Friday, 14 March 2014

Pendragon



   The sword was a murderous thing. Blood and chaos and death and despair and all things of the dark were its friends, its allies in pain. Of remorse and empathy it knew nothing. Less so of love. There could be no denying the fact that the sword was a cursed artifact whose singular purpose was the corruption and defilement of its wielder's soul, a deed that often took decades to perform, but was nonetheless accomplished. For there were few who could withstand the blade's evil, its seduction. 
   Those that knew of that darkness within the steel came together with a plot to bury away the evil thing and spare the world it's wickedness. There was little hope of success,  and the toll that was paid was a high one. It was a night that drove many a man mad with grief, left some with scars so deep, so carved into their souls that no ointment or skill of healing could close the wound that was opened. It was a night where shadows came alive and the dark was a living thing, tearing and biting and gnashing at steel and leather and flesh and bone.
   Only one survived that night. Only one could steady his heart and soul enough to withstand the evil. It was not skill that bore him away from death's cold embrace, nor was it courage or determination. It was luck in its purest form. At least, that was the thread he'd spun in his mind so as to keep himself from falling into madness. The price that was paid that night, the blood that was shed, was a thing too great, too incalculable for any single mind to process. And the mind of this one survivor was to remain intact if there was any hope of keeping the sword from spreading its evil onto another hapless mortal.
   So it was for centuries, the survivor watching over the sword's last resting place, bewitching those that wandered too near, lured by the vile whispers of the evil within the blade, making them turn away and walk another path. It was a lonely task, a solitary life that branded the survivor a hermit, a crazed mountain man, the fool in the hills. It was a fate he accepted, though never took joy from. It was a fate he wished upon no one else, a fate that bound him to the sword until the end of days.  It was a fate that was soon to change.

*****
   Arthur lay awake, his back turned to the steel framed wooden door that led to the south wing's staircase. With his blankets wrapped around him and his head covered as though with a hood he had the appearance of a trussed up turkey. The sleeping quarters were dark, with only a few pale slivers of moonlight painting shapes against the rough grey of the room's stoned walls. Though the hour was late, Arthur's hands were locked into fists, his knuckles going white from the tight grip he had on the blanket. His heart too was beating at an abnormal pace, heightening his awareness.
   Footsteps and  the dry throat whisper of the Keeper burst through the slits between the door and walls. The hinges moaned as the heavy wood was pushed open, a flame dancing atop a torch chasing shadows across the room. 
   The Keeper held a small red-haired boy by his collar and thrust him into the room with a hand that could crush the boy's skull in a single flex of thumb and index finger.
   "Which one?" came the Keeper's gargle ridden growl.
   The red-haired boy, his face tear streaked and filthy, pointed to a wooden bedframe in the far corner of the room. With a stride that had near inhuman qualities, the Keeper reached Artur's bed and grabbed the boy by an ankle, pulling him from his bed as one pulls a carrot from the earth. There, hanging from the Keeper's grip, shirt fallen over his face, Arthur fought the man, kicking and scratching and punching with all remaining limbs. His resistance was making a noise and the other boys in the room soon woke up, rubbing their eyes and exchanging looks of confusion and sleep deprivation.
   "Out," said the Keeper, his eyes kept locked on Arthur. "All of you! NOW!"
   Before the echo of the Keeper's voice had fallen, the room had been made vacant, save for the Keeper and Arthur, who still let out a punch or a scratch every now and then.
   "Stop that!" yelled the Keeper as he struck Arthur's cheek with a mighty slap. The boy put his hands to his crimson cheek as the Keeper lifted him up, putting their eyes on the same level.
   "Where is it?"
   Arthur kept his hands over his mouth and held the Keeper's stare.
   "Boy, so help me I will flog you until your bones bleed."
   Arthur knew there was another strike coming, but he didn't blink, didn't break his gaze until the last instant,  a moment before the second slap came across his face and made him see stars.
   "Filthy little cur," said the Keeper as he dropped Arthur on the floor. The Keeper gave Arthur a moment's peace before laying into him again, beating the boy with fists the size of boulders. Arthur moaned and cried, but this only spurred on the Keeper's violence.
   "Where is it?" shouted the Keeper.
   "I know not-"
   "Don't lie to me!"
   "No master, it hurts! Please!"
   The Keeper kept this up for as long as his health could bear it. When no punch was left, he gave Arthur a last taste of the heel on his boot. The boy was bloodied enough for the kick to send him sliding across the floor. He was crying now, his face glistening in the moonlight. When the Keeper regained some strength, he once more pulled Arthur into the air and slammed him against a wall, readying another punch aimed directly at Arthur's face.
   "Please! No more!" cried Arthur.
  "Then spill your gullet maggot!"
   The Keeper let Arthur loose. The boy took a moment to steady his legs before moving to a crack in the wall. From the Keeper's viewpoint, with the light being what it was, the crack was near impossible to see. From the darkness Arthur produced a tall, flat thing, wrapped in old brown linens, close to his own height in length. An archaic hilt, seemingly carved from grey stone, protruded out the top of the wrappings.
   "Stay here. I'm warning you boy," said the Keeper as he turned and made his way out the door. From the other side, the lock fell with a deafening thud and the Keeper's footsteps racing down the tower's stairs was soon to follow.
   Arthur looked at the thing he held in his arms and knew that it was a sign of death, a death that would come once the Keeper returned. That window is near enough the bed thought Arthur and hurried towards the wooden frame that would serve as a route to his escape. The wrapped thing he held in one hand whilst balancing on one of the bed's posts. His other hand stretched towards the window sill, a cold thing fashioned from a smooth stone that made it hard for Arthur to manage a solid grip. He wiped the sweat and blood from his fingers and gave the sill one last reach. It was then that he heard the lock, the sweep of the heavy door over the dusty stone, and the roar of the Keeper as he lunged at the Boy.
   Before Arthur could turn, the Keeper had him once again by his ankle, pulling him off the bed frame and flinging him across the floor. Arthur fell hard and the wrapped thing slid across the floor, a metallic screech accompanying it.
   "You filthy maggot! Trying to escape?"
   The Keeper beat Arthur again, but was stopped by the voice of the tall man that accompanied him, a tall man Arthur knew to be the Keeper's eldest son.
   "Come now father, did you wake me at this ungodly hour to play witness to your beatings of the swine-lad?"
   The voice was silky, effeminate, and his posture was an upright one, remarkably unlike his father's.
   "Pay him no heed," said the Keeper as he rose from Arthur,  and for the first time Arthur was thankful for the son's presence. "I want to show you something."
   "Now? When the moon is highest and the dark its fullest?"
   "Quiet fool! This will be the most important night of your life!"
   The Keeper picked up the wrapped thing and presented it to his son. The tall man held it by its hilt and pulled away the linens. He was left with a sword that shone like crystal with an edge as hard as diamond and sharp as wind.
   "What is this?" came the son's unimpressed response to the look of awe his father expressed.
   "Your inheritance lad," said the Keeper.
   "You jest, father. I have many swords better than this."
   "No lad. this blade will make you the most powerful man in the world."
   Somewhere between the look in his father's eye and the glint of moonlight bouncing off the blade, an epiphany fell on the tall man.
   "Give it back."
   Arthur's voice came out weak and craggy, something he did not intend. His resolve was further lessened when the two men turned to him and he saw in their eyes how little his existence on this earth now mattered to them.
   "It is unfortunate that you had to be the one to find this, maggot," said the Keeper as he took a step closer to Arthur. "It places you in perilous circumstances."
   Arthur, by the sheer purpose of the Keeper's malicious intent, was pushed into the corner, looking up at the death that now loomed over him.
   "Give it back to me," said Arthur, with as much courage as he could pull together. His voice was barely above a whisper. The Keeper did not hear it, having pulled a knife from inside his robe.
   "Foolish boy," said the Keeper's son. "Children have no power over men. It's best if you die now and trouble us no more."
    The Keeper suddenly had his hand around Arthur's neck, the knife slashing towards his throat. It was here that the far wall exploded, a moment before the knife touched flesh, a moment before Arthur met death. Stones were flung around the room like feathers and the tower shook as if an earthquake had come. The Keeper fell to the floor, and Arthur dove as a stone barreled towards him.
   The air was a solid thing now, with dust clouding their eyes. Where the wall once stood, there was now only a fantastically white light.
   "Father?" came the tall man's bewildered cry.
   "Father?" The voice was light, with a gruffness to it that spoke of wild lands and cold sea voyages, a jovial tone with a dangerous edge not to be toyed with. And, for no reason he could think of, Arthur trusted this voice.
   "I'm no father imbecile! Far too many women and far too few prayers!"
   Arthur forced his eyes to see through the dust and into the light, but all he could discern was the shape of a man with a long stick, or a staff of some sort.
   "Who the devil are you?" cried the Keeper upon pulling himself free of  linens and broken beds.
   "Who the devil are you?" came the jovially dangerous reply.
   "I... this is my castle sir! And I-"
   The Keeper's face drained of color when he saw the man pulling the sword out from between two stones.
   "That's mine!" came the son's cry.
   "Unhand that!" was the Keeper's command.
   "Who found this?" asked the man with the gruff voice.
   "He did!" said the Keeper as he pointed a large finger to his son, who had been crying and was struggling to fend off a sleeping fur that had wrapped itself around him.
   By this time a crowd had gathered outside the room, the boys who had been chased out with a few older servants. They were watching the events within with great curiosity.
   "He found it?" said the man as he pulled the Keeper's son free of the fur and held him up. "This one? This unbaptized son of a coward?"
   "How... how dare you!"
   "He found it!" cried the red-haired boy, pointing at Arthur, who stood on a boulder in the back of the room, drowned in shadow and nursing an open wound on his arm.
   "He lies! My son-"
   "SILENCE!"
   The man's roar made those nearby and those watching clap their hands to their ears. The light around him had vanished as he drew himself to his full height. He was an older man, and the beard on his face was greyed and unkempt. But his body was strong and fit and he bore a strange shape on his shaven head, not unlike a diamond.
   "See to your son," said the man as he strode towards Arthur, passing the Keeper on his way. "It will be a blow when he realizes he will never amount to much."
   The Keeper was about to retaliate, but something in the man's eyes made him think it would be foolish to do so.
   Arthur backed away as the man approached, but was soon against a wall and could go no further.
   "Don't be afraid," said the man. "You found this?"
   Arthur kept quiet, knowing well enough that the sword had caused him enough trouble already.
   "I can help with that," said the man, looking at the gash on Arthur's arm.
   "It's not bad," said Arthur as he looked at the wound. In an instant, it had closed and the blood that covered his arm had vanished. He looked at the man, who returned his gaze with a toothy and trustworthy smile.
   "What is your name?" asked the man.
   Arthur's reply came slowly, he knew there was no fooling this man, he would not be content with half truths. So Arthur gave the man his full name.
   "Arcturus Pendragon," said the boy. "But everyone calls me Arthur."
   The man seemed happy with this and the hairs on his beard furrowed into another smile.
   "Well, mister Pendragon. Arthur. It is truly an honor to meet you. My name is Myrddin Wyllt. But everyone calls me Merlin."
   Merlin extended his hand. Arthur took hold of it and they shook as equals. Merlin then held the sword out to Arthur, hilt first. The boy took hold and drew the sword up, watching moonlight dance on its shine.
   "Come Arthur," said Merlin. "Your destiny awaits."
   Merlin rose and made for the hole he blew in the tower's wall. Arthur followed, watched by the Keeper, who was wafting cool air into his son's face with a torn piece of linen. The old man said nothing, and turned again to his son, who had seemingly fallen into a coma.
   As Merlin and Arthur reached the opening that now let in the fragrances and coolness of the night, the red-haired boy's voice made them turn.
   "Where are you going?"
   "To the stars lad," said Merlin as he took Arthur's hand. And in an instant, they were gone.

 *****
   I fell asleep. That is all. Be damned with me! I fell asleep! It was not even for long! But in those moments where I lay silently, in that short span of time, fate took hold of the thread of my destiny and pulled me in a direction I could never have fathomed. I knew this day would come. I had long awaited it. Had long been planning the steps following the event that was to change my life. 
   But I also knew of the fate of the wielder, he who would pull the sword from its stone and carry it throughout the ages. I did not envy this chosen one. For the sword is evil, see? It corrupts and destroys everything it touches. I knew that, were the sword ever to be pulled from the stone, my greatest enemy would be born and I would have to vanquish him. 
   Thus, for thousands of years warding over this vile artifact, I prepared myself for the worst. For the time of unmaking. The apocalypse. I knew what had to be done once that destructive time began.
   And then, as if by some sleight of hand mischief, fate played an unexpected card.
   The sword was not drawn by a monster, a villain, a criminal or any other being of evil ways. It was drawn by a boy. 
   That moment still haunts me. What it must've been like for the poor child to take hold of absolute evil. I often wonder how he did it. How much effort was made, how quickly the blade fell free of the ancient stone's hold. He tells me it was easy. Ha! Easy!
   I don't know how it happened. But the sword's blood-lust is sated, it's anger calmed. When that boy pulled it out...
   I dare not dwell further on the matter. All I know is that without Arthur, the blade Excalibur would be a curse upon this world and any and every other world there is. My brothers died, aeons ago, knowing this fact. And I, knowing that I am the only one alive who guards this knowledge, have sworn myself to the boy's safety. For as long as he lives, as long as he wields Excalibur, there is hope. So I, Merlin, shall be his guide, his mentor, his trainer and his adviser until the day I breathe my last breath. Our journeys have been to far and distant worlds, and I've seen this lad grow into a man. But there is much to come still. Many stories still waiting to be told.
   Yes, many stories.

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