Story has been posted at fanfiction.net
Thursday, March 5, 2009
Sunday, March 1, 2009
“...and so, in 1061, Arthur I reunited Britain as it had been in the times of his grandfather Alfred the Great...the land knew peace and prosperity until the coming of Mordred the Usurper.”
-Winslow Hillchurch, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples, Vol. I
1061 CE, Summer
Wilderness of Britain
1st year of the reign of Arthur I of Britain
Wilderness of Britain
1st year of the reign of Arthur I of Britain
The foul, familiar stench of ogre hit her as she peered through the bushes. She could see almost two dozen adults and almost twice as many younglings milling about, eating badly cooked meat, chatting, or horseplaying. A handful of guards were watching over the camp, but none of them seemed particularly alert.
After many days of tracking the creatures through the forests, she had finally found the ogres' encampment.
The nest itself was standard ogre fare: crude tents made of branches and skins set up in a cleared area of forest, with a large central tent reserved for the chieftain and his family. Their inhabitants were typical ogres; they were ten feet tall, covered in coarse, dark hair, and their profiles seemed pig-like with porcine snouts and large, protruding tusks jutting from their mouths. Some were clad in animal skins or poorly made clothes made of plant fiber.
A young man, clad in a plain suit of maille and spear in hand, silently crawled up behind her. “The troops are in position.”
She nodded. “Very well. On my signal.”
She opened her palm and ran a bit of od through her Mana Veins, feeling the familiar rush of heat as the magic power flowed down her arm. A large bastard sword, decorated with gold leaf and blue glass, materialized in her hand for a moment before it suddenly became invisible, emitting a slight hiss of air as it did so. The familiar weight of the sword in her grasp felt comforting.
She saw one of the ogre guards sniff the air and scan the bushes. It motioned for two of its comrades to follow its lead, and trudged towards a clump of undergrowth that her soldiers were hiding in.
She stepped out of the bushes and swung her sword at the three. An invisible globe of air smashed into them like a hammer, and they were blown back into a tent, every bone in their body shattered.
The ogres cried out in alarm and scrambled for their weapons. A few guards rushed her, clubs and spears raised, before a volley of arrows from behind brought them low. A survivor wheeled about, confused, before she ran up and cut him in two. She shouted, “Warriors of Britain! Charge!”
Under the cover of arrow fire, scores of soldiers, each armed with spear and sword, swarmed out of the undergrowth and plowed into the panicked bunches of ogres, showing no mercy to any in their path. She led them from the vanguard as they made their way towards the center of the camp, where the chieftain was already tearing out of his tent, his iron warhammer in hand.
To her left, she saw a soldier lose his weapon and saw him trying to retreat, but an ogre's spear caught him in the stomach. The crude spearhead tore open his armor's rings and almost punctured the thick cloth underneath, but the gambeson held. The soldier tumbled back, the wind knocked out of him, and his comrades dragged him back into safety.
A spearman and a swordsman took his place in the battle line. The swordsman parried another blow from the ogre and pinned the weapon against the ground with his shield. The spearman behind him thrust his own spear forward and impaled the creature through the neck, dropping it to the floor. The swordsman charged forward to duel with another ogre, while the spearman finished off the creature he had impaled.
To her right, she saw a particularly brash young trooper, eager to earn glory. He roared a challenge and slipped past a thin line of ogres, charging straight for the chieftain. His fellow soldiers shouted warnings, but he did not heed them. Confident that his spear's reach would keep him safe, he made a thrust at the chieftain's vulnerable neck.
There was a blur as the ogre swung his hammer, and the spear flew out of the soldier's hands. Another blow, a low sweep, smashed into his calves and forced him to the floor. He looked up and saw hammer head rushing at his face, and cringed and waited for death to take him.
It did not come.
She stood there, gritting her teeth as she bore the blow of the hammer on her sword. She had leaped over forty feet, over mobs of ogres and soldiers, and landed perfectly between the chieftain and her fallen soldier. Her steel boots sank into the earth as she strained to keep the hammer from falling any further. Before her knees could buckle, she turned aside the hammer an swung her blade, scoring a deep cut on the ogre's chest.
“Retreat,” she said. She never once took her eyes off her opponent.
He gulped. “Y-yes, my liege.”
She and the ogre chieftain circled each other, each sizing the other up. The fighting around them came to a halt as all stood witness to the duel.
The chieftain was the first to make a move. He surged forward and made a horizontal sweep with his hammer. She ducked under it and parried the next downward blow, driving her enemy's weapon into the ground before she ran her blade up the hammer shaft and sliced off the ogre's forearms. Before it could even flinch, leaped up and cleaved off his head with a single sweep. As the head tumbled to the earth, the soldiers cheered in victory and began to renew the attack. It was only a matter of minutes before the ogres either all fled or cast aside their weapons and begged for mercy. Those who retreated were put down by either arrows or reserve troops hiding in the undergrowth.
It is done, she thought. She unsummoned her weapon and let out a sigh of relief. Minimal casualties, no ogres unaccounted for. She looked around at the wake of battle that lay before her.
She saw a chain gang of human prisoners led out of a large tent by soldiers, all of them miserable and dirty. Some wept and thanked the soldiers over and over. Others spat at their former captors and cursed them. Still others, many of them children, grieved for dead relatives. She saw a little boy pleading for a still form to wake up, shaking the body to stop sleeping and take him home. She looked around her, and saw that some of the meat that had been roasting on spits looked very much like human limbs. The ground was also littered with what looked like human skulls and bones.
Then she gazed at the ogre children who clung to their mothers or one another, or even to the corpses of those who might have been their fathers, wailing pitiably. She watched as the females begged to be spared, or weeping for their children's lives. Some of them held up necklaces of stones and beads and pointed to their young. She wondered if they were attempting bribery.
However, she remembered that she did not come to simply arrest them. Even if she changed her mind now, she realized, she brought no chains to bind the creatures. Transportation to the ogre pens would be impossible.
A veteran soldier, covered in dark blood, strode towards her and saluted.
“My liege,” he said, “I am happy to report that we have no deaths, and just a few injuries, none of them too serious. We have three dozen captives on our hands, mostly females and younglings, along with a few elderly.”
She nodded. “Our purpose was to track these ogres down and to exterminate them,” she said. “Too many innocents have suffered at their hands. They will raid my people no longer..”
He saluted. “Aye, my liege.” He strode off shouting orders.
As the soldiers went about their work, she strode off by herself into the forest. She did not like forests quite as much as the rolling green hills of her childhood, but the woods had a sense of isolation that gave her a measure of solitude. She trudged through the undergrowth far enough so that the smell of the ogre camp no longer pervaded her senses.
She stood there for a moment in that silence, gazing at the trees, at the greenery that surrounded her, breathing in the fresh forest air. As her eyes wandered, her mind soon followed suit. This is what you must do as a king, she thought to herself. You knew this when you pulled that sword out the stone and swore to protect and serve your country. You knew that not every decision would be an easy one, Merlin told you this far too many times for you to forget.
You knew that these creatures had to die for your people to be safe. They refused the Amnesty, they refused to live in the ogre pens. This is the consequence of their choices.
Choice. Yes, choice. She chose to do this. And as king, she had to make her choices without hesitation or faltering. Merlin told her that, too.
But she wondered, didn't Merlin also tell her that kingship was a position of honor and glory?
A guttural cry broke her out of her reverie. A dark, hairy figure, appearing from nowhere, rushed at her with a club raised over its head.
Her sword reappeared in an instant, and her attacker's own momentum impaled it on the blade. It spasmed and twitched as it slid off the weapon.
A youngling, she thought. Only a few months out of infancy, judging from the size. She stared at the corpse.
She turned towards the noise. One of her men stood there in the undergrowth.
“Everything is...” He noticed the body that lay at her feet, then looked up and saw that she was not harmed. “Er, uh, everything is finished.”
“I understand. Tend to the wounded and make ready to march.”
“Yes, my liege.”
As she left, she glanced back at the ogre child. It still lay there, bloody and alone.
That night, she sat away from her feasting soldiers as she usually did. She gazed at the small fire in her tent as she listened to her men revel outside.
“...and remember when he jumped right over all those ogres and stopped that hammer from pasting Albrecht with just a sword? What was that, a good thirteen yards?”
“And that duel with the big bastard, took 'is head right off! Finished the battle just like that!”
“Ha! And I thought the fight would last longer! Pity it didn't, I might've gotten a few more ogre heads...”
“You? You took a spear to the stomach right when it all started! You're lucky you fix your armor everyday, or you'd be a dead man now.”
“Well, in any case...a toast to the king!”
“Aye! Pity he never comes out to drink with us, eh? For the king!”
“For the king!”
Scores of crude drinking mugs clashed, and then the camp was momentarily silent as the men quaffed their ale. The men spared little time getting back to their revelry.
And inside her tent, king Arthur I of Britain smiled as she listened.
By the next noon, they were already journeying back to Camelot.
She rode at the front as she always did, her soldiers in a line behind her. The freed prisoners were already heading back to their homes, and had a detachment of troops to escort them. The escort had grumbled, saying that there were no more ogres or bandits left in the region, but they followed their orders faithfully nonetheless.
As they made their way to Camelot, they passed peasants working at the fields. The workers cheered and praised their king as she rode by. She, in turn, replied with brief waves of acknowledgment, but nothing more. It is improper for a king to excitedly return adulation like a minstrel, she thought.
By the third day of travel, they approached the gates of Camelot. A herald's trumpet was the first to welcome them.
She noted that the masons had finished the final improvements to the city gates since she had left, and that another section of wall had been completed. She was grateful for the presence of Sir Palamedes, who brought his knowledge of advanced eastern stone fortifications with him when he joined the court several moons ago. A glance to her left as she continued to ride past the city entrance showed her parts of the old wooden walls that were still left. Proud banners, each bearing Britain's coat of arms, fluttered on the finished sections of fortification.
Her subjects cheered her a welcome as she made her way to the keep. A townsman haggled fiercely with a vendor over the price of of a young pig. A gang of little boys, led by a bright-faced youth armed with a stick, charged past them, calling out mock war cries and shouting, “For the king!” They nearly collided with a young man and a girl, who were walking down the street, arms intertwined. The man was pulling a flower out of his pocket when one of the running boys knocked into his arm, causing him to awkwardly lunge for it. Behind him passed a pair of patrolling city guards, who were glancing at another beautiful woman across the street and were daring one another to court her. All of Arthur's subjects stopped when they saw her riding by and shouted praises to their king.
Eventually, she reached the castle courtyard where she dismissed her retinue, who saluted and went off to relax in the mess hall. She herself dismounted from her horse and walked towards the keep. A young woman around her age greeted her at the entrance.
“Your queen welcomes you back to your castle, my king,” said the girl.
Arthur smiled. “It is good to see you again, my queen Guinevere.”
They strode down the winding stone halls of the keep, which had been but a wooden fort before Arthur's crowning. Guards came to attention and saluted them as the king and queen walked past.
“How fared the ogre-hunt, my king?”
“As well as it could have. The men suffered minimal casualties, and none of the ogres managed to escape.”
“Were there any prisoners?”
“Yes, there were. Twenty, both old and young, most of them starved but otherwise unharmed.”
“Oh, I was speaking of ogre prisoners, my lord.”
“Our quest was to exterminate them, Guinevere, not to arrest them.”
Guinevere nodded and sighed. “I suppose they did refuse the Amnesty...”
“...is something the matter, Guinevere?”
“I...no, my king.”
Arthur gave her queen a comforting smile. “I have told you before, Guinevere, that as my dearest companion you are free to speak your mind any time you wish.”
Guinevere shook her head. “It is of no consequence, my lord.” She paused for the moment. “Does this hallway not lead to the throne room?”
Arthur gave her a puzzled glance. “Yes, it is.”
Guinevere blinked. “You only arrived just recently, my liege. Will you not rest and dine first?”
“I must attend to my duties first.”
“You are straining yourself, lord.”
“I am the King, Guinevere. I can do no less.”
They came to a great oaken doorway, and heard the sounds of laughter and cheer that came from the other side. Guinevere huffed with disapproval. “They are knights, yet their conduct is like that of boorish boozehounds...”
A herald threw open the door and shouted, “The King has entered the chamber! All rise!” All noise abruptly ceased, save for the sound of dozens of knights standing at once.
A gargantuan ring-shaped table, made up of countless, finely crafted tables, dominated the throne room. Around it stood many men and women. Some had fine, noble statures; others bore scars of old battles, though most of them were well-hidden by the robes they wore. Still others had wild look about them, as though civilization were a novelty to them. Every one of them, however, stood at attention, honoring their king.
“Knights of the Round Table,” said Arthur, gazing at each of them, “it is good to see you all again.” She and Guinevere moved towards their respective seats. “I will now court.” She motioned for the servants to clean up the table.
To the right of the king and queen's thrones at the Table were two special seats—a simple yet ancient wooden chair for the king's personal mage, and similar one for the mage's apprentice. Lady Morganna le Fey, Arthur's half-sister, occupied the latter.
“Lady Morganna,” muttered Arthur, “where is Merlin?”
The gentle mage-in-training answered, “He is resting, my liege. I was told that yesterday's scrying session fatigued him...”
As the rest of the court settled down and prepared themselves for a long day of answering petitioners, Arthur wondered how a scrying session fatigued a half-demon.
Many petitioners had come and gone by the time the village elder arrived. Among them were representatives of the isle of Ulster from the west, some merchants from Germania, and a diplomat, a Speaker, who came on behalf of Alexander the Great.
The Chair of Petitioners was the same as any other chair at the Round Table, save for the king and queen's thrones. Whoever sat in the Chair would be treated as an equal of the Round Table, whether that person was a lowly peasant or a great noble of the realm. That was the idea, at least, according to Merlin.
The elder was covered in filth, and not even the dirty rags he wore could disguise how spindly his arms were, or how his flesh was stretched thin across his cheeks. Arthur could see the dull rage in the old one's eyes from all the way across the Table. She vaguely wondered why such a mud-encrusted, emaciated village leader seemed so familiar to her.
His body trembled as he spoke, but his growling voice was firm. “My king, the village of Campton is in need of aid. We have no food and already the little ones are dying. We have but few cattle left for the winter, and not enough hands to till the fields. The women are doing their best, but they already have too much to do and there are not enough of them to bring in the harvest by winter. ”
Arthur nodded. “I understand. I will have a shipment of grain from Camelot delivered to Campton within the week, along with twenty volunteers to assist with the fields.”
“I thank you my king,” said the elder, “but it is not enough. We lost too many of our young men those weeks ago during the battle, and we need more men to work the farms-”
“I can spare no more, elder,” said Arthur. “I will ship grain and extra hands to Campton, but-”
“We must have more!” shouted the elder, slamming his fist onto the table. A few knights jumped in their seats. “The harvest is soon, and we have no men to bring in the grain! The fields do not have the fine men of Campton working them, because of you!” He pointed an accusing finger at Arthur. “You took my son and and my grandson away, and so many others, only to stain the earth with their blood!”
She remembered an old but strong-looking man pleading with her several weeks ago, begging and pleading with her to not take so many men away from the village when the harvest was so soon. She then knew why the elder seemed so familiar.
“Young Richard...” wept the old one. “He was to be married the next week! But you tore him away from his house, threw a spear into his hands and told him to kill Franks, seasoned warriors! Richard, and so many others like him, you took them away from their families and condemned them to die dogs' deaths-”
“Hold your tongue, old man!” shouted a young knight. It was Gawain, Speaker and the personal diplomat of Arthur. “You speak insolence to your king-”
“That is enough, Sir Gawain,” said Arthur. She turned to the village elder, whose dirty face was streaked with tears and was shaking. “Elder, I understand that these are dark times for Campton, and I will send aid to your village, as much of it as I can muster. But I can send no more.”
“My word is final.”
He stared hard at the table before him, head hanging low. “I...I...” He swallowed. “I...thank you, my king, for your...generosity.” He limped his way out of the chair and out the throne room.
As he left, Arthur called out to him, “Elder. Because of the sacrifices of the men of Campton, Britain, and Campton itself, lies safe from the hands of Franks and saved us from the treachery of Baron Herbert. They did not die dogs' deaths.”
The elder looked over his shoulder and hissed back, “They died so that their families may starve and freeze. No, King Arthur, they did not die dogs' deaths. They murdered their own village, and you ordered them to do the deed.” He almost ran into another man dressed in Mage's robes as he left.
“Such disrespect,” huffed Gawain from Arthur's left. “He should be hanged for insulting the king in such a way.”
Before Arthur could digest the elder's words, the herald announced the next petitioner.
“Announcing Bartolomeo Razzini, Speaker for Lord Pietro Orseolo II of House Venezia, Council Lord of the Association of Magi.”
Razzini strode in and plunked himself down on the Chair of Petitioners, a disarming smile on his face. He was a middle aged man wearing indigo robes of fine wool, and many jewels bedecked his hands and throat. A large feathered had lay on his head. However, as foppish as he seemed to be, Arthur knew that Razzini was a mage, and a mage of the Association, at that, and was not to be underestimated.
“My dear king Arthur!” he said, “It is good to see you again! We met once before at the Council of Kings two moons ago, if you would recall-”
“Speaker Razzini,” said Arthur. “We are to discuss business, not to trade pleasantries.”
Razzini merely laughed. “Ah, my apologies for rambling, my king, the experiment I was conducting before I had left must have addled my brains, as I am sure you know that Thaumaturgy is a rather exciting work, but I shall now speak of the matter at hand. Brevity is the soul of wit, as William of Stratford-Upon-Avon was fond of saying!” He cleared his throat and continued.
“Now, my king, I am sure you are aware of the existence of a certain lithic curiosity in the area of Wales, known to my colleagues in the Association and to you Britons as Stonehenge, which many magi, the Association included, are interested in due to its status as a Spiritual Land.”
The rest of the throne room stared for a moment, expecting more.
Gawain spoke in place of the king. “(If I may, my liege.) And you would expect us, Speaker Razzini, to...assist the Association in acquiring this Spiritual Land?”
Razzini's smile grew wider. “As expected of Gawain of the Silver Tongue, you have struck the matter precisely on the head. The Council of Lords has long known of the importance of Stonehenge, but the chaos in Britain before its uniting under Alfred the Great prevented any Association members from researching Stonehenge in the old days, and since Alfred the Council had...other matters to deal with, so as you can understand, the Council is quite anxious to unearth what secrets Stonehenge has to offer.”
Gawain spoke once more. “Of course, sir, but you are aware that, though we are the rulers of the region, as part of the treaty binding England and Wales together we, the English, have sworn to protect all Welsh sacred sites from any outsiders?”
“I am well aware, Sir Gawain,” said Rizzini, his smile never faltering.
Gawain blinked and glanced at his king.
“Speaker Rizzini,” said Arthur, “though I understand that the Council strongly wishes to study Stonehenge, I consider the Welsh my loyal subjects as much as any of the knights who sit before you.” She gave Rizzini a stony stare. “I will not betray them for any reason short of treason.”
Rizzini's smile froze. “...you would disobey the wishes of the Council of Lords, the ruling body of the Association of Magi-?”
A door behind Arthur flew open.
“Oh, Barty's here! You little runt, you've gotten quite big now! Uncle Merlin hasn't seen you since you were five!”
He was a wizened old man, a little soft and flabby around the middle and clutching what looked like a crudely hewn branch. His incredibly long white beard seemed to threaten to trip him every other step he took.
“Ah, where's my seat, where's my seat...there it is! You there, the pretty serving wench with the blue ribbon, bring me some wine, would you? Red, if you would, just bring the whole pitcher and a goblet...yes, that's it. No, no, I can pour for myself, I'm not that old—whoop! Maybe not...”
Razzini stared with a quiet horror at the bumbling old man who sat at the right of Guinevere. The king and queen tried to hide their exasperation, while Gawain, who prized manners above everything else, tried to hide his seething rage. Morganna simply looked embarrassed.
Merlin drew a very long draught from the goblet of wine as the rest of the room waited, Razzini squirming in his seat. The old wizard set down his goblet and seemed to begin speaking when he poured himself another helping of wine and quaffed that as well.
“Ah! 1049 Burgundy, such a wonderful flavor. Now where was I?” He peered across the table to Razzini. “Oh yes, you, young Barty! Here to visit your dear old uncle?”
Razzini fidgeted and cleared his throat again. “As, as I was saying to the court before your, uh, arrival, I am here to request to King Arthur to assist the Association-”
“Is this Association business? What a pleasant surprise! What's new over there?”
“You would know,” said Razzini through gritted teeth, “if you had answered the many summons the Council had made.”
“Do they really want to see me so much? Then they should come visit sometime! Preferably during the spring or summer, the cows in Britain are a bit rowdy in the fall-”
“If I may continue, sir,” said Razzini.
“Oh yes, go ahead.”
“As I was saying, I am here to request to King Arthur to assist the Association in...researching Stonehenge in Wales-”
“Come now, Barty, it's me, your old uncle Merlin! Surely you could tell me a secret or two.”
“Well, I was just wondering why those old codgers in Rome felt like rummaging around in Welsh country for some rocks.”
Razzini began steepling his hands together. “I was...not informed as to why the Council wishes Stonehenge to be studied, only that I was to acquire the assistance of England in-”
“Yes, yes, we've been over that,” dismissed Merlin. “Why don't you just ask me if you're all so interested? I've been there a few times when I was a wee bit younger...”
“Well, uh...we would prefer to study the area ourselves.”
“Really now? Well, I'm sure that Arthur here's told you that we can't let you do that, since the Welsh are bit sensitive to outsiders running around their holy sites, so be a good boy and bugger off then, eh?”
Razzini's anger finally broke through. “You senile old fool. How dare you defy the will of the Council?”
“And how dare you,” said Merlin, “wear that stupid purple dress before me? Is that the new uniform now at the Tower?”
Razzini exploded, “SILENCE! You insult a representative of the Council!” He pointed a finger at Merlin, which began to glow with power...
And found two blades at his throat, courtesy of the knights sitting beside him.
“May I, liege?” asked Sir Gareth, casually eyeing Razzini's quivering throat.
“Both of you, sheath your weapons,” said Arthur. She had a look about her, the same sort of look she had when she was about to do battle.
“Speaker Razzini,” she continued. “You are to return to Rome immediately. My guards will escort you out of Camelot. Tell the Council that Wales will not be sacrificed for the Council's gain.”
“This is in total defiance to the Council!” growled Razzini.
“When I pulled the sword Caliburn out of the stone, I swore an oath to protect Britain and all of my subjects, be they Danes, Scots, Saxons, or Welshmen. Nothing will make me forsake that oath; not even the will of the Council. Go now, and make my decision be known.”
“I will make it known, boy king,” said Razzini. “And you will regret this act of impudence!” He stormed out of the chamber, his escorts jogging to keep up with him.
“Well, that was interesting,” remarked Merlin when the footsteps died away. “I think I'll be back to bed now, that wine's made me sleepy again...” He trundled off to his chambers, pinching a serving girl's bottom as he went.
Arthur stared at the empty center of the Table, attempting to digest the events of the day. The knights around her were silent.
Guinevere placed a gentle arm on Arthur's shoulder. “Perhaps we should have supper and adjourn for the day,” she said. Arthur nodded in response.
Dinner was typical fare, and as usual the meal was taken with mostly silence. Though Arthur never explicitly prohibited merrymaking during mealtimes, the knights and other guests never made much noise outside of the occasional bit of light conversation. Guinevere often said that the knights were behaving as they should in the presence of their king. Sir Dagonet the court jester, however, often joked that Arthur's serious disposition, “...devoured the merriment in a room as a wolf devours meat.” But then, Sir Dagonet was the sort of fellow who found it humorous to compare the queen to a jackdaw for her love of precious jewels. (Since then, Guinevere was strictly forbidden from using Gandr on any member of the court, no matter how deserving).
As there were no more petitioners for the day and since Guinevere insisted that Arthur rest from the ogre expedition, Arthur retired to her chambers after dinner. But first, she decided to pay the College Tower a visit.
The College was another recent addition to Camelot, one proposed by Merlin himself. The old mage insisted that, at first, all he wanted was a decent Workshop for himself since his old one fell to ruin soon after the death of Uther: the other additions, such as an expansive library, an alchemy laboratory, elaborate private quarters, and a handful of dorms for potential students were just “minor additions” that came to him. Arthur, meanwhile, always wondered why mages liked their facilities arranged in inconveniently tall towers.
She approached the entrance to Merlin's chambers.
“Merlin. Are you awake?”
“My king! Always nice to have you pay me a visit. Come in, come in.” She stepped into the room.
There were books and the occasional spare robe scattered about the stone-walled room, with several candles providing dim illumination. In the shadow cast by the flickering light, Merlin somehow seemed less...harmless. The mage was bent over a piece of text and did not look up to speak to Arthur.
“Something's troubling you, then?”
She rummaged about for a cushion and took her seat.
Merlin was scribbling something onto a bit of parchment. “Apologies for the row I had with Barty back there,” he chuckled. “The cheeky young upstart thinks he can just bully you around just because he's the Council's lapdog.”
“Was it necessary for you to insult him like that?”
“Of course. If he went on, some of the knights might have lost confidence in you for challenging the Council. I had to...ruffle some feathers up a bit, make him look like a silly bully.”
“But the Council-”
“The Council can't take any direct action. They might have a Wizard Marshal, but they don't have the manpower to punish us militarily. Oh, we'll be blacklisted by the Association for a while, but that's what the College is for.”
Arthur had no answer save for silence.
Merlin looked up at his king, the young girl he had groomed and helped Sir Ector raise since her infancy, and smiled. “Arturia, my girl, I know what I'm doing. I was a lord on the Council once, remember? I know how they work.”
Arturia returned the smile. “Thank you, Merlin. Ah...there was one other thing...”
Arturia paused. “...no, I will not bother you any further.”
“Are you sure?”
“I thought so. Tell me about it, Arturia.”
She hesitated for a moment before speaking. “The village elder of Campton came as a petitioner today. I am sure you remember Baron Herbert's betrayal?”
“Yes, that horrible little incident, go on.”
“You were not there, but my men and I had to strip the village of Campton bare of food and men to prepare for battle.”
“The battle with the Franks did not go as well as I wished it to. Many good men were lost...many men of Campton.”
“So the elder came by today to plead for supplies and field hands, I suppose?”
“And I suppose his feathers were a bit ruffled, eh?”
Again, she nodded.
Merlin sighed and put away his quill. He turned around in his chair and looked straight at the girl before him.
“'Tis politics, my girl, 'tis politics. Ector and I raised you as an ideal knight, so while fighting and riding and monster-slaying's easy for you...well...dealing with problems that can't be solved with steel and nerve's a bit troubling. It'll be like that until you get used to it.”
“But am I not responsible for the suffering of my people?”
“Suffering, like evil and stupidity, will always be. It's your duty as a king to lessen such things in your country, but they'll never be totally erased.
She sighed. “More than half a year has passed already since I pulled that sword out of the stone. Yet...”
Merlin placed a warm hand on hers. “You'll pick it up in time, Arturia, no need to worry.” He chuckled, “Until then, you have your knights, your queen, and this old wineskin to help you.”
“Are you sure the old wineskin will be of any use?”
Merlin did a small double-take, then saw the little smile on her lips.
“Ha ha! In a few years, I'll be a senile old wineskin, and then I'll really be of no help!” He stood up and moved to his wardrobe.
“Ah, the hour grows late. You should get some rest,” said Merlin.
“Agreed. Good night, Merlin.”
“And to you, my king.”
Arthur entered her chambers and undressed herself with the help of her servants, who silently left once their work was done. Clad in sleeping robes, she found Guinevere practicing her magic again.
“Always at work, are you, Guinevere?”
Guinevere started and turned around. “Oh! I did not hear you enter, my king.”
Arthur let out a little sigh of exasperation. “I told you many times, Guinevere, that we can let down our guard here.”
Guinevere moaned. “I know, Arturia, but it feels so strange to think of you as a woman after spending a whole day pretending you are not.” She put away her jewels and entered the bed. Arthur followed soon after.
“Such a tiring day.”
“Yes. But tomorrow is a new one, no?”
A quick puff of air, and the lamps were extinguished.
“Am I a good king?”
“The very best.”
So ended the last day of summer of 1061.
Either I'm missing something, or Blogger's formatting is horrendously limited.