Thursday, January 7, 2010

Exclusive US Preview: Arthur and Excalibur - Chapter 4!

Chapter 4


WINTER WAS SLOWLY BEGINNING TO RECEDE and the sweet smell of spring was in the air, wild flowers were beginning to poke through the cold earth and reach up to the light, seeking that extra warmth, the birdsong had a joyous lilt to it, welcoming the new season. Around the sleepy villages and hamlets activity was increasing as they awoke from their long slumber, the sound of happy voices and laughter sweeping away the last remnants of winter. Spring was round the corner, a time of new growth and beginnings, a buzz that went right throughout the land every year without fail. Relief on surviving those harsh barren months, turning to happiness and a light hearted feeling as the warmth bathed the land and regenerated a multitude of colour across the landscape. A time of fun and laughter for all during the transition of the seasons brought out the best in people, with the hope of a good year ahead. A general calm had settled over the country and appeared to be lasting with no trouble in any region, not even a minor squabble. The undercurrent of discontent that had been building up before the turn of the year appeared to have been swept away, a new sense of peace had descended throughout the land, like a gentle wave of contentment.

Arthur and Kay were pleased to be able to get outside at last and carry on with their training and exploring the area in their free time. Sir Ector was glad too, as there was only so much that could be done inside and the boys could be rather a handful when they became bored, now he could keep them busy outside with the many tasks that they needed to learn. Thankfully Gwendolyn had been a blessing throughout those cold dark months, keeping the boys amused and out of mischief, he was glad that Merlin had persuaded him to take her on as well as Arthur. Thinking of which reminded him that Merlin had not been around for some while, and that was a little unusual in itself, but no doubt he would show his face soon, he always did as soon as he was thought about.
Days passed but still no Merlin, and Sir Ector started to feel concerned, as he had never stayed away this long, even if he only stopped by briefly in passing, disappearing as quickly as he had come. Then out of the blue Taliesin arrived early one morning, looking as if he had ridden a great distance in a hurry. Luckily the boys were not around when he sought out Sir Ector and explained in peace and privacy the nature of his visit and the news he brought, before it became common knowledge. Taliesin explained that Merlin had asked him to come with all speed as he was not in a position to do so himself. Uther, High King of Britain, had decided that he would take the Lady Igraine as his wife and a large troop of his knights were already on their way to escort her and her family to Cadbury Castle, something she was not aware of herself yet. Merlin had gone to see her ahead of the soldiers, to advise her of the King’s desire, but would not be there for another day, he did not foresee there being a problem as they were of similar age and well matched and she was a lady of breeding in her own right. Merlin however wished to see the Lady Igraine before her escort arrived as there were several important matters he wished to discuss with her. At the same time the King had sent messengers throughout the country inviting all the kings, lords and knights to his wedding feast, which would be on the day of the summer solstice. Taliesin paused for breath and asked Sir Ector if he was aware of any of this, and on receiving a shake of his head relaxed a little, commenting that he was in time then.

“Merlin has instructed me to warn you that it would be very unwise of you to attend the wedding, in any event the boys must not be allowed to go, even if you do not heed his advice for yourself. He has had a vision, which I am not at liberty to discuss, which leads him to believe that it would be a very dangerous place to be for all those that attend, irrespective of who they were or their standing with the King. Hence his urgent need to see the Lady Igraine before the news reached her, and for me to arrive before any messenger reached you.”

Sir Ector could understand now why Taliesin had looked as if he had ridden all day and all night, he probably had. It did not sound very good and he knew enough about Merlin to know that he was usually right, but was intrigued to know what Merlin was expecting to happen, all Taliesin would say however was one word. Treachery. He would not be drawn any more on the subject and with that Sir Ector had to be satisfied.

The problem would be how to decline without offending the King and suffering his wrath, he thought, this requires some careful deliberation. Taliesin read his thoughts and offered him the solution, that it would be best to readily accept the invitation and send his congratulations back with the King's messenger, but when the time came just not to go. Both Merlin and Taliesin felt that this would be the wisest and safest course of action, and any excuse for not making it on the day could be made afterwards, if it became necessary in the light of events. Sir Ector pondered on this for a moment and could see the benefit of this, accepting and then not being able to go due to some unforeseen problem, would keep him in good stead with the King. He agreed with Taliesin that he would follow this course of action and thanked him for his advice and wisdom and asked him to convey his gratitude to Merlin, then suggested that he freshen up whilst food and drink was organised, and perhaps a well earned rest before the boys made an appearance.

“That’s the best news that I’ve heard for days,” smiled Taliesin.

Hours later two weary boys returned with their cart full of wood, which Sir Ector had sent them to fetch, to get their young muscles working again after the lack of good exercise during the winter. Seeing Taliesin they dashed over to see him, but were reminded by Sir Ector that they had to unload the cart before they did anything else. Weariness deserted Arthur and Kay as they set to removing and stacking the wood in record time, then rejoined Taliesin, plying him with questions about his travels, where he had been and what he had been doing.

Taliesin laughed and said, “one thing at a time boys, I cannot answer all your questions at once, but first tell me what you have been doing, then I will tell you my story.”

Time passed all too quickly for Arthur and Kay, the light had begun to fade as the sun sank gently over the horizon in a last blaze of glory, Taliesin remarked that he had done enough talking for one day, any more questions would have to wait. Realising how hungry they were the boys thanked him and took their leave, laughing and smiling as they went in search of food. Taliesin remarked to Sir Ector how well they got on together, being so natural and at ease with each other he felt sure that they would be life long friends and would also be outstanding knights when they were of age, as they were so forward for their young years.

Taliesin stayed until the middle of the following day, being kept busy by never ending questions from Arthur and Kay as usual, but finally he had to bring them to a halt and say that it was time for him to leave, he had many people that he still had to see. Wishing them well he had a few moments alone with Sir Ector advising him to be extra vigilant over the coming months as there was still an underlying undercurrent of unrest lurking beneath all the peace and joviality that had spread across the land. This was the time when complacency set in, unless they were on their guard and aware that events could suddenly take a turn for the worse. It was best to expect the unexpected was Taliesin’s farewell comment as he mounted his horse, and waving goodbye headed south to carry word of the King’s wedding and Merlin’s warning, to several others, that they should be prepared for the worst. Merlin had sent word to all the Elders advising them of the situation so that they might pass the warning on to any that they felt should know. The King’s wedding to Igraine would soon be known about throughout the land but Merlin’s vision and warning were only for a select few. Time was running out.

* * * * *

Spring slowly meandered into summer and Arthur and Kay were kept very busy with an increased training schedule and didn’t have much time for relaxation, but that did not seem to bother them as they enjoyed testing their skills. Sir Ector had taken Merlin’s warning to heart, although he did not understand the reason for it, and was keeping the boys close to home, not letting them wander off as they had been known to do before. He was also preparing them as quickly as he could for their young age in the ways of knighthood, lest the country slip into another period of anarchy. Normally they were not bothered too much by outside events in this corner of the country, but times could change and Taliesin’s parting comment echoed in his mind. It was best to expect the unexpected and that was what he was doing as each day drew Uther’s wedding closer. He had been to see the Lady Igraine the day that her escort had arrived to take her to Cadbury Castle, as she had sent word asking him to call on her urgently. He had extended his congratulations and best wishes on her forthcoming marriage to the King. She had seemed remarkably at ease and laughed at the thought of becoming the Queen. It seemed to amuse her, as although of good breeding, she had always considered herself as a normal country girl and soon she would have to act as the Lady of the Realm. Sir Ector was curious to know what Merlin had wanted to talk to her about, but being a gentlemen he would not raise the subject and Igraine never mentioned that he had called to see her, so he was left wondering.

Two weeks before the big day Merlin finally arrived at Padstow looking extremely tired, just as Taliesin had done on his arrival. Here is another one who hasn’t rested much recently, thought Sir Ector, as he welcomed him and sent for food and wine. Merlin said he couldn’t stay long as he still had much to do but wished to make sure that the boys were alright and that Sir Ector was going to heed his warning and stay away from the wedding. Sir Ector confirmed that he had accepted the invitation as suggested, but that he would not be going, he was curious as to why Merlin thought that it would be so dangerous. Merlin told him that his vision showed that treachery was involved but was not detailed enough to be able to pin point exactly what, but that it would bring great changes to the country after an initial period of mayhem and chaos. The vision had been getting stronger and more frequent as each day passed and Merlin suspected that whatever was going to occur would materialise at Uther’s wedding. All the signs pointed to this event, so he was advising all his trusted friends to either go prepared or preferably to find some excuse to stay away, as the innocent were often the victims where treachery was to be found. It saw neither friend nor foe, only the means to and end, in whatever form it took, totally reckless and random. If he knew more then he might be able to stop it or at least minimise its effects, but alas he had not been shown the detail, therefore he had come to the conclusion that this was one occasion when he could not interfere and must let what will be, be. Merlin paused for thought, we are running out of time and we are not yet fully prepared.

Looking at Merlin Sir Ector could see that it was affecting him deeply and remained quiet. He had never seen him look so worried in all the time that he had known him, it seemed as if he had aged twenty years since he had last visited. Whatever was going to happen obviously had far reaching consequences that did not bode well for the country or its people, and this had disturbed Merlin greatly. Sir Ector was thankful that he had taken the warning seriously and would need to be constantly vigilant and on his guard until whatever was going to happen had come to pass, then the situation could be assessed.

Merlin gradually surfaced from the grim mood that had enveloped him and offered his apologies for not being able to be any more specific concerning his vision.

“At least we are prepared for something,” stated Sir Ector, “even if we are not sure what. Taliesin summed it up with his parting comment, expect the unexpected, that’s all we can do.”

Merlin agreed, “wait and hope, that is all we can do for now, wait and hope.” He excused himself and said that he must be going, as there where still others he needed to see and time was running out for all of them. “Keep the boys close for now,” was his parting comment as he wearily departed for his next destination.

Sir Ector watched him go, deep in thought, there is more to all this than meets the eye and I’m sure Merlin knows what is going to happen even if he does not know how or can even be sure of when, he knows the outcome. Why is he always so concerned about Kay and Arthur and their well being and progression, or is it just Arthur that he is interested in? You never knew with Merlin and what he was thinking unless he told you. What was so special about Arthur I wonder that he was brought here to be educated and cared for away from the centre of court social life, has he a part to play in the future? If so Merlin is keeping close counsel about it. It would be no good questioning his mother Gwendolyn for I doubt that she would know the truth, Merlin is too wise for that. He paused for a moment as he recollected Merlin’s words to him concerning Arthur, 'could he also accommodate the woman that Arthur knows as his mother.' Perhaps she is not his natural birth mother at all but has taken on the role for whatever reason, the plot thickens. I could ask her but that is not a gentlemanly question to ask a woman, irrespective of her background, and Merlin would not be happy if I started to pry into his affairs. If or when I need to know then I will be told and it would be best to leave it at that, Merlin always had valid reasons for his actions. A wise and visionary soul who seemed to know so much of what was happening throughout the land and always striving to keep the peace, but this time he was very troubled and no doubt with good reason. Merlin had never been known to be wrong with his visions but was besides himself that on this occasion he could not influence the outcome like he had always done before. This time it was entirely out of his hands and it had affected him greatly, therefore one must assume that whatever was going to happen would have a far reaching effect on everyone’s lives.

* * * * *

Life on Sir Ector’s estate continued at its slow meandering pace, even the preparations for the summer solstice fair unwound in a leisurely fashion. Sir Ector was looking after Tintagel Fort for the Lady Igraine, so spent much of his time travelling backwards and forwards and often took Arthur and Kay with him to give them a change of scenery. They always travelled now with a well armed mounted troop and Sir Ector used the opportunity to give the boys training en-route in various methods of combat, in the open country and at times in the woods. They were delighted at this change to their routine, as it had become a little boring not being allowed to wander around the estate at will in their free time, however they were still not allowed to roam around on their own outside the fort. They saw many different animals in the woods and sometimes joined the hunt but as they often joked, no bears.

“That’s because you make so much noise,” laughed Sir Ector, “they can hear you coming long before you could get close to them, but as it happens no bears have been spotted in these woods for many years, most of them were killed for their fur and any that might remain keep well away from humans now.”

The day of the summer solstice fair finally arrived and Arthur and Kay were spending the morning at Padstow with Sir Ector and then they were travelling to Tintagel later in the day to join in the fun there. Sir Ector wondered how the wedding feast was going at Cadbury Castle as the wedding itself was not until noon of the following day, and whether Merlin was there or not, as he had not asked him if he was attending. That was one of his mysterious ways and effects on people, you never remembered to ask him a question until he had gone, unless it was one that he was willing to answer at the time. Sir Ector felt a shiver run through his whole body, from his head to his feet and into the ground and looking around realised that Arthur was watching him. He asked him if he felt it too and Arthur nodded and asked what it was as it did not feel very nice. Something not very nice had happened somewhere and they had felt the energy vibrations from it, perhaps because it directly affected them in some way replied Sir Ector, thinking of Merlin’s vision. Kay, looking from one to the other did not know what they were talking about as he had not felt anything, and asked if they were alright. They both nodded as they felt unable to explain that feeling of dread that had passed through them and touched their hearts. Well, thought Sir Ector, whatever has happened I hope that the consequences are not too serious, but going by Merlin’s distraught nature on his visit that is probably a false hope.

* * * * *
Merlin was at Cadbury Castle, and had been for several days, observing, listening and trying to discover if there was an undercurrent of treachery in the air. He was baffled as all was peaceful and jovial with not a hint of anything untoward lurking in the background. Surely he couldn’t be wrong, the vision had been that strong and consistent, the regularity increasing as the day approached. Was he missing something, what had he overlooked? Nothing as far as he could see, all the main guests had arrived, with only a few minor stragglers still expected, there were no strange faces amongst them and all around him he could sense and observe only pleasure and excitement as the big day drew closer. Was there to be an attack by the Saxons and their allies? He doubted that as he would have received warning of any build up of hostile forces from his contacts. He had cast his mind and vision around the area and within the castle grounds and could still find nothing but peace and goodwill, he was truly baffled for once in his long life.

At least he had persuaded Uther to send the Lady Igraine to Glastonbury to prepare herself for the wedding in the Abbey the following day, as ladies preferred their preparations to be unhurried. He also reminded the King that a man might wish to complete unfinished business and perhaps tie up a few loose ends before his marriage made that a little difficult. Uther, with a smile on his lips, understood exactly what Merlin was suggesting and saw the merit of his suggestion, as well as the pleasure that he could indulge in and sent one of his guards to Lady Igraine requesting the pleasure of her company. Merlin smiled, how easy it is to persuade men on a certain course of action by sowing the right seed in their mind and letting it germinate to full bloom within seconds. These people are so easily lead, no wonder they have so much trouble living in peace with one another if a few choice words can alter their thinking so quickly when they see advantage in it for themselves. Its going to be a long hard struggle before they learn the joys of peace and love in the true sense, and experience a far better kind of life in this mixed up and volatile world of theirs. A long hard struggle but well worth the effort, not just for the ambassadors sent to help, like my own people, but for all the people of this world when they eventually discover their own capabilities and the beauty of life that is there for them. But that is a long way off yet, first we need to concentrate on what is happening now and gently lead them forward. I wish I knew what was going to happen to Uther, but then if I did I would do my best to change the course of events and that is not what I am supposed to do, I just have to sit this out and then pick up the pieces. Time has run out for me and for Arthur. All that I can hope for is that my vision is wrong, but in my heart I know that is not so. What will be, will be. With those thoughts Merlin wandered off to seek out Taliesin who was somewhere amongst the crowd, but he was in no hurry now, the weight of worry had been lifted from his mind to be replaced by an inner peace and calm. The calm before the storm, which he would ride out, then pick up the pieces and carry on as he always did.

Igraine had left for Glastonbury with her entourage and the party atmosphere had moved up a gear as the wine began to flow, the entertainers performed and the feasting started in earnest. It had not taken Uther long to find one of his ‘unfinished pieces of business’ as Merlin had so delicately put it and was intently whispering in her ear. She gave a long shuddering laugh of pleasure as they walked away together towards the castle chambers oblivious to the knowing stares of those they passed on the way. Uther’s reputation and appetite was well known and he wasn’t expected back for a couple of hours at least, and then probably to find another conquest knowing him, making the most of his remaining hours before his marriage tomorrow. But would he change, few doubted it, he would just have to be more discreet in future.

As it was a beautifully warm summers day tables had been arranged outside for the main feast, making the most of the long evening of daylight as it was the summer solstice. Uther made his appearance, smiling and with a contented look on his face as the feasting and drinking began in earnest. Merlin and Taliesin had decided to forego the early proceedings and catch up on some well earned rest before putting in an appearance later, as neither were ones for consuming much wine, they had no need of it. Songs were sang, toasts were made and the wine flowed freely and for once it was Uther supplying it all and everyone was making the most of it.

The afternoon progressed slowly into the early evening and still the wine flowed, although some of the guests had consumed too much already and had passed out, sprawled in a variety of positions around the area. Uther was moving from table to table mixing with the guests, laughing and joking and calling for more wine as he went. The wine however did not arrive and people were beginning to voice their disapproval, thinking that Uther had no more, so he sent one of his men to find out what the problem was. Several minutes later he returned stating that there had been a problem opening a barrel, but it was okay now, and saying that the servants appeared bearing huge jugs of wine. Uther shouted to the crowd that there had been a problem locating his best wine but it was now being served, to which there were roars of approval and shouts of 'about time too.' Uther grabbed a couple of jugs with one hand and an attractive lady with another and shouted to the crowd to enjoy it whilst he attended to some urgent business. This brought peels of laughter as everyone knew what sought of business he had in mind, as he disappeared with the young lady.

The wine continued to flow freely, jug after jug, and voices got louder and songs got bawdier as the evening progressed. Then one of the guests gave a strangled cry and pitched forward, foaming at the mouth, then another, and quickly followed by several more. Within minutes there were around thirty or more guests that had collapsed foaming at the mouth. Of those seemingly unaffected some were trying to help those that had collapsed and the others had panicked, dashing around getting in each others way. A cry of 'we’ve been poisoned' was taken up by many, followed by 'where’s the King, he’s responsible for this.'

All this commotion brought Merlin and Taliesin out of their slumber with the one thought in their minds, the vision, and they rushed to the feasting area as quickly as they could. The sight that met their eyes was appalling, there were bodies everywhere, some lying very still, others writhing about in agony, whilst some appeared to be trying to help, the rest just sat in stunned silence unable to take in what was happening.

“Poison,” muttered Merlin, “we need to find Uther and hope that we are not too late, let us hope that he is running true to form and giving his full attention to some young damsel, instead of the wine.”

They searched high and low through all the bed chambers in the castle and although they stumbled across many couples and some groups engaged in compromising positions not a sign of Uther could they find.

Returning to the scene of carnage in the feasting area they checked all the bodies on the chance that one might be the King, but alas no, he was nowhere to be found and it was probably too late by now anyway. Stopping to review the scene Merlin cast his minds eye throughout the castle grounds searching for a clue or vision as to the King’s location. Slowly combing each area of the castle, - there - something was there, but indistinct. Of course the stables, why didn’t he think of that before, the one place that Uther could indulge himself with a lady for a few hours without being disturbed by either the rowdy noise or couples seeking a bed for their passion.

The light was dim in the stables until Merlin delved into the pouch about his waist and produced a crystal wand that he held aloft. Taliesin had done the same and as they both stood quiet for a moment, then uttered an ancient incantation in the elder tongue, the wands burst into light and the whole area was bathed in a soft incandescent glow that illuminated every corner and chased the lurking shadows away.

They found Uther in the hay loft, still coupled in the throes of passion with the young lady, both smiling sweetly at each other, otherwise unmoving. A moment frozen in time, the High King of Britain taking his last journey just as he would have wished, with the empty wine jugs by his side as his epitaph. The first part of Merlin’s vision had materialised just as he knew it would, but much too soon. Uther had died from poisoning, accelerated by his passionate exertions, and as the unfortunate lady had not been able to move him she had suffocated under his weight. Now we have to sort this mess out and make it look respectable for a start, thought Merlin, and Taliesin reading his mind silently agreed. It would be too much for Igraine to bear to learn the full circumstances of Uther’s last moments, then we need to find out who else has perished in this sorry affair and what repercussions were likely to arise from this turmoil. Take stock of the situation and try and hold everything together for a few more years until Arthur became of age. Much needed to be done and quickly to try and minimise the chaos that was bound to follow. A country without a leader was ripe for plunder and anarchy, just as the next part of his vision portrayed. We will do our best to keep everything together as much as possible by whatever means we can, and hope and pray that we are successful. He looked at Taliesin who nodded his agreement with Merlin’s thoughts as they turned to the grim task of separating the two lovers.

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