Monday, January 11, 2010

Exclusive US Preview: Arthur and Excalibur - Chapter 8!

Chapter 8


MERLIN’S WORDS BROUGHT A TOTAL SILENCE to the crowd as the full import of what he cried out sank in, then everyone started talking at once and wanted to know what happened as none had seen Arthur remove the sword from the stone, only that it had ended up in his hand somehow. A chant soon arose that questioned Arthur’s success and wanted to see it done properly so that all could witness it, but Merlin said that it might not be possible as the prophecy had been fulfilled correctly the first time and therefore he could not repeat it.

Arthur was deep in thought, and had moved back towards the great stone and was studying the energy field around it, remembering how he had entered the cave and spoke with Eudaf Hen. The crowd were getting agitated and calling Merlin a false prophet and mystic when Arthur made his decision and called aloud to the gathering that it would be done. Whereupon he took the sword and pushed it gently back into the rock, right up to the hilt. The crowd gasped and Merlin was taken totally by surprise at how easily Arthur had done it, this King has surprises in store for all of us, he thought, what will he do next. Arthur asked Sir Bors to try and pull it out, but despite his strength it did not move a fraction. He then invited King Lot to check that it was still stuck firm and had not been loosened by Sir Bors, and although he tried all ways it would not move. Arthur asked all those in the arena if they were happy that it was immovable and received unanimous acceptance that it was, at which point he played with crowd and started to walk away. Merlin smiled at this, as a cry went up of ‘where are you going, show us how you pulled it out.’ Arthur stopped, turned and walked back towards the rock, studying the gently pulsating energy around the sword before grasping the hilt and withdrawing it effortlessly, holding it up so that all could see.

“Just like that,” he said. “Are you satisfied now that only the true-born High King can fulfil the prophecy?”

Well done Arthur, thought Merlin, you have just increased your standing amongst them and converted some of the waverers to your camp, although there is a long way to go yet before you enjoy total support.

There was a subdued roar of approval, as some were still not convinced that Arthur had fulfilled the prophecy without some form of trickery. A voice from the back of the crowd asked how were they to know that he was indeed the son and heir of Uther Pendragon and others echoed the same thought, as they clutched at straws to explain away what they had just witnessed. Merlin held up his hand for quiet and replied that was what the prophecy said, only the true-born High King could accomplish the feat and that meant a son and heir of Uther. The same voice replied that he did not have any children, let alone a son, and again elements of the crowd agreed. Merlin could see the mood of the gathering beginning to swing away from accepting Arthur as High King as doubt crept in, when an angry female voice cut through their mutterings and the Lady Igraine stepped out into the centre and stood beside Arthur.

“My Lords, you are men of standing in this land and yet you act as if you are rebellious young children refusing to accept what your eyes have shown you and your hearts tell you. You all wanted the crown to satisfy your own ego and this young man has put you all to shame. He stood his ground against Sir Bors, despite his size, and gave a good account of himself to rectify an injustice against Sir Ector. He has removed the sword in the stone twice as proof of his birthright, when none of you could, and you still cast doubts on his lineage and right to be High King. You have had your chance over the years to challenge the prophecy, but none has, and now that it has been fulfilled some of you do not want to accept it because you cannot have the Kingship yourselves and you seek a way out. I stand before you all with pride and without shame when I say that Uther Pendragon seduced me in my slumber when I was worse for drink and was discovered by my maid, who suffered the humiliation of his attentions as well. The result of our union was a son, who was placed in safe care until he was of age, without me seeing him or knowing where or who he was. If Arthur is my son, and heir to Uther, he will be known by the sign of the cross on his right shoulder, which he was borne into this world bearing.”

Arthur had been quietly listening to Igraine and absorbing her words, and they seemed to make sense and explained the feelings of an indefinable bond when in her company, that he had never really understood until now. He was not aware that he had a mark on his shoulder but removed his tunic so that all could see as he rotated his body and showed his back to the crowd. By their reaction he knew that he did indeed have the mark of the cross on his shoulder, exactly where Igraine had said.

Excellent, thought Merlin, you have turned the tables on them nicely and are a brave woman to bare your soul to them over such a delicate and personal matter. My heart goes out to you and it will do your reputation no harm, as all were aware of Uther’s lustfulness and his many conquests of the ladies.

Igraine was speaking again. “My Lords, you have seen the final proof, now show that you are true leaders in this land, banish your inflated egos and own self importance and unite together for the good of our country and swear fealty to your new High King,” and with those final words Lady Igraine knelt before her son Arthur, and taking his hand kissed it with tears of happiness in her eyes and swore, in a clear voice, her allegiance to him for all time.

Absolutely brilliant, mused Merlin, now let them wriggle out of that.

All this time Sir Kay had stood there totally mesmerised, trying to take in all the events that had happened since his father had been so rudely pushed to the ground by Sir Bors. His life long friend Arthur, the High King of Britain, it was unbelievable but true, as he had seen it all with his own eyes even though it was difficult to grasp all at once. His father had followed Igraine in swearing fealty to the King and Sir Ector said to Arthur that he had been unaware of his birthright until yesterday when Merlin had confided in him, knowing that something would happen today. Arthur told him that he was a trusted and knowledgeable knight and thanked him for all his help and teachings, without which he wouldn’t be prepared for this day, the full import of which had not yet sunk in. Sir Kay followed his father but was at a loss for words, feeling strange kneeling before his friend, but full of pride and joy at being able to serve him and continuing their friendship into the future. Arthur commented that life was full of surprises, he had never dreamt of a situation like this but one had to take them in one‘s stride, there would be much to be done to bring people together again in peace and prosperity. They had an interesting time before them, that occasionally would be volatile and violent, but if they persevered they would succeed, and Sir Kay acknowledged that he was ready and willing to undertake whatever befell them. Igraine’s other son, Sir Cador, approached Arthur next and with a smile said that he knew there was something different about him from the first time that they met, and now they knew what it was brother, and his sword was his.

There followed a steady stream after that led by Sir Bors, King Ban of Bennick, Custennin of Dumnonia, Cadell of Powys, Colgrevane, Peredur King of York, Urien of Gore, King Auguselus, King Caradog of Gwent, Baudwin and many more, but not all stepped forward. There were quite a few who stood firm as they were not happy with one so young taking the Kingship, Agwisance King of Ireland, King Yder of Cournovaille and Clariance of Northunberland included. King Lot of Orcanie had not moved either and Arthur, a little surprised, asked him the reason for this. Lot replied that he was neither for nor against, but that Arthur was young for the responsibility and although he had shown his capabilities against Sir Bors, a King earned his respect by the deeds that he accomplished. He would keep his own counsel for the moment and watch Arthur’s progress, and if Lot was happy he would then pledge his fealty and sword. Arthur thanked him for such an honest answer, which was like a breath of fresh air, and he would do his best to prove his worth as High King by word and deed. Lot smiled, he was glad that they understood one another and was sure that he would deliver.

Finally Merlin approached Arthur, who commented that even as High King he should go on one knee and pay homage to Merlin the Elder as he belonged to a time and race far greater than any that currently lived, and as such served no living man. Merlin's destiny was for the greater good of all, accountable only to his Lord. This young lad either knows or senses much more than we would expect of him, thought Merlin as he held up his hand indicating that it would not be necessary or indeed advisable in the circumstances. Merlin faced the crowd and said that as the majority had sworn fealty to their new King, he would be crowned in the great hall of Silchester church at noon the following day and Bishop Dyfrig would lead the service.

As the crowd began to slowly disperse Arthur surveyed his friends searching for one missing face and Merlin seeing this and understanding spoke quietly to Sir Ector and then took Arthur’s arm and said that Igraine had sought out Gwendolyn and both the women had gone into the church for the peace and to get to know each other better. It was best to leave them alone at the moment as although they were both prepared for today it would have been an emotional and traumatic time for them.

“I have asked Sir Ector to take the party back to camp and we will wait and escort the women when they are ready.”

“Thank you,” murmured Arthur. “It must have been a shock for both of them as it certainly was for me.”

The others took their leave and headed back to camp, whilst Merlin and Arthur waited for the women to emerge. Arthur asked him what his father was like and why all the secrecy surrounding his birth and whereabouts after. Merlin explained that the Elders felt it best for the safety of all concerned that nothing should be known until the time was right, as there were some who would have sought him out and killed him, as he might have posed a threat to them. Fortunately nearly all those had since met their own death in their incessant greed for more power, but it was still felt secrecy should be maintained until he became of age, which Merlin admitted had been changed for obvious reasons. He was actually born on the first of May not at the end of August as they had made out, but that was necessary as his birth mother Lady Igraine, being a very astute woman, would no doubt have realised the connection. It would have been too obvious, even though he enlisted Taliesin’s help in taking him and Gwendolyn to Sir Ector, if it was known in certain quarters that he was involved. Arthur laughed, to think that he was one of those lucky souls who had two mothers. Yes, agreed Merlin, and it was lucky for them and the women at the healing sanctuary that Gwendolyn became available just at the right time, having recently lost her own child and the father. Lucky, Arthur smiled, or divine providence, sometimes Merlin did not tell the whole story, only what was necessary. Now it was Merlin’s turn to smile at Arthur’s uncanny insight into his character, as he replied that it was often the best and wisest way, tell the truth, but not necessarily all of it, sometimes some things were best left unsaid to avoid confusion or hurt.

Their conversation continued for another hour before the women came out of the church, full of smiles and laughing. Merlin realised that this was one of only a few occasions that he had managed to talk to Arthur alone and at such length and was pleasantly surprised at the depth of knowledge and understanding this young King had, which bode nothing but good for the country. As they approached Merlin melted discreetly into the shadows to allow them time together, as Arthur put his arms around them and drew them close, both of equal standing in his eyes, two mothers, how lucky he was when some had none to hold.

On their return to camp they found a party in full swing with many visitors from around the neighbouring camp sites joining in the celebrations in his honour. As they approached a cheer went up, followed by the usual jests. Someone made the comment that he had probably put the sword back in the stone and then couldn’t get it out again, which initiated peels of laughter, and even more when Arthur asked for volunteers to go back with him and try and remove it. That set the mood for the rest of the night and the festivities continued into the early hours, with many people coming and going with fresh supplies of food and drink as they relaxed and enjoyed themselves to the full.

The crowning of Arthur the next day was a sombre affair by comparison as Bishop Dyfrig lead the service and reminded all those present that the future of the country was in their own hands and that by working together under the new High King success would prevail. It would not be easy he reminded them and many battles would need to be fought before a lasting peace descended over the land, but to trust in the Lord and their High King and forego their own egos. That way they would succeed he concluded as he blessed Arthur and all those present. Arthur, High King of Britain arose, sword in one hand and the cross in the other he lead the procession out of the church into the courtyard, then out into the open for all those to bear witness that could not be accommodated in the church. As he moved into the open a huge cheer arose from the large throng of people that had gathered to see this rare event, and he raised the sword and cross into the air in acknowledgement of them. He had been advised by Merlin beforehand that it would not be safe at the moment to wander into the crowd, but just to stand and be seen. After awhile Arthur returned inside and spent some moments in discussion with the bishop before gathering his party and returning to camp where they had decided to spend the night, before starting their return journey.

Arthur would remain at Cadbury Castle, which would be his base initially, as he came to terms with his new role and learnt more of what was expected of him. The others would be at liberty to return to their own areas as and when they felt ready, that was the part that he would find difficult, saying goodbye to his friends for the time being, but that was the way of life. Nothing stood still, everything had to move forward in life otherwise it ground to a halt and passed you by, leaving you wondering what opportunities you had missed in the process. Time was continuous and waited for no man, so the only way forward was to go with his instincts and that is what Arthur intended to do, and to do everything to the best of his ability. No doubt he would make mistakes, but no one was infallible, not even Merlin, as long as you learned from your errors and moved forward then you could get back on the correct pathway in life and everything would turn out as it should, in the long run.

Sir Bors had decided to accompany them, with his small retinue, on the journey to Cadbury Castle whilst King Lot had indicated to Lady Igraine that he would make his own way to Tintagel as there was some other business he had to deal with first. Arthur requested they take a different route back, to enable him to see more of the country and Taliesin suggested that they head south towards Winchester and shortly before reaching there head due west to Tisbury, then a final days ride to Cadbury. It was agreed, as it would not add any extra time to their journey and there were more villages and hamlets further south should they wish to tarry awhile en-route. When all were ready to move out Merlin approached Arthur and gave him a rolled up pennon and said that now he was High King he could fly his father’s banner to proclaim who he was. Unrolling it Arthur saw that it was the Pendragon emblem, and looking at Merlin in surprise, thanked him and promptly tied it to his spear to flutter in the breeze for all to see.

The party moved off, nearly seventy of them in total now, with Arthur in the lead and Merlin and Taliesin beside him, as the Elders knew the easiest route. Other groups were on the move too, dispersing back to their own areas of the country, some were in a joyful mood whilst a few harboured dark thoughts concerning Arthur and others appeared unconcerned with the outcome of the council, as they were from distant lands. The overall mood was encouraging considering Arthur’s young age, but it only needed one rotten apple to contaminate the rest, unless the King showed a strong hand in dealing with trouble amongst his kingdoms. There was much to be done to bring everyone together, fighting the same cause and not each other. Arthur had done well so far, but much more was expected of him and the destiny of the country, as well as his own, lay in his own hands, and as King Lot had rightly said, now he had to deliver.

The day wore on as the sun moved across the meridian in a blue and cloudless sky, bathing the land in a gentle warmth, as the group followed the low ground of a slow meandering river passed several small hamlets. The few people about stopped and stared as the procession went by and relaxed as they realised that it was not a Saxon war band, and continued about their business, some braver souls with a wave of acknowledgement. You can sense the unease and anxiety, thought Arthur as he returned their wave, these people do not know what to expect next and obviously live in fear of what each day might bring. It is going to be a long hard road to put this country back on its feet again and give the people back the freedom to enjoy life without fear. We have been lucky in the southwest, detached from much of the upheaval and fighting going on in the rest of the country, either between kingdoms or against the invaders from across the water. I have much to do and a lot to learn in a short time, if I am to succeed in bringing about peace and prosperity. Arthur was jolted from his thoughts by the sight and sound of one of the forward scouts descending from the higher ground on their left and rapidly approaching them. The party came to a halt as the scout reigned in his horse in front of Arthur with news of what he had seen ahead.

“My Lord there is a large hamlet not two miles ahead nestling close to the river and to the south of it there is a large wooded area stretching about half a mile and approaching the far side of this is a large body of foot soldiers that are moving fast and are not dressed as we are.”

“That will be Stocksford ahead, thirty or more huts spread like a half moon where the river can be forded,” volunteered Taliesin, and the scout nodded in agreement at this observation. “Looks like we have encountered a Saxon raiding party about to attack the hamlet, and they will not be seen until they emerge from the pathway through the wood, just four hundred paces from the settlement.”

Arthur had been listening to all this and deciding on the action needed to counter this probable attack, then he gave his orders in a clear and unhurried way as if he had been in this situation many times before.

“Sir Cador take five men and ride fast to the hamlet and raise the alarm, then await our arrival.” Turning to the scout as Sir Cador departed he enquired if the trees surrounded the hamlet and was told no, only about half way as the land rose fairly steeply and had obviously been cleared except for a few lone ones. The main area of the wood was to the south as the low ground was much wider there. Arthur turning to Sir Ector, continued, “your shoulder is still causing you pain, I want you to select ten men and stay here with the ladies and our supply horses in case any of the raiders break through and head this way and Sir Kay, remain with your father and give him support, Sir Bors, take half the men and when we get close to the settlement swing away to the trees and conceal yourself there if possible, until you see me lead the rest of the troop out of the hamlet and challenge the raiding party once they are out in the open.” Sir Ector was about to protest, but Arthur had already moved on. “Merlin, Taliesin, I would prefer that both of you remained here as your healing talents will be needed later. Any comments?” Receiving none, as both were recovering from the speed and decisiveness of Arthur’s commands he lead the troop off at a gallop, his pennon flying proudly in the breeze.

Merlin echoed the thoughts of the remaining group as he muttered, with a smile, “that boy still surprises me at times. No wonder he was born to be High King, calm and confident in his own abilities and not afraid to take action to defend others. He will do well for his country, mark my words”

As Arthur and his men approached within half a mile of the hamlet they heard the loud banging of metal upon metal as the alarm was sounded, and no doubt the raiding party had heard it too and it would urge them on faster. Sir Bors and his men veered off and headed towards the few trees at the perimeter of the wood and sought out a more populated area for concealment, whilst Arthur with his pennon flapping wildly in the wind galloped straight into the hamlet before slowing down on seeing Sir Cador waiting for him. At least they had made it in time before the raiding party had emerged from the wood. Villagers were still hurrying to the relative safety of their huts and some stopped and stared briefly, recognising the Pendragon Standard, before continuing on their way.

Arthur motioned for his men to conceal themselves as best as possible amongst the dwellings as he took up position so that he could see the track leading to the wood. He did not have long to wait before a steady stream of sword wielding Saxons burst out of the wood and into the open as they ran towards the hamlet, nigh on a hundred of them. Arthur drew his sword and waiting until they were right out in the middle of the open ground before shouting ‘Saxons’ and urged his horse into a gallop as the rest of his men broke cover and joined him. The raiding party was taken totally by surprise for a moment as twenty five well armed horsemen bore down on them from out of nowhere, then realising they had greater numbers they pushed forward again. Too late they realised their error as Sir Bors and his men descended on them from the flank riding them down with skilful use of spear and sword. Arthur was amongst the Saxons, with Sir Cador by his side, thrusting and cutting with such ferocity that all fell before them. Although Arthur and his men were outnumbered the speed and surprise of the attack soon had the Saxons in total disarray as the horsemen galloped through their ranks cutting them down left and right. Some tried to escape back to the wood but were headed off by Sir Bors and quickly despatched to the hereafter, whatever their beliefs.

It was soon over and only two Saxons were left alive out of the hundred or more in the raiding party, both were wounded and unable to defend themselves and stood together expecting certain death, but it was not to be so. They were denied that choice as Arthur instructed his men not to harm them, and in surprise they were lead away, having first been searched for any hidden weapons.

Arthur surveyed the carnage, such a waste, he thought, but there will be a lot more of this yet before we can bring peace to this country. Many battles in which good men will be lost on both sides, for what, to satisfy someone’s greed and personal ego by trying to impose their will on others. Merlin’s experienced all this many times before, you can see it in his eyes and it pains him greatly, but he continues to help as if he knows that one day we will move forward as a people and live in peace. He took a last look around before sending one of his men to fetch Sir Kay and the ladies now that it was safe. Merlin and Taliesin would be needed for their healing skills as several of his men had been wounded, although he had lost very few in the skirmish as surprise had been on their side. The wounded, including the guarded Saxons were helped to the hamlet where the others had just arrived and Lady Igraine and Gwendolyn insisted on helping Merlin and Taliesin in administering aid and healing.

When they had done all that they could Merlin asked Arthur what he was going to do with the two Saxons, to which he replied that he would send them on their way to take a warning to their leaders not to interfere with the people of Britain, if they managed to survived the journey without any weapons.

“You realise,” Merlin replied, “that what you want them to deliver sounds very much like a challenge.”

“Yes it does, and it is,” Arthur answered, “but it might make them think a little, or bring them out into the open where it will be easier to deal with them compared to these minor skirmishes. To bring lasting peace it is necessary sometimes to force the issue, even though I am not yet ready to take them on in force, they do not know that, so it will unsettle them a little and make them wary, and hopefully give me time to prepare. Do you think I am wrong in my thinking?”

“On the contrary,” Merlin answered, “I think your wisdom far exceeds what even I thought it would be at this moment, you have only just claimed the Kingship and yet you talk and act as one would who has many more years of life’s experiences behind him.”

“I take that as a compliment and thank you for your honesty,” returned Arthur, “I just have this inner feeling when I do or say things that they are the right thing to do. I cannot explain it, it just feels right. If you understand what I mean?”

Merlin replied thoughtfully that he understood exactly what he meant and some day he would try and explain it to him, when he felt the time was right, but for now to carry on following his instincts and inner feelings as they would seldom let him down. Arthur asked him if he understood the Saxon tongue and Merlin indicated that he understood enough to converse in a limited way and did he want him to convey the message to them. Arthur nodded and said that when their wounds had been tended to they were free to go and return to their own people, but that he would not be so merciful if they met again on the battle field. Merlin said that he would go and speak to them now and Arthur agreed the sooner it was done the better, and that the Saxons should be taken to the wood and sent on their way as soon as it was possible, before the villagers became aware. He was going to see how the wounded men were and praise them for their splendid efforts and then speak to Sir Bors and congratulate him on the perfect timing of his attack.

The villagers came out of hiding and the local elders approached Arthur and thanked him for his timely arrival, which had prevented a massacre of them all, and although they had little to spare extended the hospitality of the hamlet to him and his men. Arthur acknowledged their gratitude and replied that it was only by chance that they had decided to come this way en-route to Cadbury Castle and as for food he would see what his men could find in the wood that would make a good meal. There were deer and boar he was told, if they were quick enough to catch one, mainly in the east of the wood on the lower slopes. Arthur told the village elders to send men out to collect all the Saxon weapons and keep them safe, in case they were needed in the future, and to remove the bodies from the meadow and arrange for their burial or burning to stop the risk of disease spreading amongst the inhabitants. He had lost three men in the fight and needed graves dug for them so that they could pay their last respects in the proper way. The elders agreed that they would see to it but before leaving asked Arthur about his pennon as they recognised it from the time that Uther Pendragon has passed through their hamlet. He replied that it was indeed the same pennon and that he was Uther’s son and heir, Arthur, the new High King of Britain.

“Indeed we are honoured sire,” they replied, “and we redouble our thanks for your timely arrival in our humble hamlet that spared us from certain slaughter.”

Arthur asked them if they had been troubled by raids before and was told that it was many years since raiders had come this far inland. A certain sign, thought Arthur, that the Saxons are becoming bolder and striking further into our land, but maybe this skirmish will deter them for awhile as it went so decisively against them. I hope my message reaches their leaders and makes them wary and contains them until I am ready to face them in strength.

The meadow had been cleared and Arthur had presided over a short ceremony as they buried their dead and Merlin contributed a few words of wisdom and encouragement to all who had survived, extolling the virtues of Arthur’s command and the quick and decisive outcome of the conflict. Several of the men had gone hunting and returned laden with two small boar and a good sized deer which were soon prepared and were roasting nicely on the open fires. Arthur invited all the inhabitants of the hamlet to join him in celebration, not just of their victory but of the success of the hunt as well, and soon a relaxed and joyful atmosphere developed, especially as the villagers had brought a good supply of mead for all to partake.

Arthur sat on the ground with his two mothers proudly next to him, one on either side, with Merlin and the others in a small half circle around him as they watched everyone else laughing and singing, totally at ease with life for a change. If only life were like this most of the time what happy people they would be, relaxing after a hard days productive toil, without the worry of where the next conflict would come from, thought Arthur and Merlin in unison, as they looked across at each other as if reading the other’s thoughts, and perhaps they were. Several of the young children, drawn by curiosity, came close to the fire staring at Arthur and he motioned for them to approach and to come and sit by him. Gwendolyn stood up and went and took their hands and brought them in closer, telling them not to be afraid as he was a good king and wouldn’t do anything bad to them. One of them, a little bolder than the rest said that he didn’t look or dress like the King and Arthur replied in a gentle voice that it did not matter what anyone looked like or how they dressed it was what they were like inside that mattered.

“Come all of you and sit by me and tell me what you do or ask me questions if you so desire and I will do my best to answer them.”

The bold lad wanted to know why the Saxons had come and would they have been killed if the King had not arrived when he did and Arthur replied honestly that it was most likely. “There are some people unfortunately that are not satisfied with what they have, and instead of working to make things better they are greedy and try to take from others, even if they have to kill to do it.”

“Why are people like that?” the lad wanted to know.

Arthur responded that it was the current way of life for some and that he was going to do his best to try and change that but it would take a long time. “You should ask Merlin here if you want to know more as he has a greater experience of life than I do.”

The lad had heard many stories about Merlin and his mysterious and magical powers and exclaimed, “I meet the King and a Wizard in one day, that is more than I could ever hope for in a lifetime, the other lads in the village wont believe that.”

“Then perhaps you should go and tell them now,” answered Arthur, “and say that I have invited them to my fire, whilst they have the chance as tomorrow we shall be on our way.”

The lad jumped up, “thank you sir I will go and fetch them,” and with that he was off running towards the other fires.

“You continue to surprise me,” Merlin said, “you have the foresight to give time to the young.”

“They are the next generation and as such this is the time to influence and educate them and lay good foundations for the future, they are tomorrows administrators, magistrates, knights and worldly influencers” replied Arthur, “the country will need the right people to be able to move forward and I will need support from all age groups to be successful in my endeavours.”

“You speak like a sage who has already lived a long life, no wonder you were chosen to lead the people forward, against all odds. Your divine mission becomes clearer the more I see and hear,” stated Merlin.

Their conversation was interrupted by ten to fifteen boys nervously approaching Arthur’s group, led by the bold lad who was making the most of the situation.

“There I told you it was the High King and Merlin the Wizard and we’ve been invited to join them,” he exclaimed.

“Come forward lads and sit here with the others,” said Arthur as he pointed to the children already seated, “and we have two wizards not one as Taliesin is with us also, and I am sure that they will tell you some good stories if you ask them.”

The boys were kept enthralled for the next couple of hours as first Merlin, then Taliesin recounted stories of old concerning mystical creatures and bold men and their fight for justice and right and how they succeeded even against overwhelming odds. Each story had a moral to it where right prevailed in the end due to the hero persevering against evil through strength of will and determination, even if they lost their own life in the end. Some of the villagers had also gathered around listening to the stories when they had come to retrieve their offspring. Arthur eventually had to interrupt the lads asking for more stories, indicating that it was getting late and it was time for rest, they had met the King and two wizards today and that would give them much to talk about in the coming weeks and something in later years to tell their children. He bade them good night and said that they would be leaving in the morning but if passing this way in the future would stop by, maybe with more stories. The bold lad expressed his thanks to Arthur and his wizards, which were echoed by the others and they went off merrily chatting about the stories that they had heard.

Arthur and his party left early next morning shortly after sunrise, to a chorus of thanks from the villagers who had turned out in force to see them off as they left the hamlet behind and headed across the ford for the next part of their journey to Tisbury. The day rolled on quietly compared to the previous one as they passed by many small hamlets with occasional stares and waves from the few souls that they saw and soon after midday they saw the derelict fort at Old Sarum not far off to the left. Less than two hours later they pitched their camp on the outskirts of Tisbury and Taliesin said that he would go and see what news they had to tell as he was acquainted with one or two of the village elders there. Within two hours he had returned with nothing to report as he had been told it had been unusually quiet in the last few months with very little movement of anyone in the area, which wasn’t necessarily a good sign.

They broke camp early the next day as the wind had got up and it looked as though there might be rain later, so they wished to be on the move early as they only had just over twenty miles to go to complete their journey. The rain held off and early afternoon brought them in sight of Cadbury Castle, looking slightly menacing in the light hill mist that was wafting around it, as if it was deserted. Merlin was a little worried by its appearance as he had left Greyfus in charge and it did look lifeless from here, perhaps just a trick of the mist. As they approached closer there was still no signs of activity and the main gate appeared closed, which in itself was unusual during daylight, unless trouble was expected. Arthur had noticed it as well and said as such to Merlin and that all did not look well and that they should proceed cautiously.

Arthur stopped the troop two hundred paces from the gate, which indeed was closed, and there was still no sign of life visible.

Arthur turned to the company, “Sir Bors, Sir Ector, Sir Kay and the first ten men, we are going to approach the gate and see if we can enter. Sir Cador stay here with the rest for the moment but be prepared for anything, especially if we return at the gallop, act on your own judgement, but see that the ladies are protected. Draw your weapons,” he said to his group, “and let us proceed and solve this mystery,” and he urged his horse forward at a steady walk, watching and listening hoping to detect any sign of life.

On reaching the entrance still nothing had stirred so Arthur reversed his spear and pushed gently at the gate, and surprisingly it moved, opening slightly. He edged his horse forward and pushed and the big gate started to swing open, and still no sound from within. Moving forward slowly he turned to Sir Bors and told him in a quiet voice to stay by the gate and hold it if necessary so that the rest of them could escape if it was a trap. Sir Bors nodded and took up his position as the rest of the troop entered the gateway, Arthur turned to the rest and said for them to stay on their horses and take up position in a half circle, with him at the head, and wait for his command either to dismount or leave in a hurry. Still there was no sign of life as they moved further inside and Arthur brought them to a halt, looking around carefully to detect any sign of movement or noise that might indicate hidden enemies.

A slight noise came to his ears and as he listened intently, he recognised the footfall of a horse, quickly turning to his men he told them to be vigilant as the castle was not empty. Sure enough he heard the noise again but more than one horse, although not many, and then out of nowhere sprang a dozen horsemen shouting loudly as they raced towards Arthur and his men and another dozen appeared from a different direction bearing down on them. Arthur and his men stood their ground as the horsemen reigned in their mounts and stopped close in front of them.

“Welcome King Arthur I do believe we have you outnumbered.”

“On the contrary King Lot most of my men wait just outside the gate ready to move in if necessary,” Arthur replied with a smile.

“That is good,” said Lot, “a man needs to be cautious, you have gone up in my esteem already as I thought that you might fall for this simple trick of luring you into a trap.”

“I am wiser than you give me credence for,” replied Arthur, “and it is not advisable to underestimate a potential rival, that could be fatal.”

“Well said,” conceded Lot, “perhaps I have not considered you in the correct light, my apologies for that, it could be that my first impression of your youth was a little misguided, but you are an unusually bright young man, that is becoming obvious now, so let me welcome you to your castle and pardon me for my little bit of fun to see how you reacted.” He waved his hand and many more people appeared and gave a cheer for their new High King.

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