It was twenty-four hours until The Tournament of Champions. Arthur was set to prove himself to be a battle-ready member of the defenders of The Island of Anglo-Saxony.
'I can hardly wait until the morn,' the young man thought. 'I must demonstrate myself to be a worthy squire so that I may be apprenticed to one of the knights of the many regions.'
Arthur was twenty years old. He was tall and sported a muscular yet wiry physique. He had amber hair and blue eyes. The aspiring warrior bore a smattering of whiskers on his chin of which he was very proud. He had lived for the last ten years under the tutelage of the wizard, Merlin.
'I wish Merlin was more supportive of my martial training,' Arthur considered. 'Although I love him dearly Merlin sees merit only in the perpetual perusal of musty tomes and arcane arts.'
The ambitious, would-be apprentice pulled his sheepskin jacket about himself as the gusts of the summer wind billowed over the heath before Essex Castle.
The towers and pinnacles of the large, thriving castle were ornately adorned with the flags and banners of the visitors from the neighboring fiefdoms.
The sound of clashing steel and neighing horses resonated over the hewed stone walls surrounding the central square of the large cairn. Apart from the ubiquitous activity of farmers and hunters to barter their wares a virtual city of tents and makeshift stables encircled the castle and modest village below it.
Aspiring men from throughout the burgeoning regions jousted in the castle quadrant. The last few weeks had been filled with the raucous noises of their fencing and sparring. They strove to optimize their military skills which ran the gamut of equestrian mastery to swordplay and offensive and defensive magic.
Arthur chose to hike along the outer perimeter of Essex so that he might temporarily escape the ongoing complaints of Merlin about the racket of the candidates below the tower of his quarters and study.
The summer air was fresh. Arthur drew in a deep breath. He smelled the scent of roasting mutton from the settlement along with the aroma of the nearby pine and oak forest. Clouds of smoke crawled through the atmosphere where smithies hastened to keep horses shod and blades ready for The Tournament of Champions.
Arthur didn’t need a new sword for he had found a fine one strangely thrust into a cluster of rocks in the Essex woods. Like the knights from across the North Sea Merlin insisted on giving the sturdy weapon a name. The wizard, who claimed to have visions of the past and future, called it Excalibur. Merlin said that it was a gift from a lady friend of his.
“Excalibur’s custodian is The Lady of the Lake,” the grizzly, robed mage stated. “She reveals it to a very few and only with good purpose. I suspect the future holds great promise for you, young Arthur. It wouldn’t surprise me if one day you are made a great leader of men, who unites the various regions of this wooded land to combat challenges both domestic and abroad.”
'Merlin speaks queer things sometimes,' Arthur thought. 'In many ways he reminds me of the mist and fog of daybreak. This is when the calls of the owls and birds of prey grow louder yet are obscured by the damp and darkness. I’m sure that Merlin means well, however, despite his mysterious predictions.'
Arthur trod to the top of a nearby hill. It gave him a splendid view of Essex Castle and the surrounding encampments. The walls and towers of the edifice gleamed in the brilliant light of the afternoon sun. The village was protected by a moat and a lake fed by a forest river. Each of the four roads leading to the settlement possessed retractable drawbridges and portcullises that could be quickly engaged in the event of invasion or siege.
'I must continue my training,' Arthur vowed to himself. 'The testing time draws near and I am obligated to maximize my military abilities if I am to arise successful.'
Arthur envisioned the trunk of an oak tree as an opponent in armor. He drew Excalibur from its leather scabbard and wielded the sturdy blade in a two-handed grip. He changed his stance and wove from side to side, deflecting imaginary attacks from a flail and large shield.
The young man pictured the jagged bark of the oak as chain mail, guarding a stocky challenger.
“For Essex!” yelled Arthur as he doubled his efforts to locate a breach in his competitor’s defenses.
“Very good, young Arthur,” boomed a deep, scratchy voice. “You may yet employ Excalibur to greater purposes.”
Merlin stepped into view from behind the girth of the tree. Arthur was startled by the bearded mage’s appearance out of nowhere. It was not the first time the aspiring apprentice had been taken off-guard by his teacher’s wiles.
“Hello, Merlin,” said Arthur.
The young man sheathed his blade and grasped his caretaker’s hand in greeting.
“It’s good to see you, adept mage, despite your lack of appreciation for The Tournament of Champions.”
“I’ve begun to have second thoughts about that, Arthur. Tomorrow’s competition may prove to be a stepping-stone to bigger and better things. Much of England will be watching the games. A victory will certainly bolster confidence and support from the visiting liege lords. It is time for the fiefdoms and contested territories to be brought together. The British Isles remain in peril with their current social structure.
“Rumors are abounding of turbulence among the Viking tribes beyond the North Sea. Their population has grown significantly in recent years and they are positioned to conduct a string of invasions through The Pictish Lands and uncharted woods between them and ourselves.”
“I have heard such rumors, myself, Merlin,” Arthur replied. “The past invasions were the cause for the construction of the castles of Anglo-Saxony, such as our own. I understand that in past ages the fortresses of our people were made of wood and simple masonry.”
“Don’t forget the dragons,” Merlin replied. “As their bones and nests reveal, the giant beasts may use their mass and size to return the civilized world to what it was in past eras. This is why our cavalry trains with spears as well as swords. The leviathans of the deep water off the coasts also may return to populate the lochs and quagmires that permeate the highlands of the Picts.”
Arthur sheathed Excalibur as he continued to speak with his bearded mentor.
“The time for The Tournament of Champions draws near, able wizard.”
“That is the truth, young Arthur. We should be on our way. The jousting arena is complete and needs only the presence of the aspiring warriors of England to commence the ceremony.”
The two friends wended their way through the heath and underbrush until they reached the main road to Essex Castle. Other youthful candidates oiled their swords and chain mail armor for the day ahead. The sun was setting and the citizens gathered at thick oak tables for their evening meal. The mood was festive and many of the diners tossed scraps of meat to the dogs that begged and whined at their feet.
The atmosphere in the dining hall was boisterous and festive. A variety of musicians played instruments ranging from harps and lutes to whistles and drums. The citizens of the many regions joined in the ballads that bespoke of ancient warriors and giant nemeses.
Arthur and Merlin soaked in the merry ambiance. They joined in the feast of roast duck and mutton.
Once their bellies were full several of the would-be squires shouted oaths about the potential outcome of the impending tournament.
Older knights moved in to keep wrestling matches from getting too serious.
“Save your strength, whelps!” bellowed Sir Mobius.
The large, redheaded knight grabbed two of the contestants by their hooded jackets and bounced their heads together. The men on the receiving end of the maneuver moaned in pain.
Mobius was the ruler of Essex Castle and had spent the last week making sure the preparations for the tournament were in order.
The jugglers and acrobats that performed in time to the music retired for the evening. The diners in Essex Castle ate their fill and made their way to the gathering of tents outside the castle proper. Arthur and Merlin bade good evening to the celebrants and ascended the spiraling steps to the wizard’s lodgings.
The night wind blew over the moonlit forest. Cries of wolves and toads serenaded the sleeping warriors.
* * * * *
The morning came soon enough and the metallic banging of the hammers and anvils of the blacksmiths roused the resting contenders.
A herald of the court of Sir Mobius blew a trumpet made from a ram’s horn and addressed the people.
“Oyez! Oyez! The Tournament of Champions is about to begin! All contestants are requested to queue at the edge of the jousting quadrant.”
The young warriors exited their tents and quickly donned their chain mail armor, helmets and swords. Over this heavy assemblage each contender put on a tunic displaying his respective coat of arms. The elaborate stitching ranged from a variety of colors and mascots. Some soldiers sported renderings of dragons and lions while others carried the image of an anvil under crossed swords.
Since Arthur was a local resident to Essex Castle his tunic bore the familiar likeness of the resilient structure with Merlin’s tower rising from the center.
Arthur had taken care to oil and polish Excalibur and wore it in a hand-made, leather sheath attached to his woven belt. The young warrior’s shoulders and back muscles had developed over the past months as he wielded the hefty, steel weapon in sparring and fencing contests. The middle of Excalibur was etched with runes. Upon Arthur’s discovery of the sword Merlin translated the characters to state, 'Only The King of England may use this.'
Merlin scoffed as he had read the message and said, “There must be some misunderstanding. Never-mind the runes, Arthur. Excalibur is yours.”
The young warriors lined up on the edge of the jousting arena. Each was mounted on a sturdy warhorse. Upon the signal of the master of ceremonies a pair of riders charged each other from opposite ends of the stadium.
Sir Mobius and other knights and ladies of the region cheered their support.
The two contenders bore large lances that they held before their mighty steeds. When they clashed at the center of the arena a huge din of metal on metal rang out across the bleachers. The crowd erupted with excitement. The lances snapped in a flurry of splinters and the armored soldiers were knocked from their mounts. Once they regained their balance they drew their swords and commenced a fierce fencing match.
Arthur and Merlin watched the fencers from the starting line. Arthur’s horse neighed and shook his mane in the company of the other mounts. The warrior patted his neck with a gloved hand. After several pairs jousted in the arena it was Arthur’s turn.
A contender with a blue tunic and helmet sat atop a dappled gray warhorse. The master of ceremonies waved a red flag and the pair of riders lowered their lances and charged.
Arthur perspired from the tension as well as the heat. He aimed the tip of his lance at the right shoulder of his opponent, as did his rapidly approaching challenger.
The avid competitors collided and their wooden lances buckled and snapped.
Although Arthur had braced himself for the impact his feet were pulled from his stirrups and he tumbled backward, off his mount.
Arthur’s blue-clad opponent was also knocked loose from his steed and struggled to regain his balance while wearing heavy, chain mail armor. The blue fighter drew his sword and Arthur unsheathed Excalibur. They commenced a heartfelt battle that rang out over the crowded bleachers. The collision of their polished steel blades caused sparks to fly and near horses to pull against their tethers.
Sir Mobius and the crowd of several thousand onlookers from throughout the regions and fiefdoms of England cheered at the diligence of the fencers. The outcome was uncertain when Arthur was overtaken by a surge of energy emanating from his weapon. He swung his blade with preternatural strength and cried a different challenge to his own surprise.
Excalibur flared with red electricity and passed clear through the blade of the azure warrior. The blue fighter’s sword shattered in a myriad of pieces and dropped to the sand of the arena. Arthur’s opponent fell to one knee and held his hands palms out in a position of surrender.
“Alas, you have vanquished me, sturdy Arthur. My weapon is destroyed and I have no means with which to continue this fight.”
“Well done, both of you!” cried Sir Mobius.
The stocky, grizzly knight leaped from his seat at the center of the arena and approached the pair.
“Essex Castle has long waited to see a match such as the one we witnessed here today. I congratulate you both and am certain that knights will step forward to take you into apprenticeship.”
In response to the words of the middle-aged knight a pair of warriors rose from their seats and strode across the sand to address Sir Mobius and the standing contenders.
“My name is Hector of Hantonne in Sussex,” a flaxen-haired knight declared. “I will take the young man bearing the insignia of this castle into my umbrage.”
Sir Hector smiled and shook Arthur’s hand.
The other knight introduced himself to the men on the sand.
“I am Sir Guy. I will take you into my tutelage, blue warrior. What is your name?”
The defeated jouster raised the face-mask of his helmet, revealing a youthful yet fatigued face.
“I am Stewart of Oxfordshire,” he said.
The next day Arthur bade Merlin farewell and departed to Hantonne with Sir Hector’s entourage.
The summer wind gusted over the oak and pine forest.
Arthur was reassured by his new mentor. He had a full, brown beard and a kind face. The travelers pulled their coats and capes about themselves as a brisk rain began to fall.
Sir Hector pulled his horse next to Arthur’s and spoke to him.
“You will enjoy Hantonne methinks, young Arthur. Our resources are bountiful and our military gear is well-oiled and in good working condition. Forgive me for noticing but that is a fine sword that you carry. Was it given to you by the adept wizard, Merlin?”
A disembodied voice shrieked over the billowing trees before Arthur could reply.
“Excalibur is mine. I am Morgana. Merlin was my lover, once, but his over-ambitious morals soon got in the way of our relationship. Thus he is indebted to me and I will take the sword as payment.”
A translucent image of the female magic-user appeared before Sir Hector’s traveling party.
“Halt, soldiers, and relinquish your weapons and armor to me as tribute. If you fail to comply you will face your deaths in a most hideous fashion.”
“I know not from whence you have emerged, foul sorceress,” Hector answered. “Merlin is a friend of mine. If he parted from your company, I’m sure it was not without good reason. We will not heed your order. The boy is under my protection, now. If you seek to waylay us you must go through me, first.”
Sir Hector lowered the face-mask of his helmet and drew his sword.
Morgana’s visage uttered an attack spell.
A familiar voice yelled a defensive spell.
Bolts of red lightning flew from Morgana’s image. They shot directly at Sir Hector’s group until they arced against an invisible, spherical shield.
Merlin emerged from the forest, riding upon a dappled, gray stallion.
“I’ve been watching you, Morgana!” Merlin hollered. “Your expulsion from the Fae Realm is known throughout this forest.”
“That decision was a construct founded under your considerable influence, Merlin,” replied Morgana. “I have just as much right to conduct my own affairs as you do, hoary wizard.
“The academy of magic users is under your control. I had need to kill the unicorns. They were draining the dark magic from these woods.”
“I disagree with that assessment, Morgana,” Merlin bellowed. “My patience wears thin, here. Be gone from this place or contend with my abilities.”
“So be it, bearded mage. We will meet again.
“Be on your guard, young Arthur. Excalibur has a mind of its own. It will take great concentration on your part to employ it properly.”
The ephemeral image of the robed sorceress faded, then vanished entirely.
Sir Hector raised the face-mask of his helmet and spoke to his traveling party.
“You have my thanks, Merlin. That encounter could have become much worse without your presence. Please, ride with us. We will benefit from your added protection.”
“I believe I will, Hector. I yet consider Arthur to be a student of mine. He has learned much, as of late, and is, in my opinion, Excalibur’s rightful bearer.”
“Hello, Merlin,” said Arthur. “I thought the unicorns were just a myth. Why would the dark lady seek to destroy them?”
“Morgana is a maverick sorceress. We were sweethearts once, before the time of your birth. We began to disagree as she became infatuated with nature’s forces of death and decay. Ultimately she sought to undermine my own projects delving into the energies of knowledge and the cycles of time’s passage. Thus we grew apart and went our separate ways.
“Morgana remains, however, and is embittered toward me for my more optimistic approach to the arts and sciences.
“The unicorns were a valued manifestation of the primordial magic of this burgeoning island. They represented purity and the untamable wildness of the thronging variety of life in the world.
“Let us be on our way to Hantonne, my friends!”
The group of friends nodded in agreement and urged their horses forward.
The earthen path from Essex Castle to Hantonne extended through a patch of grassy hills to the old growth forest.
Arthur observed the high reeds of the rolling knolls give way to the dense, looming shadows of the oak and spruce trees. He made sure to conceal his mild apprehension as his steed entered the wold with the others.
The canopy of the trees was elevated over the road and, in a matter of time, Sir Hector’s soldiers were obligated to ignite torches to shine light on the obscure trail.
The cries of ravens and owls permeated the branches of the large trees and the rustling of badgers and squirrels emerged from the underbrush.
“Let us make good time while the light of day is with us,” Hector boomed. “If we move along we will reach my castle by tomorrow evening.”
The riders did as their navigator suggested and each of them urged their mounts into a steady gait.
Several hours passed uneventfully and the band was in good spirits. The sun began to set from above the trees and Sir Hector again addressed his companions.
“We have succeeded, this day, my friends. The horses have served us well to this point. It is time to set camp and rest until the morn.”
The group followed their leader’s recommendation and dismounted in a small clearing beside the road. They quickly watered and fed their horses and went so far as to remove their saddles and reins for the night.
Arthur groomed his horse and the others with currycombs as Merlin helped to prepare a modest stew over a cook-fire.
The travelers soon sat down to a humble repast and chatted among themselves about the outcomes of The Tournament of Champions the day before.
The band of companions began to prepare for sleep when Arthur noticed strange lights flickering through the distant oaks.
“Merlin, someone or something is moving out there. Can you see those lights?”
“Yes, Arthur. I believe we are about to have visitors.
“Hector, perhaps you and your men should be on guard. A mysterious entity approaches us.”
Merlin’s tone was laden with concern.
Sir Hector and his subordinates drew their swords.
Merlin prepared a defensive incantation.
The dancing lights grew brighter and steadier as they grew closer to the cautious party.
Arthur held Excalibur at the ready as he watched the enigmatic shadows become more visible in the night forest.
A patrol of men, armored and mounted on horses, drew near to the camp.
“Hello, there!” yelled a robust voice. “My men and I thought we were alone in these woods. It seems that is no longer the case. Is that you, Hector?"
“It is me, Sir Gaetan. My soldiers and I are on our way to participate in The Tournament of Champions at Essex Castle. I hope we are not late. It was my intention to acquire a squire who may assist me.”
Gaetan was stocky, well-armored and sported a braided, red beard.
Merlin spoke to Gaetan.
“Unfortunately, Sir Knight, the tournament has been completed. Nevertheless, there are likely to be more contenders for the occupation soon.
“Young Arthur, here, has been chosen to train under Sir Hector. I’m sure that, if you accompany us to Hantonne, he will benefit from your additional experience.”
“Hmm…thank you for the information, wizard,” replied Gaetan. “You seem to have things well in order. My men and I will take you up on your offer. The deep forest is known to be the home of bandits and more devious entities of magical constitution. Our military training may come in handy.”
“Very well, Gaetan,” Hector boomed. “We have a meager camp to offer. Rest here tonight. We will escort you to the castle at Hantonne tomorrow.”
The sizable gathering of travelers set a watch for the night and retired around the smoldering embers of Merlin’s cook-fire.
Gusts of wind and the swaying of boughs were the only sounds that the watchmen heard.
The travelers slept through the night. They awoke with the dawn rested and refreshed.
The pair of knights and their entourage of soldiers joined with Arthur and Merlin to quickly saddle their mounts and urge them onto the trail to Sir Hector’s castle.
The sun continued to rise and it was soon midday.
Arthur, whose faculties of sight and hearing were keen, perceived the atonal melody of wind chimes emanating from the road ahead. He saw fresh hoof prints in the turned earth of the forest road.
“Merlin, this section of the trail has been marked. Can you hear the wind chimes?”
“Yes, Arthur,” the wizard replied. “It appears that the bandits Sir Gaetan spoke of have chosen this section of the woods for their settlement. Let us proceed with caution. We don’t want to be caught in an ambush.”
“You’re too late for that,” rumbled a rakish voice. “You are intruding upon the territory of The Black Bull. Now meet your fate, pilgrims!”
A group of tightly clad bandits rappelled down from the trees surrounding the travelers. Some wielded crossbows while others brandished swords and axes.
Merlin was quick to react and uttered a defensive incantation.
Several of the would-be thieves loosed bolts from their projectile weapons.
Merlin’s spell was in effect, however, and his arcane shield deflected the shots away from his group.
A tense battle ensued and Arthur hastily drew Excalibur from its scabbard.
The mounted soldiers yelled a battle cry and struck at their opponents with glinting blades.
The brigands were no match for the unified military tactics of their targets. Three of them were run through by the knights’ men and another was cut a fearsome gash on the arm by Arthur’s sword.
The servants of The Black Bull realized that things were not going as they’d planned. Their intended victims resisted their attack and some went so far as to hold the forest rogues at bay.
Other bandits dropped their weapons altogether and ran to the protection of the trees.
“Alas, you have vanquished us soundly, sturdy soldiers,” a tall thief said.
The apparent leader of The Black Bull spoke to his men.
“Desist, my fellows. These fighters have earned our respect. Let us give them the honor of safe passage.”
Sir Hector and Sir Gaetan also gestured to their conscripts to lower their swords.
Arthur watched the survivors of the thwarted robbery return to their hideouts in the oak forest.
Merlin nodded in acknowledgement to the members of The Black Bull as his group urged their loyal steeds deeper along the path in the woods.
“I expect those brigands will think twice before trying to waylay respectable travelers a second time.”
The robed wizard chuckled as the music of the wind chimes faded behind him.
Arthur took a sigh of relief as he passed the handmade structures and watchtowers of the encampment of The Black Bull. It was evident that the brigands had been stationed there for some time.
The forest road beyond the clearing closed in around the travelers within a few hundred yards of the den of thieves.
Sir Hector and Sir Gaetan both expressed their enthusiasm to reach the castle ahead before nightfall.
The other riders supported the intentions of the knights. Each of them urged their mounts into a steady trot.
Arthur observed the trees becoming more sporadic and separate. The red light of the setting sun shone in staggered beams through the canopy.
The daytime foragers rushed to their nests while the night predators awakened.
At last the dense growth of the forest primeval gave way to the rolling hills of a grassy heath. The sun had set, however, and the travelers continued to hold their torches alight.
The summer wind billowed through the underbrush.
Arthur was the first to notice the lights of a small village ahead. The torches and braziers of a sizable castle rose from the settlement. He spoke to Merlin, who rode nearby.
“Look there, Merlin. I see a town beyond these hills. What is the name of that place?”
“Indeed, young Arthur. That must be Hantonne.”
A sense of levity permeated the band. None of the riders wished to repeat the conflict in the forest. Although night had fallen across the land, the occasional resident of the village of Hantonne called out in welcoming to the new arrivals.
The insignias of the tunics of Sir Hector’s and Sir Gaetan’s men were recognized by merchants and farmers as they stowed their wares and livestock for the evening.
It was then that an official patrol stationed in the town emerged on the central street and approached the knights and their companions.
“Sir Hector,” bellowed the sergeant in charge. “You have returned to us ahead of schedule. Did you succeed in acquiring a squire in such a short time?”
“Yes, Derrick,” Hector replied. “Allow me to introduce you to Arthur, here. He proved himself worthy of our tutelage on the jousting field of The Tournament of Champions.
“In addition Arthur is accompanied by the renowned wizard, Merlin. He has offered to help continue the academic education of this promising lad.”
“That is excellent news! Welcome, Arthur and Merlin!”
Derrick drew his horse near to the pair and shook hands.
The sergeant next recognized Gaetan and his soldiers.
“Welcome, Sir Gaetan and friends. It has been too long since we last shared news of events to the western shores.”
“Thank you, Derrick. We are glad to be here,” Gaetan answered.
“I was too late to gain a squire in Essex but am happy to provide an escort for Hector and his fellows.
“We did, in fact, run into some trouble in the deep forest but were quick to our defenses and emerged from the fray unscathed.”
“That is concerning news, Gaetan,” Derrick said. “How organized were the bandits?”
“Relatively significantly, I’d say,” Gaetan reported. “We benefited additionally from Merlin’s knowledge of the arcane arts.”
“Alas, we live in changing times,” Derrick replied. “The roads and highways of this great island run the risk of becoming theaters for robbery and worse. It is up to you leaders of the fiefdoms to come up with a plan to appease the sentiments of deprivation and hunger within the general population.”
“I agree, Derrick,” stated Sir Hector. “Your observation is astute. There was a time that mastery of the martial disciplines was sufficient study for the upcoming generations. Now, it seems, we are forced to consider the methodology of seers such as Merlin and others of his profession.
“The solution to the promulgation of rogues and bandits within Anglo-Saxon society may prove to be hidden in the esoteric ideas found in scrolls and books. The time may be upon us for knights and monks alike to learn the art of print-making and reading, as it were.
“What may once have been cleric’s work is now the only alternative to greater military clashes with the marginalized classes. We should consider the causes and effects of seasonal hunger and shortages of grain during the winter months. These issues may seem omnipresent through history, at first glance, but may be amended by a changing economy of trade and bartering.
“The same could be said for the loaning of crop seeds for the planting season and the reduction of the restrictions on hunting in the wooded regions of the lords and barons.”
“That is well said, Sir Hector,” Merlin observed. “It is true that those issues are discussed to a greater degree in many of my tomes. I agree that we leaders are set upon to alleviate the pressure on the peasants, be it via grain conservatories or the production of illuminated, vellum manuscripts.”
“We certainly have much to discuss, my friends,” Hector laughed. “Let us get some food in our stomachs before we divulge such weighty ideas in greater depth. I invite all of you to dine as guests of mine at Hantonne Castle. I’m sure the servants there have been notified of our approach.”
Upon hearing Sir Hector’s words Arthur realized that he was hungry. He was glad to see the mounted men before him urge their steeds through the town and toward the raised portcullis of the castle keep.
Arthur saw the flickering light of several braziers. The hefty sconces shed illumination at various levels of the relatively new structure. The squire peered into the windows that neighbored the cobblestone entrance path and observed chandeliers that bore glowing candles.
Once the riders reached the main gate of Hantonne Castle a group of livery attendants took the reins of their horses and allowed the travelers to dismount.
“You have our thanks, friends,” bellowed Merlin.
The wizard handed down the harness of his horse.
Each of the travelers was taken aback at the sophistication of the Hantonne community. They ascended the steps to the main doors of the castle.
Arthur observed that the interior of the dining hall was replete with tapestries depicting creatures of legend. Among the waiting officials and associates of Hector’s court were several ladies, dressed in clerical robes.
One of the younger ladies approached the squire.
“Hello, my name is Gwen. You must be Arthur. We’ve heard about you. Please make yourself at home. Dinner is almost ready.”
“Thank you, Gwen,” replied Arthur. “It’s nice to make your acquaintance.”
The pair shook hands.
Gwen returned to her capacity as a cleric and assisted her friends in carrying platters of mutton and roasted sausage.
The guests of Sir Hector cried out in praise of the sumptuous feast. The knights and soldiers were quick to lay their weapons aside and claim seats at the broad dinner table.
“Eat with gusto, my friends!” yelled Hector. “We have much business to discuss and it will require us to be at our fullest functioning faculties.”
The ruler of the castle at Hantonne dug into his own assortment of meat, hearth bread and steamed carrots. He was clearly famished from the rigors of his journey.
The gathering of people dined for some time.
The summer wind continued to blow and castle pages hastened to add wood logs to the central fire pit.
Arthur found a seat close to the fire. He lay back and rested casually. The squire watched Merlin and Hector as they continued a serious conversation.
“Is this seat taken?” a female voice asked.
Arthur looked up and saw Gwen.
“No. By all means join me, here,” replied the squire. “Thank you for providing my friends and I with food, Cleric Gwen. It is clear that you and your sister clerics are well-trained and conscientious. It would surely be difficult living for the residents of this castle without the hospitality and assistance of your group.”
“Thank you, Arthur. You are kind.
“Tell me, was it a challenge to participate in The Tournament of Champions?”
“Of course it was. To be honest I’m surprised that I achieved such a fortunate outcome. It took months of training to participate in a jousting match that lasted for just a few minutes. I have bruises from the impact when I was knocked off my horse.”
“I understand that your group was waylaid by bandits in the deep forest,” Gwen said. “It seems that is a common problem for travelers and pilgrims in and around the woods of Sussex. Perhaps an organized set of patrols might help maintain the safety of citizens on the road.”
“That could help,” Arthur answered. “The old growth forest continues to provide sanctuary for criminals and people who wish to remain anonymous, on the margin of society.
“I will take the issue up with Sir Hector tomorrow. I’m sure that Sir Gaetan would favor delegating a series of patrols to that end as well.”
“That is a good idea, Arthur,” Gwen replied. “The future holds great promise for our people.
“My own training, here, in the region of Sussex, defines the role of we clerics to be one of healing, service and ministry.
“With secure roads and fortified castles dispersed throughout this wooded island the clerics will more effectively serve in times of invasion or battle.”
“I agree, Gwen,” said Arthur. “It appears that the knights have much work to be done if the land is to be unified and prosperous.
“Sometimes my thoughts turn to Stonehenge and Woodhenge.
“Those who came before us truly possessed similar ambition to create greater avenues of civilization and the availability of the ideas discussed in the scrolls and records of scholars such as Merlin.”
Arthur paused and stretched his back as he rested by the fire.
“Forgive me, Gwen. I’m more fatigued than I first realized. Allow me to get some rest tonight. I look forward to continuing this conversation tomorrow.”
“Very well, Squire of Hantonne,” replied Gwen. “I have other preparations that must be made in the event that Hector decides to contend with the rogues of the forest a second time. Sleep well, my friend.”
The pair parted ways and retired for the night.
Only Merlin stayed awake while the residents of the castle slept and dreamed. The aged wizard listened to the sounds of frogs and owls as the night progressed.
'I am concerned about Morgana’s ambitions. I expect she will appear before us sooner rather than later. I must be prepared to protect these would-be warriors in the event of an attack.'
The morning soon approached and in a matter of hours the light of the dawning sun shone in rays through the windows of Sir Hector’s castle. All quickly achieved a degree of bustle as farmers drove their herds through the town gates for bartering.
Clerics and cooks poured steaming water over the wooden kitchen tables to sanitize them for the preparation of food for the day. Bakers pulled crusty loaves from their ovens while meat-sellers delivered fresh cuts of beef and Cornish game hens to the clerics.
Arthur awoke early and was quickly joined by Sir Hector and Sir Gaetan who began a brief fencing exercise in the castle courtyard.
The knights soon recognized the superb craftsmanship of Excalibur.
“That is an oddly resilient weapon you have, young Arthur,” Sir Gaetan observed. “Where, if you don’t mind my asking, did you come across it?”
“I found it some months ago not far from Essex Castle,” replied the squire. “It was wedged forcibly in a mound of stone. It wasn’t difficult to pull free, but, I admit, it is strange that no other person claimed it before me.”
“That is because the blade chose you as much as you chose it,” uttered Merlin.
The wizard was watching the fencers from one of the balconies. He addressed the men below.
“Excalibur’s custodian is Morgana. The sorceress is also known as The Lady of the Lake. She, like myself, is older than she may seem at first glance. The two of us have contended with the cycles of magic that flow from the natural world, here.
“Some have called the island Avalon while others dub it Anglo-Saxony. Regardless of the name, however, it constitutes a bastion of civilization and commerce in a world that struggles to transcend its agrarian and feudal roots.”
“You are wise, Merlin,” answered Sir Hector. “I pray that we are not approached again by the sorceress if she wishes to reclaim her prize.
“We have dealt with Morgana before and I’m sure we will again. It is our responsibility to remain prepared and on guard for her wily attacks,” the mage stated. “Recently I have sensed the auras of tendrils of magical force. I believe that Morgana seeks to acquire minions. She cares not for the limits of nature. If need be she will summon beings not of this world. This I can feel. Forgive me for sounding pessimistic.”
“We are indebted to you for your perceptions, Merlin,” Hector said. “Please, if you sense anything more inform us immediately. The peace and freedom of our land is all of our concern.”
Merlin nodded his consent and returned to his newly designated study chamber.
Arthur and his mentors also retired within and conducted the necessary ritual of cleaning and oiling their weapons and armor.
It was then that men in the castle watchtowers rang the alarm bells.
The villagers responded quickly and hastened inward to the sanctuary of the keep.
Arthur was in the armory conducting maintenance of the equipment with Sir Hector.
The men rose to their feet at once.
A soldier opened the door, breathing heavily, and spoke to his commander.
“Sir Hector, Hantonne is under attack. I have come from the south watchtower. Beasts and strange men are assaulting our town!”
“Thank you, soldier,” bellowed Hector. “Return to your post, Geoffrey.”
The ruler of the castle next spoke to his squire.
“Arthur, fetch my sword and mail. I fear we are facing the minions of the witch that Merlin perceived.”
“Of course, Sir Hector,” answered the dutiful assistant.
The knight and squire quickly donned their battle gear and marched out of the armory and up the stairs leading to the upper ramparts and watchtowers.
A group of soldiers lined the topmost level of the castle wall. They all sought to catch a glimpse of the invaders in the town below.
Arthur saw several scaled, fire-breathing, draconian beasts mounted by humanoid militia.
The fanged, hostile riders had already used their steeds to set fire to the thatched rooftops of a number of buildings.
The villagers of Hantonne had resigned themselves to the destruction of their homes and businesses. The alarm had come soon enough and the population of the settlement crowded in the courtyard of the keep with their children and livestock.
Merlin appeared within the tower opposite Arthur and Hector. The wizard yelled to the castle soldiers.
“Be careful, men of Sussex! A dragon approaches us from the air.”
Merlin’s warning was none too soon for a red, winged dragon swept down toward the ramparts from the clouds above. The massive beast was fearless and perched on a vacant section of the wall with her musclebound limbs and claws.
“Rargh! Merlin, I have returned…and in much more suitable form. I have come for Excalibur and the homage of the people of this region. Follow my wishes or feel my wrath, mortals!”
“We will not yield, Morgana, if that is who you are,” bellowed Sir Hector. “Excalibur is a superb weapon and does not belong in the custody of miscreants such as yourself. Leave my people in peace or face retribution for the destruction of this town.”
Morgana drew a deep breath and released a deluge of acrid flame from her maw.
A pair of soldiers were engulfed in fire and were forced to roll on the floor of the ramparts until the scalding combustion was extinguished.
Merlin took matters into his own hands and uttered a spell of his own authorship.
A forceful beam of ice stretched from the adept wizard’s fingertips.
The red dragon held up a clawed arm to deflect the attack.
Merlin’s faculties of sorcery were potent, however, and Morgana’s arm was frozen to the bone. The scaled beast attempted to move away from the uncomfortable magic when her affected limb shattered entirely.
“That hurts, Merlin! You will pay for your resistance. This disagreement has only just begun. We shall meet again, Arthur.”
The injured, female dragon spread her wings and took to the air. She passed beyond the range of the castle archers and beckoned for her forces on the ground to retreat.
Gwen and the other clerics were quick to tend to the soldiers who were burned by the dragon’s fire. The healer channeled a soothing force through her outstretched hands, closing much of her patients’ wounds.
Arthur watched as Gwen carried out the technique of her training.
“You employ magic in a way I have not seen, Gwen,” the squire declared. “In the event of battle the talents of you and your clerical companions would prove to be of great value. How long did it take for you to learn how to heal in such a manner?”
“It took several years, channeling the energies of the world toward a focal point. I was fortunate enough to be selected as a child to study among the clerics, here.”
Gwen completed her healing of the scorched warriors.
The soldiers voiced their gratitude for her help. They were able to get back on their feet and return to their posts.
Gwen also stood up and spoke to her friend.
“Allow me to introduce you to the head of my guild, Arthur. Artemis has been like a mother to us.
“My parents passed away when I was very young. Thus, this group of clerics has become my surrogate family over the years.”
Arthur followed Gwen down from the ramparts of the castle keep. They walked to a large tent filled with medical supplies.
A middle-aged cleric sat at a table covered with surgical tools. She gazed at the pair through wire-framed spectacles. The reflective lenses were strange to the squire. He had never seen them before.
“Hello, you must be Arthur,” said Artemis. “I understand that you were chosen by Sir Hector to serve as his squire. Congratulations.”
She shook his hand.
“Thank you,” the young man answered. “I watched Gwen heal the soldiers injured by the dragon’s attack. She has a potent familiarity with healing magic. It is different from what I’ve seen of Merlin’s skills. I am impressed by the restorative discipline of the clerics. You surely serve a valuable function for the people of this town.”
“You are kind,” replied Artemis. “The healing arts have been our focus for some time, now. The separate regions of this island remain vulnerable to the continued invasions of the North men and would-be pillagers.
“Their presence has pushed the Angles and Saxons to develop many things, not the least of which being military defenses, wizardry and the curative disciplines.”
“At first I argued with Merlin about my insistence on pursuing military tactics. Now, however, it seems there is value in studying other routes of learning. Perhaps there is merit in carrying so many scrolls and books at all times,” Arthur chuckled.
“I agree with Merlin,” replied Artemis. “Education and reading are essential aspects of the preparation of one’s mind for the challenges of a future society. We are the creators of a multi-faceted legacy for posterity.”
“That is a thought-provoking perspective,” Arthur observed. “It is reassuring that Morgana and her chaotic deeds are not the only manifestations of practiced magic.
“I hope the dragon and trolls do not return to Hantonne. It is unfortunate, though, that such may not be the case for the aggressive motives of Morgana.
“In this light it is wise to remain on edge and look to the skies.”
“Ah, Arthur! I see that you have met Artemis,” Sir Hector boomed. “She is the principle cleric to be reckoned with in this town. Few issues regarding the physical health of my people go by without her advice and expertise.”
Sir Hector descended a flight of stairs from the ramparts. He embraced Arthur as he spoke.
“We all have done well, this day. We have Merlin to thank for that. He has gained some much-needed time for us. Now we can secure our settlement more thoroughly and without breaches in our defenses.”
Hector next spoke to a soldier who reported as requested.
“Sir Hector, all is safe in the ramparts. We have started a double watch and will inform you at once if the dragon returns.”
“Well done, Geoffrey. Morgana is a serious opponent to Merlin, Arthur and ourselves. Return to your post and tell the men to remain alert. That is all.”
Geoffrey bowed to his commanding officer and hastened up from the courtyard of the keep.
Arthur watched as the Hantonne soldiers ignited sconces and braziers along the edge of the topmost walls of the castle. He observed that twilight had fallen and stars soon dotted the evening sky.
Rather than retire for the night, the majority of Sir Hector’s and Sir Gaetan’s men stayed awake and were wary of the dragon’s possible return.
Although not needed among the watchmen, Arthur, also, was too excited by the events of the day to sleep properly. After tossing and turning in his bed for a few hours he decided to visit Merlin’s study at Hantonne.
The wizard had loaded his horse cleverly and he had succeeded in carrying a selection of leather-bound tomes and scrolls on the journey from the region of Essex.
Arthur brought a flickering candelabra and gently pushed on the door to the newly designated study. The locks were open and the portal was not barred.
The aspiring squire stepped within, taking care to close the door behind him. The dozen-or-so shelves were filled with volumes and scrolls. Some, in fact, were not written in English at all.
Arthur saw books written in Greek, Latin, Spanish, French, German and Italian.
'That is interesting, thought the squire. Merlin may possess the largest library in Christendom.'
The sound of snoring emerged from the neighboring room.
Arthur was reminded to take care not to disturb his sleeping friend. The squire sat at a compact, oak table and rested his candelabra upon it. He made a few selections from the shelves and read for some hours.
Soon the dawn shone upon Hantonne.
Arthur heard the songs of birds nested in the oak forest nearby.
Soldiers securing the outer perimeter reported in and awoke their companions to replace them at the ramparts.
“Hello, there!” a baritone voice boomed. “Is anyone awake in there? We heard a hostile dragon is marauding in this area!”
A trio of horsemen with a substantial entourage of foot-soldiers yelled through the lowered portcullis below the window of Merlin’s study.
“Who goes there?” answered a watchman on the ramparts.
“We do!” the stocky rider replied. “It is Percival along with Gawain and Lancelot. Is Hector in there? We brought reinforcements and are here to help.”
Sir Percival chortled from his position atop a hearty Clydesdale horse.
“I am here, friends!” bellowed Sir Hector.
The proprietor of the castle emerged from his living quarters on the first floor of the keep. The robust knight fumbled with his robes as he hastened to meet with his comrades-in-arms.
Arthur watched from a distance as the portcullis was raised and the new arrivals guided their horses and troops to the courtyard.
Hector approached the knights as they dismounted and welcomed each of them in a hearty embrace.
“Welcome to Hantonne, my brethren! The castle has been developed to a further degree since your last visit. Your timing couldn’t be better for your reports of a hostile dragon in the area are accurate.
“Morgana assaulted us, yesterday. She and her troll minions were summarily repelled by the forceful magic of the wizard, Merlin.
“In lighter affairs I have returned from The Tournament of Champions in Sir Mobius’ castle at Essex. Thus I have acquired a squire named Arthur. He shows great promise. His escort, Merlin, has also taken up residence here and has proven to be of great assistance in protecting this modest community.”
Upon hearing mention of his name Arthur descended the steps from Merlin’s study and walked toward the new arrivals.
Hector was quick to introduce his squire to the men. The younger man shook hands with them in greeting.
Percival was shorter in stature and sported a salt-and-pepper beard.
Gawain stood by Hector and was clean-shaven. The men were about the same height.
Lancelot was clearly the youngest of the three and was the tallest by far. He was clearly well-trained in the art of swordplay and his muscles bulged from under his chain-mail armor. Like Arthur, Sir Lancelot had light hair and blue eyes. The knight wore his hair in ringlets reminiscent of the ancient Greeks.
“You have our congratulations, Arthur,” said Percival. “Hector had good reason to select you for his squire, I’m sure. We happen to be on a quest of our own. It has been put on hold, of course, given the predicament of this town.
“Our quest is for The Holy Grail. The Grail is purported to be the cup used by Jesus to consecrate the wine consumed on the night before His crucifixion. It was then used by Joseph of Arimathea to catch the last drops of His blood as they fell from the cross.”
“Where, if you don’t mind my asking, is Arimathea?” Arthur queried.
“That is for us to discern, young squire,” replied Percival. “We have explored much of France and Corsica, too. As of yet clues to The Grail’s whereabouts remain few and far between.”
“I have heard of The Grail as well,” a masculine voice boomed.
Sir Gaetan came into view as he entered the courtyard of Hector’s castle.
The hefty knight addressed his fellows as they began to remove their saddles from their horses.
"This island, it seems, is riven with religious and cultural forces, some of which may be in contention. The druids are gone, now, and, in some ways, they have been replaced by the clerics we see here, today.
“The same is true for Merlin’s and Morgana’s magical faculties. The young monks, traveling from Italy, have adopted the philosophy of epistemology and the study of letters. It is a practice shared with Merlin and many lesser wizards that promulgate the realm of Anglo-Saxony.
“Thus, times are changing and it is our boon to preserve what we can of the past while building understanding of the circulating ideas of the future.”
“Well said, Sir Gaetan,” replied Lancelot. “We face a dilemma of sorts. Shall we remain here to help defend this community from the red dragon or join in the quest for The Holy Grail?”
Sir Hector was the first to respond.
“Perhaps both missions can be fulfilled. Please, stay here for a couple of weeks. If Morgana does not return in that time I will join the search for the cup of Christ. Locating such a relic and returning it to Christendom would be a notable achievement.
“Let us remain cautious and aware, however, that the hordes in the Middle-East, where Jesus walked, are not entirely welcome to foreign armies and curious out-landers.
“If we journey to the land east of the Mediterranean Sea we are bound to face resistance to our religious objective.
"The Saracens are reputable fighters. Their patrols will not treat our forces lightly if we make an appearance in their land.
"The Ottoman Empire remains a considerable force in Jerusalem as well as in the southern stretches of Spain. If The Grail is somewhere in the Middle-East, it is bound to be protected by military force. Let us be sure of our motives before embarking on a half-shod journey.”
The other knights nodded their acceptance of Sir Hector’s observations. None of them wanted to leave Sussex unprotected.
The friends had spoken long enough to attract the notice of Merlin and Artemis. The middle-aged masters of their chosen crafts joined the knights as they chatted outside the general livery stable of the keep.
“Welcome, knights!” Merlin intoned. “You have come here none too soon. I overheard mention of The Holy Grail. Have you clues to the sacred relic’s location?”
“That is a possibility, Merlin,” answered Percival. “They are mostly rumors and legends but, some suggest, The Grail may be part of a larger hoard of wealth somewhere in the eastern desert population of The Holy Land.
“I fear we should not venture there without a substantial and well-trained military escort. The safety of the settlements here, under the tyranny of the shape-shifting Morgana, should not be neglected in our absence, either.”
“May I make a suggestion?” asked Hector.
“By all means, Hector,” Lancelot stated.
“Let us remain here, at Hantonne Castle, for a fortnight. The odds of the red dragon returning in that time, with her troll minions in tow, are great. If we can succeed in thoroughly vanquishing the great beast we will have more peace-of-mind when considering Percival’s quest.
“Now, if you please, fellows, let us put our ambitions aside for the evening. Get some rest and change your clothes. I extend an invitation to you and your men to dine with us tonight. I have already made reservations with the castle cooks.”
The warriors and peasantry dined together. They feasted on quail and hearth bread which they washed down with the regional ale. After chatting among themselves for some hours the gathering within the dining hall retired for the evening.
The watch was set and did not detect danger as the night wore on. The majority of the forces slept through to the dawn undisturbed.
At daybreak the watchmen heard an unusual sound. It was the tone of someone blowing a ram’s horn. The men on the ramparts hastened to the ledge closest to the alarming sound. They looked down to the road below and beheld a lone knight who wore a makeshift suit of plate and chain armor.
He sat on the saddle of a dappled mare and held his lance pointed upward.
“Hello there!” he said to the guardians of the region. “I am Sir George, at your service. I seek the counsel of Sir Hector, the ruler of this castle. May I have permission to enter this gate?”
It took a few moments for the watchmen to consult with their commanding officer. The lieutenant gave his approval and gestured for the soldiers to lower the drawbridge and raise the portcullis.
Arthur and Merlin had also been awakened by the sound of Sir George’s horn. They quickly made their way to the courtyard to see what was ado. The pair was addressed by the new arrival who was in the process of dismounting from his warhorse.
“Salutations! You must be Arthur and Merlin. I have heard about you, as word travels faster than larks in these woods.
“My name is George. There is talk of a red dragon and band of trolls marauding the settlements in this area. I believe I can help extricate you from your predicament.”
“That bodes well for us, Sir George,” replied the robed wizard. “I have heard of you and your exploits as well. Your reputation stands that you are a dragon-slayer and killer of other foul entities that mayhap contend with the tranquility of our cities and villages.”
The livery attendants succeeded in aiding the new arrival in removing the saddle of his steed. One of the men took George’s hefty lance and rested it against a nearby wall.
The knight paused to take a drink of water before he continued to speak to the wizard and squire.
“It seems, based on the deployed troops here, that there is indeed a dragon moving against this village. I have a substantial knowledge of the whiles of the giant reptiles. The red dragons tend to be covetous of treasure in multiple forms. In this field of thinking they are more tyrannical than the dragons of other colors and persuasions.
“I must speak with Hector. Do you know where he is this morning?”
“I am here, friend George. It has been some years since we last met. You are a capable fighter and your added military training can help us.”
Sir Hector emerged from his bedchamber and shook hands with the knight.
“You are kind, Hector,” replied Sir George. “Allow me to establish some tactical preparations while the day is young.”
The commander of Hantonne Castle nodded his consent and delegated a dozen of his soldiers to assist the knight in the projects at hand.
The band of companions worked throughout the day and completed their reinforcements by the twilight hour. They were ready for Morgana’s assault.
As the stars began to fill the sky Arthur again heard the tone of George’s horn.
“Alert, my fellows! The dragon is upon us!” cried Sir George.
Morgana, still wounded from Merlin’s magic, flew over Hantonne village and steered for the castle keep. The female dragon spewed staggered blasts of acrid flame as she flapped her expansive wings.
The first wave of defenses, designed under George’s guidance, came into effect.
Hector’s men had prepared a pair of large bolt throwers. They unleashed missiles powered by strong, tensile cords.
The shots flew close to their intended target but the dragon was quick and evaded the attack.
The warriors on the ramparts were not discouraged by the thwarting of the preliminary attempt. Over a dozen men hoisted longbows and loosed their arrows at the beast. A pair of the powerful missiles struck Morgana’s left wing, creating painful tears in the membrane of her appendage.
“Argh! That angers me, humans. You will pay for your resistance,” bellowed the shapeshifter.
The dragon growled as her faculty of flight was impeded by the rupture of the arrows. She perched on the south ramparts of the castle and unleashed a supreme blast of flame at the defenders of the realm.
Again the men were prepared and raised their shields to deflect the heat of the assault. They had been educated as to the ways of the dragons and waited until the stream of fire subsided. Hector’s men then rose and drew their swords. They surrounded the beast from below her and thrust their weapons into Morgana’s scaled flesh.
The defenders’ attack bought time for George. The knight grabbed his lance from its resting place against the wall and scaled the ramparts to confront the red dragon.
Morgana snapped and bit at the piercing swords of the soldiers and did not see George as he ran into the conflict with his lance. His weapon was tipped with burnished steel and the knight thrust the weapon into Morgana at dead center.
The red dragon was run through by the tactic and gurgled as she clawed at the hilt of the lance with her remaining arm.
Sir George drew his sword from its sheath and rendered the coup-de-grace.
Morgana’s head was severed under the fire-sharpened blade and she died.
Arthur watched the dragon fall to the deck of the topmost rampart then, strangely, waver entirely until manifesting Morgana’s true form. She was an aged woman and bore the scars of years of battles and conflicts throughout Christendom.
George drew near to the crone and untied his cloak. He used it to cover the deceased woman’s body.
Trolls, attacking the village outside Hantonne Castle, sensed the demise of their leader and fled from their previously intended targets.
The residents of the keep gave a cheer for the success of the protectors of their civilization. They gathered around Sir George and hoisted him onto their shoulders.
“Hurrah!” cried the populace.
Arthur was impressed by the knight’s success and gave him a chivalrous embrace along with Percival, Gawain and Lancelot.
George drew near to the crone and untied his cloak. He used it to cover the deceased woman’s body.
Trolls, attacking the village outside Hantonne Castle, sensed the demise of their leader and fled from their previously intended targets.
The residents of the keep gave a cheer for the success of the protectors of their civilization. They gathered around Sir George and hoisted him onto their shoulders.
“Hurrah!” cried the populace.
Arthur was impressed by the knight’s success and gave him a chivalrous embrace along with Percival, Gawain and Lancelot.
That night Arthur, Merlin and the knights commenced a celebration hosted by Sir Hector. They assembled their tables in a circular formation and looked at Merlin as he tapped his staff on the round surface.
“May I have your attention, if you please, Sir Hector and the rest of you. We have much to discuss.”
“By all means, Merlin. Please continue,” bellowed Sir Hector.
“Thank you,” the wizard replied.
“The strength of this island has grown in recent years. Some have attributed it to the trade of sheep and wool. Others say it is the influence of the traveling monks from the continent. Whatever the cause I believe it is time for the knights of England to unite under a single sovereign, a king, as it were.”
The aged seer drew his fingers through his beard as he considered what next to say.
“Such a king needs the power and influence of the leaders of the past. The accoutrements of the early Christians fall in this category.
“You knights have shared rumors of The Holy Grail. I suggest that one of you take the quest for The Cup of Christ into your umbrage.
“The lands beyond the eastern Mediterranean Sea have hosted a variety of tribes and civilizations since time immemorial. It is possible that one of you may lead a small force into the Middle East and gain the support of potentates toward this objective. It is reasonable to think that the people there may see merit in establishing a route of commerce with the western regions.”
Sir Percival was the first to respond.
“We are of like minds on this issue, Merlin. I have studied many of the relics previously retrieved from the eastern lands. Their significance pales in comparison to The Grail. If the artifact remains intact I am confident it can be retrieved.”
The other men at the round table nodded their approval of Percival’s words.
“I will travel with my soldiers to the desert lands beyond Christendom. History beckons me to make my contribution to the legacy of our faith. Thus an English king would gain clout in the process of unifying the separate regions of this island.”
The knights in the meeting chamber applauded in approval of Percival’s proposal.
[To be continued.]