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To a boy who had grown up in a fishing village and later in a mountain cabin far from any civilization, Camelot was something unfathomable in its majesty and vastness and I found myself staring slack-jawed when I arrived at the gate, nearly forgetting my bloody mission with my awe. The town was sprawling and lively, with rich woman shopping for fabrics in so many bright colors they hurt my eyes, and men bartering with tradesmen for the best prices on goods and horses. The children I saw were happy, and even the beggars looked fat compared to the ones I had grown up with. It seemed that what everyone said was true; that this was indeed a golden age for the kingdom, and Camelot was flourishing under Arthur’s rule. A cold feeling entered my gut, and all awe and excitement washed out of me like a sigh as I was reminded of my mission. I knew in my heart that a king whose kingdom looked like this could not be an evil tyrant. I had hoped—a small part of me had hoped—that I would be able to hate Arthur Pendragon—anything to make this horrible charge easier, but I knew it was not to be. I knew then, and I would only be more convinced later when I had actually met Arthur himself.
I did not go to the castle first off, for it was evening when I arrived, and I wanted to make a start of it in the morning. So I found an inn to stay at for the night and enquired about how best to approach the king as a knight.
Most men looked at me skeptically, and I knew well I was no real knight, but they didn’t say me nay. Perhaps it was my dark desperate look, for I had become a bit of a hard looking young man for my suffering at Lady Morgan’s hands and perhaps, despite my young age and willowy figure, they were willing to give me the benefit of a doubt.
One man, a trader, was very kind to me. “I am going to the castle myself tomorrow with a shipment of cloth for the Queen’s wardrobe. You may travel with me if you wish.”
“I would be glad to,” I replied and also allowed him to buy me an ale that night.
I slept poorly, my stomach churning, tossing mercilessly on the rough cot, with the thought of meeting Arthur the next day—if he were not too busy to see me. I wished, oh how I wished, I could have run with any hope that Lady Morgan would never find me, but I knew it was not to be. I feared her powers with magic, not knowing how much she really possessed and not wanting to take the chance. Perhaps I should have just let her kill me and be done with it, but I knew she would not have done that, ever. She needed me for some insane reason, and I knew she would make me do it all one way or another before she ever killed me. The only other option was to plunge a knife into my own breast, but I blanched at the thought. It was not that I was too much of a coward to do it; it was that I thought the action too cowardly in itself. If I killed myself, I would never be able to beat her, and thus she would have won, and that thought tormented me more than anything.
So I went to the castle the next morning with the trader and left him in the courtyard to go and speak to a knight who was standing to one side, talking to a groom and stroking his horse fondly. He was a kind looking fellow, like one of those carefree men who was always ready to laugh and make for easy friends. He looked the least likely person to be cruel to a boy, so I chose to ask him.
“Your Mercy,” I said respectably and he turned around, a big, broad man with wild blond hair, and I could not help but notice that he was the complete opposite of me: confident, sure, and visibly merry.
“Can I help you, lad?” he asked, fondling his horse’s forelock as the beast whickered against his shoulder affectionately.
“I came seeking service,” I told him. “I wish to serve as a knight for the king.”
The man laughed but not unkindly. “Not to mean offense, lad, but you have neither device nor spurs on your boots; are you indeed a knight?”
“I would like to be one,” I said, trying to sound hopeful, half torn between playing a charade, and hating the thought of lying to good, just men.
He grinned again. “Well, then, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try your luck. The king is always looking for young gallants to build up his knightly circle when his current ones fall or become too old to wield a sword. I’m Gawain,” he added, reaching out a hand.
“My name is Mordred,” I told him and clasped his forearm, feeling the iron muscles hidden under his tabard.
“Well, then, Mordred, you had best come with me. Owen!” He called the groom over again and the man took care of his mount as Sir Gawain led me inside the castle. “I don’t think His Majesty is up to much right now—probably wants a break from signing useless documents, so he should be happy to see you right away.”
I was half shocked at his easy, and nearly disrespectful speech toward the king and the kingdom’s affairs, as if he were speaking more of a brother. I figured he must be a very good comrade of Arthur’s to be able to speak so and loudly enough for all to hear, and that both heartened and saddened me.
The palace was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. I would have thought it the halls of Faery if I didn’t know better. I truly felt the naive boy as I stepped through the stone halls, warmed by colorful tapestries and populated by servants bustling to and fro. Sir Gawain led me up a flight of stairs and down a hall to a room I would later learn was called a solar, where King Arthur was apparently seeing to his business.
The knight did no more than knock on the door before opening it, poking his head in casually.
“Arthur, there’s a lad here who wishes to speak with you about terms of service.”
“Send him in, please, Gawain, I’m nearly done here.”
Sir Gawain took my shoulder and pushed me through the door before closing it behind me. I glanced back, feeling a bit deserted, and uncomfortable to be left alone, but then remembered where I was and who I was in the company of, and I turned respectfully to the man sitting at the desk and fell to one knee, bowing my head before I had seen him properly.
“No need for all the groveling, lad. Come, tell me your name and where you hail from.” I looked up finally to see the famed King Arthur and as his soft blue eyes met mine, I knew in my heart that I could never kill this man or be in any way responsible for his death.
He just sat there at his desk, no crown, no royal robes, dressed simply in a loose shirt rolled up to his elbows and ink on his fingers. There was nothing in his overall appearance that looked kingly, but his face and bearing held a majesty that told of an instinctive dignity; one that came from character, and not status although he was one of the few men who blessed with both.
“Speak up, boy,” another voice said, and made me realize with a guilty start that I was staring. My attention was instantly turned to a man lounging in a window seat behind the king with a small smile on his lips. He was tall and thin, with dark brown hair and odd eyes that somehow managed to look both sad, deep, and mischievous at the same time. He looked how I had always pictured elven princes, and I never did find out whether the great sorcerer Merlin shared Fae blood—no one ever knew for sure where he came from, and he would never tell—but I would come to know him to be both a good, loyal man, and one never to be crossed.
“I-I’m sorry, my lord,” I stammered, and to my surprise, Arthur stood from his desk and came over to me, reaching down to grab my shoulders and pulling me upright.
“Don’t be. But there is no need to be so in awe. I am only a man as other men are, but one who has the misfortune to be a king. And don’t you mind my companion; he is not as dodgy as he looks. Now, let me know your name, my young gallant.”
“Mordred, my lord,” I told him.
“Do you have a family?” Arthur asked. “What is your surname?”
I drew in a breath, wary of the other man sitting in the room. Even though he seemed not to be paying any attention, I somehow knew he was listening to every word. I took a deep breath and met the king’s eyes. “My lord, the subject of my family is a delicate matter; I would speak to you privately.”
Arthur seemed to find that amusing. “Ah, I see. I will assure you that Merlin is my most trusted advisor as well as my dearest friend, and anything you say here will not leave this room. But if you wish…”
“I should leave anyway,” Merlin said, rising languidly from the seat and striding from the room. “Call out if he tries to murder you, dear friend.”
My heart jolted at his words, but the man was smirking and Arthur shook his head with a longsuffering expression. The door closed behind the strange man, and I was left alone with the king. He motioned me to a chair.
“Make yourself comfortable, Mordred. I wish to hear what you have to say.”
“I’m your son,” I blurted, deciding it was better to get it out, and would have more conviction that way than if I gave him some long backstory first.
That stopped him. The smile slid from his face as he froze, looking at me with wide eyes, scrutinizing, seeming to search for something, perhaps a likeness, maybe trying to see if I was lying. But I had had my feelings scrambled around so much by Lady Morgan with her torments that I felt little discomfort with lies and I knew it would not show on my face. However, there were a few moments of bated breath for me as Arthur looked me over, then he slumped, turning to sink into his chair as if all his energy had been spent. And it was then that I knew he had believed my lie by some miracle and I allowed myself to breathe again.
“I never thought…” he began, then shook his head and tried again, “I regret that my youth was a bit cavalier, but…Oh, by the saints!” His face was buried in his hands. I stood by awkwardly, waiting for him to re-emerge from his tormented thoughts that weren’t even true. Finally he raised his head and faced me again.
“What of your mother, Mordred, who was she?”
“I never knew her name, for she died at my birth,” I told him, continuing the story Lady Morgan had created for me. “But I was left at an orphanage with a note telling the truth. I do not mean to grieve you over this revelation, my lord. Truly, you must believe that it is the last thing I would wish.”
“There is no way for me to know whether this is actually the truth?” Arthur asked.
I shook my head. “I am afraid not, my lord. You do not have to believe me, and I would understand if you did not want me here. Know that I did not come here to seek your charity; I want it not, for I have been poor all my life and would never know what to do with any wealth at all. I simply had nowhere else to go. I do not want special treatment, I want only to be a knight and serve you as a knight serves his king. You need never mention that I am your son again; I just thought it best you knew the truth.”
He was silent again, running a hand through his blond hair. “I appreciate that, Mordred,” he said. “I do. Honesty is a noble thing in a man,” my heart lurched again; pained for the lies I had told him. “But you do understand that this can never be known by anyone but you or I. I cannot let this get out, not for worry of my own sake, mind, but for Queen Guinevere’s. It would be shame and gossip upon her even though your conception was long before her marriage to me.” He smiled again, sadly. “Ah, I curse my youth, but, oh, Mordred, you must never think that I wish you had not been born.” He took me by the shoulders and smiled upon me as if he were a proud father indeed. “I like you very much already, and I will be happy to get to know you better.”
“Thank you, my lord,” I replied quietly.
“Come now!” he said, clapping my shoulders before he released me. “It is a great and exciting thing for me to have a long lost child of my blood pop up out of the blue. I would love to fulfill your desire to become a knight, but I cannot do it rightly without cause, you’ll understand. For I know nothing about you, nor your skills, and I cannot in good conscious elevate you to such a position right off. It would not go well for you with some of the other men. I will have to have you squire for another for at least a year, or until you have distinguished yourself in some way, and fear not, you shall have opportunity aplenty. Tell me, young Mordred, what thought you of Sir Gawain?”
“I thought him a good and kind man, my lord,” I replied truthfully. “Though I only just met him.”
“Good! You shall squire for him, then. He shall be glad of it, and he will be good to you. He’ll make you work hard, have no doubt, but he will not be a cruel master and will be a good instructor in all things knightly. You shall start with him first thing tomorrow. Now I really do regret it, but I must get back to my work. Why don’t you find your way down to the kitchen? If you have problems, just ask any of the servants. You can have something to eat there. I will have a room readied for you as well.”
“Thank you, my lord,” I told him and bowed again before I left the room, so many mixed feelings rushing through me that I knew nothing of what I should think or feel at that moment. I was startled to hear a voice coming from the shadows of an alcove I had just passed on my way down the hall.
“Allow me to help you wend your way through the castle, young Mordred.” I looked up and saw the strange man, Merlin, looking at me with his faery eyes and odd smile. I didn’t know what to reply, but he put a hand on my shoulder and pushed me forward so I walked with him, having little choice.
“There’s something hanging over you,” he said musingly. “A sadness, a darkness. I don’t know if I like it or not.” I didn’t say anything. What could I reply to that? This man scared me.
“But fate has many different paths, and I feel you have yet to choose your true one, young Mordred.” He smiled, a genuine one now and rested a hand more kindly on my shoulder. “In any case, I shall be keeping an eye on you. Both for your own safety and that of my friend the king.”
“What do you do here?” I asked. I felt, even as I let the words leave my lips, that I was being somewhat rude, but I couldn’t help it. He had flustered me, and I thought it was only right to be able to pay that back a little.
He grinned. “What do I not do? I advise for the king, I act as ambassador, among other things, and do most of everything of import around here.” He laughed at my shocked expression. “But no, Mordred. I know I must seem odd to you, but you will get to know, in time, my role here.” And with a smirk he snapped his fingers and a flame appeared in the palm of his hand. I jumped back slightly, but then finally realized who was standing next to me with no small amount of fear and awe.
“You’re the great sorcerer Merlin,” I said, finally recalling the name for what it was, for everyone had heard tales of Merlin and indeed, he held a role in Camelot second only to the king. I was frightened that such a man was taking so much notice of me, and feared that he saw through my façade. Knew it, almost, but for some reason I also trusted him not to tell anyone. Perhaps he understood my uncertainty; later, I would think his belief in me, however cynical it might have seemed at the time, helped my ultimate decision. He was always a strange man in my mind, but I also came to know him as a great one, and even as a friend, but that would not come until later.
He seemed amused by the excitement my own revelation had caused me. “Yes, so it appears. Or so people like to think. You may think what you like, it makes no difference to me.” He pointed me down a hall. “The kitchen is that way, and I must be off on business. I do wish you good fortune, Mordred.” And then he was gone, slipping away so quickly that I half wondered whether he had magicked himself away. It was only then I realized that he had somehow known I was going to the kitchen, and the only way he could have known that was if he had heard my conversation with the king. And then I knew he had heard it all and I wondered what that could mean, if it meant anything at all.
I ate a good meal in the kitchen, and spent the rest of the day looking around the castle with nothing better to do, feeling a bit lost and much out of place in this world that was so unlike any I had ever known. In the evening, I begged a bit of supper from the kitchen again and then was accosted by a maid who was instructed to show me to the room that had been made up for me for the night.
I suspected I would be staying in the barracks once I had been fully established as Sir Gawain’s squire, but it seemed for that night I would be staying in the small cozy room with the warm fire and the soft bed. My few belongings were there and I only took my boots off before I curled up on top of the bed, still fully clothed. My mind was in turmoil, and I hated Lady Morgan even more at that moment, if it were possible. I cursed her viciously. I cursed and cursed, until I felt a slight pang in my chest as if she knew I did so and was threatening me with her tortures.
But I had come to the conclusion I knew I would and I was half glad and half resigned. I would not kill Arthur Pendragon, and I would simply stay here and live the new life given to me until Lady Morgan la Fay came to find me herself, because she held no power over me that I cared to admit, and I would not be her puppet, for King Arthur’s eyes had been so kind when they had looked on me, even when thinking I was his illegitimate son, and how could anyone kill a man like that?
I curled up tight, feeling very alone, and to my shame, fell asleep weeping.
©Copyright 2013 by Hazel B West
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