Friday, January 8, 2010

Exclusive US Preview: Arthur and Excalibur - Chapter 5!

Chapter 5


THE NIGHT WAS LONG AND PAINFUL for Merlin and Taliesin as they  administered help and potions to those that had not succumbed to the poison, and organising the removal of the dead to the great hall. Merlin had sought out Uther’s wise old battle chief Greyfus, who had survived to a good age on his knowledge and wits as he rarely drank, and advised him of the demise of the King and where his body was to be found. He suggested that he take several trusted and discreet men with him as they would also find the body of a lady, as it appeared that the couple were intending to take a ride when they were overcome by the poison. Greyfus looked intently at Merlin but could read nothing in his look, although he suspected that it was only half of the story knowing his King, Uther liked to ride but more often than not the filly only had two legs and not four.

“It wont stop the tales being spread of his last hours though,” he commented, “but it will be the only story told by those of us that attend to it, and naturally we will lay them to rest in the great hall separately according to their rank. Leave it to me and I will see that it is done discreetly,” with that he went in search of suitable companions for his task, leaving Merlin to save those that he could from the agony of such a death.

Merlin and Taliesin worked for several hours to neutralise the affects of the poison on those still hanging on to life, after which all they could do was wait and hope. Several kings in their own right and many lords owed their lives to Merlin and Taliesin that night, but they both doubted that this fact would be remembered for very long, knowing human nature. Merlin left Taliesin to keep an eye on the patients and went off to the kitchens to question the servants and locate the source of the problem, but as expected there was no sign of anyone. The servants had all made themselves scarce when they discovered what had happened as they knew that they would be blamed for causing so many deaths, and probably forfeit their heads in the process. Merlin began checking the barrels, which had been stacked in rows, working his way towards the rear amazed at how many empty ones there were.

He had counted thirty and still not encountered one that contained any wine, then turning into the next row he almost stumbled over the prone figure of an old man slumped against the barrels. Bending down to check his breathing Merlin realised that he was still alive, but only just, and quickly forced down the old man’s throat the remaining potion that he had left. The man coughed and then vomited violently and continued in this way for several minutes before slowly subsiding into a hoarse cough. His eyes rolled and he became aware of someone standing over him and a voice asking him if it was this barrel of wine that he had been drinking. He nodded and a thin whisper emanated from his lips, “couldn’t resist it, brought it all the way from Tintagel without touching a drop and then thought why should all the lords have it. Tried to stop the servant girls from taking it, but they just pushed me out of the way in the end saying the King was calling for it as all the rest had gone, think I’d had too much by them anyway to care who drank it.”

This was worrying news to Merlin, wine from Tintagel that had been poisoned, by whom and when, was it there or was it here? He needed to know and quickly. Merlin asked the old man if he had been with the wine all the time since it arrived, but received no answer so he bent closer and asked him again shaking him at the same time. No sound came from his lips, but was that a nod, Merlin could not be sure and shook him again but it was too late, the old man had slipped away and with him the answer to a worrying riddle. Who at Tintagel would want to carry out such an indiscriminate act as this? thought Merlin, even the Lady Igraine could have been a victim and she was well liked and respected. Then who was there here who would interfere with this barrel of wine and why this one in particular? It didn’t make sense, as nobody could know when or even if this barrel would be drunk and the old man had been protecting it and consuming it himself. He had obviously been here for some while before the servants needed it so it could not have been doctored just before use as one would normally suspect, therefore it indicated that the poison was introduced some while ago. But where and by whom, had a Saxon spy infiltrated Cadbury or Tintagel or maybe somewhere en-route and administered the poison, had Gorlois planned revenge on Uther and Igraine somehow for their suspected indiscretion, knowing the possible outcome of his confrontation with the King, or was there some unknown factor involved? So confusing and so arbitrary in its likely outcome that he could see no reason for it, except that it fulfilled the first part of his vision and at a time that he had recently anticipated. Perhaps we shall never know for sure and that is worrying in itself, we do not even know if it was designed specifically to remove Uther or for other darker reasons by removing many lords and kings. We must be on our guard more than ever now and try and keep it all together until Arthur comes of age.

Merlin tapped the wine barrel in several places and decided that there was a quarter of it still left and taking the jug that was lying by the old man side he poured some into it and sniffed. He could detect no unusual smell to the wine, but that was not uncommon as there were so many varieties of poison that had no smell when blended with alcohol that he hadn’t really expected one, what was obvious though was the taste. A quick acting poison would taste very bitter but a slow acting one would be just slightly sharp and would probably go unnoticed, especially by anyone that had already consumed a large quantity of wine. Merlin tilted the jug and dipped his finger into the wine to moisten it and then placed it on his tongue, not unpleasant but quite a sharp bite to it, much more than he had anticipated. He washed his mouth out several times from the water skin around his waist, a little puzzled by the extra sharpness that he had tasted, but easily masked by previous drinking. If it had been served first then people would have complained but as it was some hours into the feast nobody noticed. However it was plain that whoever had poured the poison into the wine was not skilled in those matters, as too great a quantity was added and many things were left to chance. Thankfully because of this it acted much too quickly and many were saved, whereas a slower acting poison could have killed half the guests overnight during their sleep. Merlin took the stopper out of the barrel and let the remainder pour out onto the dirt floor, whilst he checked that there was no more wine in the store that could cause further problems.

He passed through the great hall on the way back to Taliesin and stopped and viewed the scene. Uther was laid out at the head with three lesser kings, ten lords and twelve knights to his right whilst on his left were two ladies, eight soldiers and two servants. Thirty eight in total plus the old man in the kitchen and any that might still slip away during the night, what a dreadful wedding feast. Merlin stopped, he had forgotten all about the Lady Igraine in all this turmoil, he must go and break the news to her and the bishop before the morning preparations were started. Merlin always seemed to be the bearer of bad news for Igraine, first having to give up her son and not be able to see him, then the news of her husbands death on confronting Uther and now the poisoning of her future husband on the eve of her wedding to the High King of Britain. If only it had been later, thought Merlin, then Arthur would have been the legitimate heir to the throne, but also in more danger until he was of age. Maybe its just as well that events happened when they are meant to and not when we wished them too.

* * * * *

Merlin arrived at Glastonbury as the warm glow of dawn was breaking and made his way to the bishop’s dwelling to advise him of the situation before having to face Igraine and ruin her big day. The bishop as was usual with holy men had already started his day and welcomed Merlin commenting on the fact that he was a little early for the ceremony, but it was as well to be prepared.

“Come break some bread with me you look like you could use some as I fear this early visit is not a good omen. What brings you at the crack of dawn wise one?”

Merlin recounted the events at the wedding feast and the appalling and indiscriminate loss of life that was the outcome and had come as quickly as he could, and as usual the bearer of bad news. The bishop beckoned to one of the nearby brothers and whispered some instructions to him and sent him off to carry them out. He had sent Brother Benedict on an errand to request that the Lady Igraine attended the inner sanctuary at her convenience but as a matter of urgency. He suggested that they wait for her there and offer their prayers to their departed brothers and sisters, also those that might be lingering between both worlds and give thanks for those that were spared.

Igraine appeared within the hour and was most surprised at finding Merlin at prayer with the bishop, then she saw their solemn faces and knew that something terrible had happened.

“Come child, pray with us a moment in the peace of this holy place and let the love of our Lord come upon us and lift our hearts,” intoned the bishop in his gentle lilting accent.

For some while they stood in a circle letting that love, peace and tranquillity sweep over them and through them, easing their burdens of life as the bishop said the prayers, then nodded to Merlin to break the news.

Igraine was heartbroken but being a Lady she kept her composure well and thanked them both for their consideration and kindness, then asked if she might be left alone for a few moments to come to terms with the terrible loss on what was to have been her wedding day. Every time she had seen Merlin in the last few years he had always been the bearer of bad news, she reflected, and each time was worse than the time before, would it ever end, she wondered. Now that Uther had gone would she be reunited with her son and heir to the throne, wherever he might be, somehow she doubted that Merlin would allow this as he would not be of age yet and perhaps in even more danger if it was known that he existed. Happiness and a good life appeared to slip away from her each time she got close to experiencing it, perhaps that’s how her life was supposed to be, always striving for but never attaining the love that she sought. Life can be a hard and cruel struggle but we must not give in, just keep on going and pray that the good times eventually materialise and make all the strife and suffering a thing of the past. Igraine let her thoughts wander back to Uther and what might have been, letting her heart send out love to him as a final farewell wherever he might be now, and gathering herself she rejoined the bishop and Merlin in the courtyard.

The two of them had been discussing the funeral arrangements for Uther and the other departed souls and had decided that due to the numbers involved the burials would be at Cadbury, unless any kin wished otherwise, and that it would be in four days time. The bishop would attend and Igraine could accompany him if she so wished and afterwards Merlin would see that she had a King's escort back to Tintagel. It was agreed, and Merlin said that he must return forthwith to Cadbury Castle and make the necessary arrangements, and hope and pray that no others had been lost since he left there.

As he was leaving he remarked to Igraine that he had found an old man, drunk as a lord, guarding a barrel of wine that he said he had brought from Tintagel and nobody was to touch it as it was for the King, but he had obviously helped himself to a considerable amount of it. Igraine smiled and said that sounded like Grimald the wine keeper who always insisted that he should test wine regularly to make sure it hadn’t gone off. Uther liked the wine that much when he stayed that time that he demanded that Gorlois send him a barrel as a gift if he ever got married, Grimald remembered and brought it to her attention saying it was common knowledge at the fort, so she sent him with it for the wedding feast. Now we know why it was at the castle, thought Merlin, but not who tampered with it and introduced the poison, and if it was common knowledge then it could have been anybody not just Gorlois himself who was the perpetrator. We will probably never know for sure but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was the wily old Duke getting his revenge from the grave.

Merlin made good time on the return to Cadbury and immediately sought out Taliesin and inquired how the patients were and whether they had lost any others. On hearing that everything was okay except that some of the survivors that had lost kin were still in a distraught state and there were mutterings of discontent beginning to surface, Merlin brought him up to date on the visit to the bishop and Igraine.

“We will need to speak to all these guests later and give them some idea of what happened, but I think it wise not to say where the wine came from as that would focus attention towards Igraine, she has had enough suffering to contend with and it would possibly expose Arthur to unnecessary danger. First I have a short errand to do before others think of it,” and with that cryptic comment he headed towards the King’s living quarters, returning a short while later with a smile of success on his face. “I needed to recover the King’s sword and scabbard as it is the one that belonged to Maximus and it rightly belongs to the High King of Britain, when he is chosen, and not some unscrupulous lord or king to use for his own ends. It is now in a safe place until such time as it is needed.”

Later that day Merlin gathered all the guests together and explained that the mayhem of the previous day had been caused by the wine being poisoned but it had not been possible to discover who had performed the atrocious act, or even when it might have happened.

“Although we have lost many good men and friends the situation could have been far worse if Taliesin and I had not been here, as it was we were able to save many of you from the same fate. I have arranged all the burials to take place here in four days time unless any of you wish to take your kin home and the Bishop of Glastonbury will attend together with the Lady Igraine, if she so wishes.”

Many muttered that it was a sorry affair and wanted to know why it had happened and who would want to do such a thing when its affects were so random. Merlin replied that despite all his enquiries he was at a loss for an explanation of why or by whom and that they would probably never know.

The burials took place in the meadow below Cadbury Castle as the ground within the castle walls was too hard and stony for such a large scale laying to rest. The graves were laid out in a line according to rank with Uther at the head followed by the kings, lords, ladies, soldiers and servants and all were buried facing the castle. The Bishop of Glastonbury conducted the solemn proceedings and read the names of all the departed and cursed the perpetrator of the crime to eternal damnation for taking the lives of so many good and trusted people on what was supposed to be a happy and joyous occasion. He gave prayers for the deliverance of so many of the other souls present and praised the skills of Taliesin and Merlin in the quick action that helped save many lives and he asked that they all send out their thoughts to the Lady Igraine who had cruelly lost her husband to be. Now was the time to stand firm and together so that the gains that the King had made were not lost and this country remained united in those terrible times until a new High King could deliver them from the scourge of the foreign invaders.

“Let peace prevail between you all and we will stand a good chance, squabble amongst yourselves and we shall be lost, the choice is yours. On the first day of September we will gather at Silchester Abbey for the purpose of choosing a new High King as Uther left no heir to the kingdom, as far as we are aware.”

As the bishop said this Igraine awoke from her grief as her thoughts turned to her son, and Uther’s heir, and was on the point of saying something when she realised that Merlin was looking at her intently and gently shaking his head. Of course, he was not of age and to say anything could put his life in jeopardy, wherever he was, but she must ask Merlin about him all the same. The bishop brought them all together with a final prayer and then went to each grave in turn saying a few words at each and consoling the surviving kin, then stopping and surveying the saddening scene one last time, made the sign of the cross and slowly made his way back to the castle.

The guests slowly started to drift away and begin their various journeys home, still subdued and in the aftermath of shock. Several of the kings and lords approach Merlin and Taliesin and thanked them for what they had done and Merlin said that he would leave Greyfus in charge of the castle until a new High King was selected and it would be in good hands. Igraine managed to see Merlin before she left and he entrusted Uther’s sword to her, saying that it rightfully belonged to the High King of Britain and asked her to bring it to Silchester in September, but not to tell anyone that she had it because others might want it. She agreed and asked how her son was getting on and yes she had been on the point of saying something when the bishop was making his address, but realised that it was not the time. Merlin said that he was doing fine but unfortunately it needed to be kept secret until he became of age and could claim his inheritance. The way the lords squabbled amongst themselves he couldn’t see them agreeing on who should be the High King and none were strong enough at the moment to force the issue.

“We must wait and bide our time and hope that everything holds together in the meantime, that’s all that we can do, and I will do my best along with the other Elders to keep the peace between them, although that is likely to be a difficult task.”

Merlin said that he would call to see her when passing but could not say when as he would be very busy but he would be obliged if she would let Sir Ector know what had transpired here and ask him to pass the message on to those that he knew so they could all be on their guard. If there were major problems they should send word to Greyfus here who would do what he could to help, but that it would be limited as his role would be to protect Cadbury Castle from falling into the wrong hands. Igraine thanked him, giving him a hug, which took him by surprise, and joined her escort and the bishop for the homeward journey, still dazed from all that had happened in the last few days.

* * * * *

Merlin, Taliesin and the other Elders spent the next two months travelling the countryside informing all the minor kings and lords of the events at Cadbury and inviting them to Silchester on the first of September to agree on a new High King. As was their usual way the Elders had communicated telepathically and each was aware of what was happening and who was likely to attend and who didn’t seem that bothered. This was often the case with the more northern kingdoms as they kept their own counsel and weren’t concerned with what happened in the south. This north south divide had always posed problems for the High Kings of the past, even the Romans during their years of occupation experienced the subtle differences between the two, but they had the weight of numbers and a well trained fighting force to keep the peace throughout most of the kingdom. The Elders knew that the gathering at Silchester would not be an easy one and would no doubt be inconclusive in its outcome, but it had become tradition in an endeavour to forge a lasting peace across the country. Merlin understood very well the implications that would follow if agreement was not reached. As the next part of his vision did not bode well for the country, and was most likely to come to fruition with continuous infighting between kings, as they jostled for position and power, to take by force that which had not been granted them by common consent. Anarchy would raise its head again and all that had been gained so far would be lost. The foreign insurgents would take maximum advantage of the situation to further their influence and power base and carve up the land amongst themselves. Arthur was going to have a difficult time enforcing his Kingship when he eventually became of age, and that was still quite a few years away, and much could happen in that time. All the Elders could do in the meantime was to try and minimise the fallout by diplomacy and even subtle coercion in an endeavour to maintain a fragile peace between potential warring factions.

* * * * *

Silchester was teeming with people as many folk had gathered to see who would be the next High King, most were from the southern regions but several minor kings and lords from the middle kingdoms and a few from the northern lowland areas had surprisingly arrived, together with two from the islands. A good turn out, thought Merlin, but with those here there was unlikely to be any common consensus on who should take Uther’s place. Always a problem when there was no heir to succeed to the Kingship, even that did not guarantee universal acceptance and often led to conflict. No one king or lord here had the following or power base to sway the others. Uther had been clever in that respect, not let any become powerful enough to challenge his authority and that is a good position to be in at the moment, as if we can keep it that way it will be a little easier when Arthur comes of age. Although he will still be young to take on the role what he is being taught at the moment will put him in good stead in the difficult times that he will face, and with ongoing help and advice to guide him there is hope that peace will eventually prevail again. Merlin noticed Igraine in conversation with several of the lords and was pleased that she had decided to attend and she had mentioned to him when she arrived that she had brought Uther’s sword as requested, in case it was required. Although that seemed doubtful, at least all the contenders could witness that it was here. Although Uther and Igraine had not been formally married they had been betrothed to each other and as such she had certain rights, relating mainly to his possessions, the sword being one of them.

A warm close night heralded the dawning of the first day of September as the kings and lords gathered at last in the cool interior of the abbey just as the sun burst forth, cascading its golden rays across the landscape and penetrating the dark interiors of buildings. As the bishop commenced the proceedings with prayers for a successful and peaceful outcome the sun streamed through the window slits illuminating the cross and enveloping him and Merlin in a beautiful golden aura. The rest of those gathered remained in the half light as if it was an omen reflecting many dark thoughts running through their minds, as they sought ways to gain advantage over each other. Merlin opened the debate saying that they were all gathered there to agree on a successor to Uther and that they needed to reach a unanimous decision if possible, otherwise any new king would be in an untenable position. Each one could have their say and put themselves forward for consideration, and debate would continue until a decision was reached or until it was obvious that agreement would not be forthcoming. With that he sat down and allowed the wrangling to start.

Canaut was the first on his feet and declared that the High King should come from one of the larger southern kingdoms, such as his, able to support the war chest from his own funds, insisting that the freedom of Britain relied on the freedom of the High King to rule without hindrance to the war chest from lesser kings. Otherwise undue influence could be applied by them in withholding taxes unless granted greater favours. The High King needed to rule using his own wealth to guarantee autonomy. Others disagreed and stated that all should pay their dues into the war chest, depending on the size and wealth of their kingdom, therefore it was not necessary for the High King to be chosen from a large wealthy kingdom. The debate continued throughout the day on these two points alone without agreement being reached, as Merlin sat quietly in the background listening and observing, knowing that it was going to take a long time to resolve even such minor points. Igraine had slipped in quietly and unseen, even by Merlin, and stayed for awhile listening to the lords trying to outdo one another and gain an advantage that they could capitalise on and gather support to their camp, but many were too wily to fall into that trap, and the debate just went round in circles getting nowhere.

The following day was just a re-run of the first and all the while Merlin just sat quietly listening and smiling to himself at how pathetic they all looked and sounded, not one of them had the character and strength to carry the day and they couldn’t even see it as they jostled for position. They were all blind to their own inflated egos and sought only for what they could gain personally for themselves if elected, they didn’t give a damn about the country. It was plain for all to see, thought Merlin, none of them would survive a month as High King. These people never learn, once the ego takes command they are doomed, yet they never see it. It requires a strong character to put country and people before their own desires and they have lived too long in their own materialistic shadow to ever be able to break free and change their ways. It will take an exceptional man to lead these people into new pastures and leave the old ways behind, building a lasting peace that will begin to change the face of this country for the better. A place of justice and tolerance, peace and goodwill that could permeate through to other lands. Maybe one day this will happen and all that we can hope for is that Arthur, when his time comes, can start this process off, that others can continue and build on over the aeons of time. Only time will tell as time is only a perception of the human race and does not exist outside of their realms of existence. What a lot they have to learn before they can move on and discover the real beauty of everything there is and the never ending possibilities of life beyond even their wildest imagination. It took my people along the same route before we saw the light and changed our ways and we have never looked back since. A long journey but worth the pain of learning along the way, and now some of us have returned to help these people through the same hurdles.

Raised voices brought Merlin out of his reverie and back to the events at hand. Canaut was on his feet in heated debate with several of the lords opposite him but seeing opposition growing quickly against him waved his arms in a dismissive gesture and sat down again. The day rolled on to a close with fierce argument on all sides, and still nothing had been decided.

The third day passed and went in much the same way and all the while the arguments went backwards and forwards without a single point being agreed. The fourth day followed the same pattern with voices getting even more agitated as the tension built up and it was obvious to Merlin that it would not be long before violence erupted unless some agreement was reached shortly. Igraine had again crept in unseen several times, staying in the shadows at the rear and not staying too long on each visit, but enough to keep in touch with whatever progress was being made, finally she slipped out with a thoughtful look on her countenance. Tomorrow would be an interesting day one way and another, make or break time was her conclusion, time to take a hand perhaps and show myself and force the issue, but without making Merlin aware of her intentions beforehand. He would probably try and stop her, but she had a right to be there being Uther’s betrothed, besides she had the Sword of Kings that now belonged to her and she could do what she wished with it. Yes it would be an interesting day right enough, and she smiled at the thought of the consternation of these egotistical minnows fighting over the pot of honey when she made her entrance.

Merlin spent a troubled night of tangled dreams and visions that gave him no clear answers to the problem at hand, but shortly before dawn they subsided and a peace and calm descended on him, such as he had not experienced for some while. A sign of something totally unexpected that would happen to diffuse the situation, he thought, so be prepared to capitalise on it and turn it to good use and take them all by surprise before they could react to the contrary. For the first time for days he was in a jovial mood as he made his way to the gathering, even smiling at his own thoughts.

As they all arrived you could feel the tension in the air rising, even before the debate had begun, today was certainly going to be different, the mood was dark and unyielding and groups had gathered in separate clusters, each with their own viewpoint. Whispering intently amongst themselves whipping up support for their own candidate, but there were too many groups and not one of them was large enough to hold the balance of power.

Merlin called them to attention and reminded them that today a decision must be made before the sun went down otherwise the council would be dissolved without a result and would not re-convene for another year, during which time the country would have no High King. No sooner had he finished than Canaut was on his feet as usual and the onslaught began, decrying the claims of all the others as he tried in vain to push himself forward as the natural choice. Other voices rose shouting him down, they had heard it everyday and were sick of the same tirade but he refused to budge and continued unabated.

Suddenly all the voices except Canaut were still, a hush had descended across the gathering, then he too realised that all had fallen quiet and thought for a moment that he had taken the day, until he looked around the gathering. Standing at the edge of the circle beautifully attired and wearing a long flowing black and gold cloak with a gold and jewelled clasp stood the Lady Igraine. Lord Canaut, taken by surprise, asked her what had brought her to the council and why hadn’t she interrupted him, to which she replied that although it seemed that the only way to be heard was to shout abuse at all and sundry, she was a lady and had no wish to appear rude. Therefore she had waited until he had finished abusing everyone else and begun extolling his own virtues, as he did everyday. At his surprised look she indicated that yes she had been in attendance many times, but undetected in the shadows, as she listened to and observed the farce unfolding before her. As to why she was here it was because she had a right that she was exercising as Uther’s betrothed, and looking directly at Merlin added that as he had no known heir all his possessions were rightly hers. Moving to the centre of the circle she turned to face them all and removed her hand from beneath her cloak and held aloft the Sword of Britain, including this my lords The gold and silver shimmered in the rays of sunlight creeping into the great hall and the jewelled hilt appeared as a sparkling ball of fire in her hand. This was why they were there, but listening to them one would be forgiven for thinking otherwise. There were gasps from the crowd, all had forgotten about the sword except Merlin, who had been sitting quietly watching the scene unfold, smiling gently to himself as he reflected that something different would happen today, and it certainly had. The tension had vanished as if blown away on the wind and was now replaced by uncertainty. What did this woman want and why tease them with the sword, what was she up to? They soon found out as Igraine reversed the sword and stuck it in the earthen floor in the centre of the circle.

“My Lords this is the Sword of Britain, held by each High King except one since Maximus the Great wielded it as the first High King of our land. It has now passed to me, a Lady of the realm, but I have no wish of it, nor could do it honour in serving our great country, except by seeing that whoever holds it does so with pride, virtue and honour, not for themselves, but for the greater good of this country. Persuade me if you can why it should be one of you as I come to you in turn. If you think you can humour me or take the sword by force because I am a Lady then beware, my father taught me the skills of the blade and the importance of its weight and balance, you would be dead before you knew it Lord Canaut so banish that thought from your mind.”

Lord Canaut was so taken aback that she had read him like a book that he could only mumble an incoherent reply. Merlin smiled even more at the way the tables had been turned on the lords, this lady was no fool, no wonder she had been selected to be the mother of Arthur above all others. Igraine went to each lord in turn carrying the sword with her and many could not take their eyes off it as they tried to persuade her why they should be the High King and not one of the others. When she had heard enough from each she held up her hand and thanked them and moved on to the next, leaving Lord Canaut to last, but allowing him the same amount of time as the others. When she held up her hand to stop him he started to complain that he had not finished, she raised the sword slightly indicating that was the final word as she returned to the centre of the circle. Surveying them all she thanked them again and said that she was now going to pray for guidance and they were most welcome to join her in silent prayer if they wished, and gently sank to her knees, holding the sword hilt in both hands she rested her forehead on them. Whatever she actually prayed for no one knew but most of the lords feeling a little ashamed of their selfish behaviour over the days of the council bowed their heads and joined her. Merlin gave his own prayer of thanks for her timely intervention in what was developing into a hostile situation, but knew that it was not over yet by any means, and although she had guaranteed their attention they were now expecting her to deliver, well they might just be in for a further surprise.

Igraine slowly rose to her feet. “My Lords of Britain, my betrothed Uther Pendragon had many faults as most of us do but he loved his country and all his endeavours were focussed on uniting this island home of ours and bringing peace and prosperity to the people. His life was not made easy by the continuing petty squabbles that saw neighbour take up arms against neighbour, whilst our country was being infiltrated by foreign invaders. I have listened to you all and not one of you that has spoken has shown the vision, courage and determination that Uther possessed, you are only concerned with your own short sighted materialistic greed that would better your own position.”

She was interrupted by many voices as they all took umbrage at her cutting words. Merlin smiled and thought they don’t like this one bit, as Igraine held up her hand to continue.

“My Lords I tell it as I see it, as I have the same vision for this country as Uther, not one of you can even command the respect of the others and you would not last out a month as High King. This country needs a strong leader who is wise, bold and courageous and has the support of the people, not one of you comes anywhere near being able to fulfil those requirements. There is only one person in this hall capable of doing this, one who even exceeds the standards set by Uther, that person has not spoken for himself, even though I believe he is from an ancient and greater royal line than any here and everything he does is for the greater good of our country. Why then you may ask has he not put himself forward. The answer my lords is that in his long lifetime he has seen the futility of violence on a greater scale than we could imaging and now offers himself as an ambassador for peace and diplomacy in this world and would not accept the Kingship if it was offered to him. Therefore Lords of Britain this sword shall now pass to his hands for safe keeping until such time as one in this land shows that he is worthy of the Kingship.” With that Igraine walked slowly towards Merlin and giving him a curtsey placed the sword in his hands. “I was given the words during my prayers and told what to do, but I had intended to give the sword to you anyway to keep for the right time,” she murmured quietly so that the others could not hear.

Merlin was still in slight shock at how well she had handled the situation and had wondered where the words had come from as they were so unnervingly accurate on a personal level. The lords that had been struck dumb by Igraine’s speech now found their vocal chords again and were bombarding Merlin with angry words, calling for an explanation. He strode into the centre of the circle carrying the sword and spoke.

“My Lords the Sword of Britain has been placed in my safe keeping until a true King comes forth, but mark my words it will be won by a leader of men, one who puts his country and others above himself, who will excel in courage, show mercy when needed, uphold justice and fight for right. He will treat others as equals whatever their station in life and command the respect of friend and foe alike, his men will share his glory and be raised by his enthusiasm. The land and animal kingdoms will be respected and nurtured to provide for his people on an enduring basis and his name will be sung in praise throughout all the lands of this world for many long years to come and others will seek to replicate his success. He will stand head and shoulders above all the rulers of the world in his valour, compassion and kindness and his light will shine brightly for all the world to see and marvel at, I Merlin the Wise, Emru of the Elders do prophesy this.”

Complete silence reigned for a moment, then all the voices were raised at once echoing the one thought in their minds, like drowning men grabbing at anything to stay afloat as their ship sunk, how would they recognise this King, they needed a sign.

Merlin, realising he must finish this quickly and once and for all, rushed out of the hall into the courtyard brandishing the Sword of Britain above his head and headed for the great stone centre piece. Raising the sword above his head he plunged it down into the stone amidst cries of ‘no stop him,’ and to everyone’s amazement it did not break but buried itself almost up to the hilt in a flash of light and burning stone.

“You asked for a sign,” Merlin shouted, “well here it is. Whoever raises the sword from the stone is the true born High King of Britain, but until that day this land shall experience strife the like of which it has not experienced before and Britain shall have no High King.”

A stunned silence followed as he walked away leaving the Sword of Britain firmly embedded in the stone, still vibrating gently and showering the area in dancing fireflies as the afternoon sun caught the jewelled hilt.

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