knights had mounted again and were forming one big and colourful wall on the jousting field. The herald formally gave Arthur Leon’s token, indicating he truly was the winner.
Arthur took the token in both hands and said: “Sir Leon, it is my great privilege and joy to present you with the prize for winning this historical joust, the first joust of a new Camelot,” and with these words Arthur presented Leon with a beautifully crafted ceremonial sword, engraved with delicate and intricate scrollwork, and it had a golden hilt with a ruby set into the pommel. Leon carefully took the sword in his trembling hands and said: “Thank you, my lord”. Behind him the knights raised their swords and shouted as one man: “For the love of Camelot!”, and soon everybody, knight and citizen alike, was chanting the same words over and over again, and there was shed many a tear of joy.
Then Arthur raised his hand, asking for silence. Slowly the noise died down, and everybody stood in anticipation waiting for Arthur’s words. Even the horses were quiet, sensing something special was about to begin. For a moment Arthur gazed over the jousting field with all those newly dubbed Knights of Camelot, and felt a sudden sadness at seeing so very few of the old knights, and he let his gaze wander over the packed stands with loyal citizens, happy again after so many years of Saxon attacks and the short, but harsh Saxon rule. He smiled and then he spoke, his voice carrying to every corner of the stands.
“Firstly, I can’t begin to feel you how happy I am, and to be able to see you all and—” Here Arthur’s words were drowned out by the deafening noise of the cheering crowd and the banging of the knight’s swords against their shields. Arthur fell silent for a moment, smiling at Gwen and squeezing her hand. “Today has been a most wonderful day in a long time—” More cheering erupted. “—and together we will build a new and stronger Camelot!” The Knights now all raised their swords and again shouted as one man: “For the love of Camelot!”, and the crowd immediately followed suit, and behind him Arthur heard Merlin and Gaius shouting too.
“For decades now,” Arthur continued, “any form of sorcery has been forbidden here in Camelot, a ban first established by my father Uther, and I had good reasons to continue with that ban, for, as you all probably know, my father was killed by using magic. Evil magic. Dark magic.” The crowd now was quiet, and an uncomfortable silence had descended like a thick, black cloud on a sunny day, making everything bleak and dreary and cold. There were many amongst the citizens who practiced magic, or knew someone who was a sorcerer; and all grew restless, expecting the worst, Merlin included. He knew all too well Arthur suspected him of being a sorcerer too… His mouth went dry and he looked at Gaius who gave him a reassuring, albeit weak, smile.
“But I have come to realise magic can also be a good thing. If it wasn’t for magic, I wouldn’t stand here before you today, and I’ve learned it was dark magic thwarting the good magic that the sorcerer used to heal my father. Therefore I declare that henceforth magic is no longer forbidden—” Here Arthur paused for a second as there descended a great silence over the crowd, a silence of disbelief and confusion, but within seconds there sounded an ear-shattering cheer. All their pent-up fears and anxieties found an outlet, they could hardly believe what they had just heard, magic no longer forbidden? It sounded too good to be true. Not all cheered, however, there were still a number of people who, like Uther, had always despised magic and still did.
In the crowd Gilli felt elated too, finally he could realise his dream of a show filled with magical tricks for all to see. Tricks to amaze and delight his audience, but part of him still thought he was dreaming and this was not happening. A Pendragon announcing magic is no longer outlawed, no longer punishable by death. Suppose this is a trick, he said to himself, suppose everyone Arthur suspected of being a sorcerer will now be arrested and executed on the spot, so Arthur can finish what Uther had started. In the crowd he could see a man with a bright flame dancing in the palm of his hand, and smiling he looked around, but nervously stealing a glance at Arthur, as if to say: look, we can do this now without being hunted down and killed. Gilli saw Arthur looking at the man, and Arthur’s face darkened, but nothing happened, no command to execute the man was given. Slowly Gilli began to realise Arthur’s words had been sincere and the dark cloud surrounding him vanished.
Merlin too felt relieved and happy, but his soul was in turmoil as he suddenly realised he could never tell Arthur the truth now, not when he had lied to him so many times, telling Arthur again and again he was not a sorcerer. He was afraid that Arthur would be furious and ban him from Camelot or even worse, kill him or throw him in an oubliette, to be forgotten forever. He looked at Gaius, and saw tears from happiness streaming down his deeply wrinkled cheeks. Gaius would have no trouble using magic, for Arthur already knows he is a sorcerer, Merlin thought and he felt happy for him. He could hear Gilli’s words again, accusing him of being a nobody, afraid of being found out, forever living in hiding.
“But…,” Arthur continued as the tumult had died down enough for him to make himself heard again, “but this applies only to the use of magic for good. Dark magic will be dealt with swiftly and harshly. Anyone caught practicing dark and evil magic will immediately be put to death.” He could see a few people scuttling away, trying to make themselves invisible and he almost imperceptibly nodded to the guards, indicating where they went. Within mere minutes the suspects were securely in the dungeons, to be dealt with later, although one of them managed to kill one of the guards by using dark magic before his heart met with the sharp steel of another guard’s sword.
“And,” Arthur continued, “I also declare that druids are no longer outlawed, but are free to come and go as they please, provided they come with peaceful intentions of course.”
“Have you gone mad,” Arthur suddenly heard an angry voice in his head, ”Are you trying to bring down Camelot with this folly? I have been striving to…,” the voice now was a piercing scream, causing Arthur to flinch and clasp his head in agony. “For decades I’ve been trying to safeguard Camelot from sorcery, making it a safe place, and you are willing to throw all that away? You are no longer a son of mine, Arthur Pendragon, and you are not worthy to even carry the name of Pendragon! This will not be the last of it, you can be sure of that!” The voice of Uther cut through his head, like a thousand sharp knives slicing through every fibre of his body. Uther’s face was now flesh, now a skull, shrouded in wisps of fog; features snarling, eyes flashing. Arthur saw himself standing between giant standing stones, all shrouded in an eerie bluish light, Uther’s voice reverberated from all directions, pounding into Arthur’s head. The world was spinning and Uther’s voice screaming wordless sounds kept slamming onto Arthur’s whole body. “You worthless, ill-begotten spawn of malicious magic, soon you will join me here, I will make sure of that, and woe that day!”
“Sire, are you alright?” came the worried voice of Gaius as he saw Arthur tremble all over. ”You were gone for a second there.”
“Yes, Gaius, I’m fine,” Arthur said with difficulty, wiping his sweaty hands on his robe and thought: only a second? For me it had felt like hours… Uther’s voice now had faded and the pain was almost gone. “There was a voice…,” he murmured, more to himself than others, and he stood erect once more, overlooking the crowd.
Gaius looked at Merlin, unsure of what to do, but before Merlin could say anything, Percival shouted “Long live the King!” and all the knights followed suit: “Long live the King!” And as more and more people joined in, the incident was soon forgotten.
to be continued…