The sky had been an unusually brilliant shade of blue that day. Not that it mattered much now. Billowing smoke rendered it a kind of sooty grey against the approaching twilight. At least, that is how it looked in the small bit of sky which was visible through the high bows of the trees. A harsh, pungent smell wafted on the early evening breeze. The smell of burning.
The king thought little of that as he walked along the old dirt road, following some long-forgotten track not even the Romans had touched. His gait was aimless and wandering. The fine, polished gold of his armor had shined bright that day. But now, even in the light of the rising moon, it was dark and dull beneath layers of quickly drying blood. His great blue cape fluttered in tatters behind him. His shield, hanging on his shoulder and kept there only by its weight and position rather than any deliberate effort, bore evidence of several deep blows. He held his sword listlessly in his right hand and the tip was dragging in the dirt behind him. Little blood had stained the blade itself, if its bright gleam in the last of the sunlight was anything to go by.
He walked forward. He did not know where. He had not known for hours. Nor did he know how far he had gone. Nor did he care.
The wind blew around him easily. His ears were insensible to it. They were insensible to everything, whether the wind, the light rustling amongst the trees, or the shouts and cries that were, by now, far off. He heard none of them. He simply continued on his way, whichever way that was.
Nothing in the forest around him occupied his thoughts. Nothing else did either, save for memories of days long since gone by.
He felt his legs grow increasingly heavy. All this weight and armor was becoming too much to bear. He was tired. He could not remember when he had last been so tired. His legs at last gave out beneath him. He fell first onto his knees. Then, onto his chest. But somehow, beneath the great weight, he forced himself onto his back. He saw the sky above. The moon looked angry. Maybe it was all the smoke veiling its radiance. Or maybe the moon was upset, somehow, over the awful scene which had greeted it at its rising. He did not care. What did it matter now, anyway? He was so very tired.
The king closed his eyes and slept.
As he slept, he dreamt of bygone days. He saw once more the brilliant banner, the large dragon that seemed to glimmer from red to gold in the morning sun. He saw the fair fields of Gaul, emerald-green and still covered with the morning dew. He saw the Roman line in the distance, the individual legionnaires indistinct and ethereal within the haze of the morning. He turned to his own line, the line of the Britons. He thought for a moment that he saw him. No, he was sure of it. He saw him clad in his great golden armor, with the great helm of the dragon upon his head. The watery steel of the sword’s shining blade danced in the morning light.
Yes, he had seen him. He had seen Arthur.
The king awoke. Or rather, something had awoken him. As he opened his eyes, he saw the full moon, high above, holding court amongst the stars. He felt something prodding him. Something tearing at his armor and trying to rip the sword from his hand. He raised his head a little to see two men kneeling over him. They did not look much like warriors. It was true that they had armor, of a sort. But their chest-plates were cracked and broke through while their helms had so much rust that it was difficult to believe the bronze had ever gleamed in the sun. Only the swords which lay on the ground beside them looked ready for battle. They were polished, sharp, and clean.
No, these were not warriors. They were bandits, the cowardly kind which follow behind the trains of armies and take the spoils once the hard work of killing is already over. He was not surprised to see them. There had just been a battle, after all. But he was surprised to find them here, so far from the field of combat. Today’s bloodshed should have been enough to satisfy the greed of even the largest outlaw band. Unless someone else had already beaten these two to the spoils….
Was the isle of Britain really so filled with bandits these days?
The king shook and shivered, trying to force himself up. As he arose, he gripped his sword and swung it haphazardly around himself. The bandits, obviously thinking him dead, jumped back in momentary fright. Already freed of half his armor, he quickly made it to his feet. Even so, he continued to swing his sword wildly, in the hopes of keeping his new foes at bay.
It met nothing but air, but the force of his own swings was more than enough to cause him to lumber backward. He only saved himself from falling again by putting his back to a nearby tree. The effort had winded him. He stopped for breath, bending over a little. As he did so, his helm fell over his eyes and its leather chinstrap banged rhythmically against his chest. No doubt the bandits had tried for the helm, with all its precious gold, first before finding it too difficult to remove and going for the rest of his armor instead. But now, keeping it had been all the worse for him. He knew he must look much more like a fool than a king.
He pushed his helm up so that his grey-blue eyes could see the world once more. He had been right; the two bandits just stood there, watching him with smiles on their faces. They had picked up their swords but were taking their time about approaching. They seemed to regard their quarry as easy prey.
“Back! Back!” the king shouted. “Away with you! Away with you!”
His outburst only seemed to amuse them more, as the smiles on their faces grew wider.
“Back, back, away!” he shouted again. “Do not assault my person! Do you not know who I am?”
The villains broke into laugher. The king sneered. For he was a king, despite what had happened today, and no king enjoys being laughed at. He stood up to his full height and adopted the most dignified bearing he could muster. Throwing all of his remaining confidence into his voice, he spoke.
“I am Constantine, King of the Britons and sole sovereign of this entire isle! Cease your impertinence at once!”
The laughter grew loud enough to shake the leaves above. Several of them fell upon Constantine’s helm and got caught in the furrows of his cape. He slumped back against the tree, defeated.
“My lord, you do honor us with your presence,” said one of the bandits, in a thick northern accent. He gave a mocking bow, as did his comrade.
“Allow us to relieve you of your vestments, my liege,” said the other, before breaking out into another hearty laugh.
“I am the king,” Constantine said again. “Your king. And I command you to leave me be!”
“A southerner, our king?” said the first bandit, laughing. “Our king’s a proud man of the north, just as we are!”
“No, I am not the petty ruler of these backwoods byways,” Constantine responded. “I am the High King of all Britain.”
The laughter this produced was the greatest of all.
“Britain has no high king!” said the first bandit.
“And if it did,” said the second, “it would be someone young and strong. Not some old fool like you are!”
Constantine quickly rubbed his free hand over his face and beard. While his beard was not as full as it once had been, and a streak or two of grey had grown in amongst the blond curls, he had always thought his face at least retained some youthful vitality. He was certainly not old.
But now was not the time for vanity. The bandits were advancing. They clearly had no reverence for him. But he hoped they would still have some for the kingship itself. If not, then he had already lost.
“No high king?” he said. “Do you not remember the lineage of our kings of old? Do you not remember Arthur?”
“Of course, we remember him,” said the first bandit, “but it’s been some thirty years since his days. And good thing too. Bandits like us never could roam about freely when he was king. Not like now.”
“That is because people knew their place, back then,” Constantine said with another sneer.
“It’s because he had those knights of his wandering the land and killing any of our kind they found. That way, there’d be no one to bleed the people dry but him!”
“Silence!” Constantine shouted with sudden fire. “Arthur was a good king, a great king, and all men served him with love.”
“Whereas all the women threw themselves on Lancelot and Gawain, from what I hear,” said the first bandit. “But what’s it matter? Arthur’s dead and gone. He died fighting Mordred at Camlann. We all know it.”
“That’s not what I heard,” said the second bandit to his fellow. “I’ve heard ’em talk. People in the villages and whatnot. They say Arthur still lives. They say he went to somewhere called Avalon and from there he’ll come back someday. He’ll come back and drive the invaders out, just like in the old days, and reconcile the kings of the north to the kings of the south. Then we’ll all live in peace and brotherhood until the ending of the world—”
“Stupid nonsense!” proclaimed the first. “Arthur’s dead and gone. You think he’d just sit by and let things get so bad in the isle of Britain? Why, the Saxons will have replaced us all in fifty years’ time.”
“You don’t really think the pagans will get this far, do you?”
“Sure, why not? They’ve done better keeping the people by ’em, even being pagans, than our kings have. They’ll be rulers of this land soon. Either them or the Scots.”
Constantine took no pleasure in hearing the bandits’ disquisition or the harsh sentiments being conveyed. But he had been given an opportunity. He began to slink away from the tree and toward the forest behind it, where he could hope to put some distance between himself and the two men.
As he passed through the first thicket of trees, he heard something in his mind. A voice from older days. He could hear it say, “It is the duty of a knight to seek battle always and to never shrink from feats of valor, even if he should die in the attempt.”
These words gave Constantine pause. He stood motionless amongst the trees, turning them over in his mind. They made him feel ashamed. He could not take another step. He would not. He turned around.
He heard one of the bandits scream, “He’s getting away!”
The two bandits were rushing him now, their swords drawn. Constantine raised his own blade. He knew he did not stand much chance of defeating them. But there were more important things than living. The voice had reminded him of that.
Grimly, he strode forward and broke into a run. He was ready to fight to his dying breath.
However, the same could not be said for his shield. He had not noticed, but the heavy thing was still hanging from his shoulder, albeit precariously. That is, until his charge dislodged it. It fell down the length of his arm and onto the ground. Constantine found himself pulled along with it. He fell headfirst, did a small twirl, and landed once more on his back. Only his helm had prevented him hitting his head. But the fall had cracked it all through.
More laughter. Constantine woke from a brief daze to see the bandits standing above him, their swords raised for a killing blow. He tried to grasp his own sword but realized, too late, that it was gone. His hand slid around the level ground, seeking it, but he felt nothing. The bandits let out a final peal of laughter. They had him and they knew it. Constantine knew it, too. He could fight no longer.
He let out a heavy sigh and relaxed. It would not be a very dignified end for a king. But perhaps it would be nice for it all to be over at last. The king closed his eyes and waited.
There was a sound amongst the trees. It was loud enough to startle the bandits.
Constantine heard one of them ask, “What was that?”
“Go see,” the other said. “I’ll stay here.”
He did not dare open his eyes, but he heard the bandit’s footsteps, approaching the line of the forest. Then he heard a scream.
Constantine’s eyes burst open. He looked up. The other bandit, the one who had been so chatty before, was backing away from him. Well, not from him, specifically, but from whatever was in the woods, the thing which had caused his fellow to scream.
As best he could, Constantine forced his head up and turned to look. There was the bandit, bleeding from a single thrust to the neck and clearly dead. Standing over him, with one foot on his chest, was a small, lithe figure, clad all in armor. As the figure stepped over the body, the silver armor flashed like lightning in the moonlight. The individual pieces were mismatched; half were in the Roman fashion, the other half British, but together they produced a strange symmetry. The few traces of blood upon them did nothing to detract from their luster. Far more bloodstained was the halberd in the figure’s hand. Some of it, on the spear-tip, was still red and fresh. The figure’s head was covered by a simple helm, but in the light of the moon, Constantine could clearly see a familiar pair of glistening eyes, as green as the emerald fields of Gaul.
“Bandits are not what they used to be,” came a voice, coarsened by the years but still decidedly feminine.
“Wh-what do you want?” said the still-alive but obviously fearful bandit.
“Fight better,” she said.
Before the bandit could do anything, the figure leapt at him with tremendous speed. He raised his sword, but it was already too late. Constantine grimaced as the man’s head fell beside him. The bandit’s body soon followed.
She stood there in the light of the full moon, with her halberd-axe red with fresh blood, looking like the old war goddess of ancient days. She approached the king.
She did not offer a hand so much as grab his forearm. Without even asking, she pulled him up onto his feet. Then she walked over, collected his sword, and brought it back.
“Here,” she said as she handed it to him.
He took it without even fully realizing he had done so. He was still in a stupor. He could only say one thing.
“You’re welcome,” Porcia said. “That makes, what? Six times I’ve saved you today.”
Constantine slowly started to recover. He looked around. “How long… how long were you in those woods?”
“A little bit,” she said. “Long enough to see that you were going to get yourself killed again.”
Constantine’s mind cleared fully and his temper rose. “You mean, you let me go through all that humiliation and you didn’t step in?”
He could see a small smile cross Porcia’s lips from underneath her helm. “On a day like this, you need to have some fun.”
“I thought you would have been more than sated already. After all, there was good sport for those who like the killing game. How many fell by your blade today?”
“Including these two?”
“Let’s not include them. Let’s just reckon from the battle itself.”
Porcia offered a girlish shrug. It was surprising, Constantine thought, given how the years had toughened her frame and the wars increased the bulk of her arms and legs, that she could still look girlish. But at this moment, she did.
“Doesn’t matter,” Porcia said. “I lost count somewhere around three hundred.”
Constantine had no way of knowing whether she was joking or being serious. “And what did you have to pay for that feat?”
Porcia took off her helm, revealing her short-cut auburn hair. She was not a remarkably beautiful woman, with her snub nose and rather harsh features, but there was a burning intensity in her gaze which Constantine had always found striking. Intimidating, but striking.
She pointed with her small finger to a slight cut running along her cheek and smiled.
“That?” Constantine asked. “That was the only wound you suffered today?”
Porcia nodded, her pride evident. Then her features darkened. “It was an ugly battle though. It didn’t go our way.”
“I know that,” Constantine said. “That’s why I’m here and not celebrating my triumph in the nearest hillfort.”
“I see we’re touchy tonight,” Porcia said. “You’re always like this when you lose a battle.”
“Who ended up winning in the end?” Constantine asked, though he was hardly curious to know the answer. “The Saxons or the men of the north?”
“I don’t think anyone can say,” Porcia said. “I think by the end of it, they both decided that they had lost enough and called it off.”
“I suppose it doesn’t matter. What matters is that we lost. Did any of our host manage to make it from the field intact?”
“I don’t know. By the time I cut myself out of the thick of the fighting, the only men of Cambria and Cornwall I could find were dead ones.”
Constantine took off his helm. He held it in front of his face. Cracks ran up and down the length of the great golden dragon perched atop it.
“The loyal retainers of the true King of the Britons, scattered to the four winds!” Constantine threw the helmet to the ground. The dragon shattered. Gold flew in all directions.
Porcia bent down to retrieve the helm.
“Porcia, leave it!” Constantine commanded. Then making a sweeping gesture at his shield and other armor, he shouted, “Leave it all and curse it too!”
Porcia looked once more at the helm. Taking her own from beneath her arm, she gently laid it beside the king’s. She then returned to his side.
“A whole British army, destroyed,” Constantine said, hiding his face with his hand. “Destroyed and nothing gained! The men on the north are still in rebellion, as are the Picts beyond them. Then there are the Scots and the Irish, who still raid our shores unchecked. And the Saxons and their ilk will rule all Logres if nothing halts them! It was our duty, our sacred task and charge to restore this kingdom. And what did we achieve? Another army destroyed!”
Constantine felt a hand on his shoulder, warm and delicate, if battle-hardened. He looked around. Porcia was smiling at him.
“It’s going to be all right,” she said calmly and kindly. “We aren’t beaten yet. There are men in the south and west who will still fight for you.”
“Not for me. Not for Constantine, son of Cador, of the land of Cornwall.”
“Maybe not for the man. But for the High King they will. Even here, deep in Rheged, we’re not far off from your nephew Aurelius’ lands. Once we get there, you’ll be safe, and we can mount a new offensive come spring.”
“What does it matter?” Constantine said. He began to take slow, meandering steps forward. “What does it matter?” he repeated. He said it several more times, walking along as though in a trance. Finally, he came to his tree and slumped down. He sat there, with his back against it, looking down at the shattered pieces of gold near his feet.
“Well, we’re not getting anywhere if you insist on spending the night relaxing,” Porcia said, walking over. She said it as a joke, but he could tell from the tone of her voice that she was concerned.
She was right, of course. She generally was. They should get moving. But, again, what did it matter?
“Why do you stay with me, Porcia?” he asked. “After all these years, you’re the only one who’s stayed by my side. Why? You’re a Roman, not a Briton. What does it matter to you what happens to this kingdom?”
Porcia sat down beside him. “Where would you have me go? I was born in Gaul, raised in Gaul, and now there’s no place for Romans in Gaul anymore. That was due to us, remember?”
A far-off look appeared in Constantine’s eye. “I dreamt of those days. The days when Arthur summoned the greatest men of this island to make common war against Rome. I dreamt of our army on the fields of Gaul. Of the day we met the Romans at Siesia. We were the conquerors then. That day, Rome’s rule and power were broken, all through the glory of Arthur.”
“I remember the battle,” Porcia said. “I don’t remember much glory. Quite a lot of blood, though.”
“I saw him once, at the battle, in the front line of our forces. That was one of three times I saw him. The third was after…. But did I ever tell you about the first time I saw him?”
Porcia answered, “Yes.” Constantine ignored her.
“It was the day my father took me to be knighted by the King. I still remember when he led me into the King’s great hall. I saw the banners of every noble knight and house and of every kingdom of the Britons hanging from those high walls. I saw the great table that is called the Table Round. I saw the finest manhood of the isle, Kay and Bedivere and Lancelot and Gawain, all ready, in their finest vestments, to fulfill the command of the throne. I saw Queen Guinevere, in all her fabled beauty. And then I saw him. Sitting upon his throne of state, I saw him.”
“Yes, you’ve told me this before.”
“He was the pole around which the whole of that sky turned. He was the sun beside whose radiance all those bright stars vanished from view. I saw him, in his purple robes and his great golden crown. I saw him take the brand Excalibur in his hand, with the pattern of water running up and down its blade—for it is said it was a gift of the Lady of the Lake—and then, as I knelt down before his majesty, I felt the fairy sword touch my shoulders and I knew. I knew this was a man worth giving one’s life to. A man of whom stories would be told for a thousand years or more.”
“As you never tire of telling me.”
“And he charged us, each of us, with a task. He said, ‘Be always kind and courteous and good, pure of heart and true of deed. Answer the call of battle wherever you may find it, for it is the duty of a knight to seek battle always and never shrink from feats of valor, even should he die in the attempt. And above all, be of one mind and spirit with your fellow men and countrymen, and always uphold the union of this isle, as long as God gives you breath.’”
“Nothing about being of one mind with your fellow women, then.”
“Thinking back to it now, I could almost forget that it was on the day the Romans came to court to make war. Ah, but Britain was strong in those days. We took the fight to them and we won. Now look at us! He charged me to keep this land united and to uphold its laws always. And I’ve failed!”
“You didn’t fail!” Porcia protested. “You’ve just met with an unfortunate lack of success. But we have to keep fighting. The struggle is not over, not as long as we’re still breathing.”
“How can you say that?” Constantine said, banging his fist on the ground. “How can you still have any hope?”
Porcia was stern-faced. “Because there’s nothing else left.”
Constantine looked to the polestar above, with the stars swirling around it.
“Maybe it would be possible to hope… if Arthur still reigned….”
Ignoring Porcia’s exasperated sigh, he said, “Did you ever see him, holding court in his great hall, the very image of majesty?”
“You know I never set foot in this isle until I came here with you. Remember, when we battled Mordred at the plains of Camlann and I put my tough spear through his black heart?”
Constantine smiled at the memory. “Yes, I remember. You know, these bandits here, they said Arthur had fought Mordred at Camlann and died there. Already, the world’s forgetting. It was us who fought at Camlann for the crown of Britain. The King never made it back from Gaul.”
“History becomes legend. People forget,” Porcia said. “They always forget. We’re getting older, and a new generation is coming after us. They won’t remember everything how it actually was.”
“They won’t remember us. But they’ll remember Arthur. If only he was still here….”
Porcia got to her feet. “Enough of that ‘if only’ business. We can’t spend our lives lost in if onlys. We have today, we have right now, and we must live in it. There’s nothing else to do.”
Constantine did not move. He did not even seem to notice that she had gotten up. He stared into the distance.
“Unless he comes back.”
“Comes back. Unless he comes back,” Constantine repeated. “The bandits, one of them said that Arthur is not dead. That he lives still. That he went to Avalon and that someday he will come back. He will come back to restore this land, to reunite it, to heal it. What if it is true? What if he’s out there, waiting for the hour?”
“Avalon,” Porcia said thoughtfully. “That was the town near where my family’s villa was, in Gaul, until the Goths burned it up, when they came. Arthur might have gone there after Siesia, for all I know. He may still be alive, I suppose.”
“Yes, he may still be!” Constantine said, suddenly growing excited. “After all, he was only about forty or forty-one. It’s only thirty years! He could still be alive!”
“I don’t know that any seventy-year-old warriors will do us much good these days,” Porcia said. “We’re getting old enough as it is. But we should go. We don’t know who else will be on this road at night. We cannot afford to stay in one place for long.”
Without waiting for Constantine to take notice, she once more grabbed his forearm and pulled him up. Except this time, the action was accompanied by a scream as the king doubled over and fell to his knees. Looking down, he saw blood begin to spill over his already blood-soaked garments.
“I’m wounded!” Constantine said.
Porcia knelt to check on him. “I thought you said you were fine!”
“I thought I was,” Constantine said. “But I must have sustained some wound in the course of battle. I must not have noticed it due to my earlier torpor. It must have just reopened when you grabbed me.”
“Look, your garments are torn,” Porcia said, holding them out for him to see. “And I can see a sword wound to your side. My guess is that it’s not too deep. It won’t kill you… as long as we get it treated in time.”
“And how are we going to accomplish that in the middle of the hostile north?” Constantine snapped, the pain getting the better of him.
“I don’t know,” Porcia said, grabbing her halberd. “But we aren’t going to be able to do anything if we stay here.”
She grabbed underneath Constantine’s shoulder and, with strength greater than her frame would seem to allow, she hoisted him up onto her own. Ignoring his cries of pain, she began to walk forward, allowing him to put most of his weight upon her. After a few feet, Constantine was able to take some of his weight back and walk on his own, but he still relied on her for balance and support. Held tightly in his hand, though he did not realize it, with a blade now dimmed by several coats of dust and dirt, was his sword.
They walked on for a while. Constantine did not know how long. He could barely think straight. It was not the pain of the wound; that soon dulled until it became, if not pleasant, at least tolerable. But his mental pain was much greater. He kept going over the day’s events in his mind. With each repetition, they seemed to grow in intensity and sorrow. The whole affair began to take on the cast of one of the old Greek tragedies which had been drilled into him as a child. There was, in his mind’s eye, a tragic inevitability to it all. Things could not have been done differently. He could not have done them differently. If only he had not been the one to be given the task. It was meant to be someone’s else’s work, not his.
Constantine tried to calculate his seemingly dim odds of survival.
“What if I die?” he asked Porcia.
“You’re not going to die.”
“But what if I do? The kingdom is a fiction in all but name already. If the King of the Britons dies, if I die, then not even the name will be left.”
Porcia did not answer him.
After some time, Constantine felt a little of his strength returning. Perhaps it was the briny smell of the sea air, so much like that which would greet his nostrils when, as a boy, he played with his sister upon the rocky craigs of Cornwall.
Briny smell? Sea air?
Constantine looked up. Indeed, they were at the seacoast. The narrow road had led them right to it. Now all he could see before him was a beach, long and narrow. He cast a brief glance over his shoulder to see that they had come through a narrow defile through a wall of large, shadowed cliffs. They stood upon the beach now; the rocky cliffs were fully behind them. Ahead was nothing but the vast, dark sea ahead. Somewhere in the distance, where the veil of the mists had lifted just a little, the ghostly shapes of rock-covered islets appeared amongst the waves, looking like the fabled isles of the otherworld in the ethereal glow of the quick-coming dawn.
“We’re in the open. I don’t like this,” Porcia said. “We have to get you out of here.”
“No, let’s stay here,” Constantine said. “It’s as pleasant a place to die as any.”
Porcia let out a frustrated huff and once more repeated, “You’re not going to die.”
But Constantine had had enough. He felt tired. His eyes closed. He stopped trying to walk under his own power and felt Porcia stagger a little as the entirety of his weight fell upon her. She was strong but she had been carrying him for some time. Still she bore up and kept moving forward as best she could. She had not given up on him yet. Constantine knew well that she never would.
Suddenly, her pace quickened. She started to scream. No, she was not screaming. She was calling out something. She was calling out… to someone?
Constantine managed to open his eyes and look ahead. There, on the beach’s shore, was a small skiff, large enough for a few people, at most. Beside it, tying it with a tether to a large rock, was what appeared to be an old fisherman.
“You there!” Porcia called out. “Are you a native of this land? Are you a Briton?”
“By your broken tongue I can tell you’re not, lady,” said the old man gruffly. “But yes, I am a Briton, though no native of these parts. But what business would a foreigner have with me?”
“I may be a Roman, but this man here is not. If you’re a true Briton, then you must help him. For he is your king, Constantine mab Cador, heir to Arthur.”
“Arthur,” said the man. “Long time since I’ve heard tell of him. And surely this whimpering pup could not be of Arthur’s house.”
“He is Arthur’s nephew. His father was also a son of Igraine. But we don’t have time for that. Your king is in danger and needs your help.”
Constantine felt himself falling. Without waiting for a response, Porcia had pushed him into the boat. He felt the hard wood as he landed, and the pain for a moment brought him to his senses. He realized that he was bleeding again.
Porcia turned him to face upward and wrapped the remains of his cloak around him.
“I take it this isn’t your home?” she asked.
“No, I live off in the isles,” said the fisherman. “I just come here sometimes in the morning to fish.”
“Take us to your home,” Porcia said. “We’ll try to treat him there.”
“No woman orders me around,” he protested, “especially not a Roman.”
“This Roman has a polearm and knows how to use it,” Porcia responded, waving her halberd menacingly.
At this, the old man acquiesced, however reluctantly. He got into the boat beside Constantine and Porcia. As he looked down at the king, Constantine thought he could almost remember those large blue eyes. As though he had seen them somewhere before….
That was the last thing he did remember for some time.
Constantine saw again the small lake, its other shore obscured by the haze of the morning. He saw again the clear blue water and the green grass all around. He saw the King, standing at the prow of the boat as it receded into the morning mists, his golden armor glistening in the sun of Gaul. He saw Arthur’s eyes, as cold and blue as the watery iron of his famous sword, looking into his own.
He heard him give his charge, “You are king now, Constantine my nephew. Rule well my Britons and keep all the laws I made in my days. Defend them from all raiders and invaders, for it shall be dark days ahead. And keep them one people, and the isle one, if you can.”
And he heard himself respond, “But what if I am not able? What if I am not worthy to be king after Arthur?”
“Fear not,” said the ghostly figure fading into the mists. “It is not forever. Someday, I shall return, and rule again, and my Britons shall know the greatest of joys.”
He blessed his heir and vanished into the mists. With him vanished the vision.
Constantine awoke. He was lying on a bed, a small and uncomfortable one by the feel of it. He began to move. He felt a sharp pain in his side.
“Keep still, keep still,” came the old, gruff voice. “I just applied those ointments. It will take some time for them to start working.”
“And how does an old hermit who busies himself with fishing know so much about healing herbs?” came Porcia’s voice.
“Young lady, I was not always a fisherman, nor a hermit. I have seen the world. More of it than you have, certainly.”
Constantine heard the old man’s voice again, closer and softer. “If I may say so as a humble physician, there’s much too much bile in that Roman.”
Constantine turned his head. The old man was already walking away, carrying his small mixing bowl to put away on a small shelf in the corner. Constantine looked around. They were inside a small shack or hut. It was made of wood and barely large enough for one person. Besides the bed and the shelf, the room was devoid of furniture. There was a large window beside the bed, through which Constantine could see that they were at the edge of a cliff overlooking the choppy, grey sea. The skies above were all clouded over, and he could see no trace of the sun.
Constantine now looked over to see Porcia leaning against the back wall. Beside her was her halberd on one side and, on the other, a large bundle of different poles, the old man’s fishing rods. He had many of them and they were arranged in such a tight circle that they could have almost appeared to be a single thick pillar reaching from the floor to the low ceiling. They were, truth be told, the most distinctive thing in this little hut.
“Porcia,” Constantine said. “I saw him again. I dreamt of him.”
Porcia did not respond, but the old man, to make conversation, asked, “You said you saw someone? Who?”
“I saw Arthur.”
“Ah, him,” the old man said, apparently losing interest.
But Constantine looked to Porcia and continued. “I saw him on the last day. You remember, the day after Siesia, after we broke the Romans?”
“I remember the blood and bodies, mostly,” Porcia said. “So many broken bodies. I didn’t think the world had as many people in it as I saw dead that day.”
“I saw him. I saw him as he departed. Departed, perhaps, to Avalon.”
“Avalon, that’s a town in Gaul, isn’t it?” the old man asked Porcia. “What’s so special about Avalon?”
Porcia gave a shrug.
“Yes, I remember it,” Constantine said. “It was after Bedivere threw the sword Excalibur into the lake.”
“Bedivere was dead by then,” Porcia said. “He died in the battle, along with Kay and Gawain and your father.”
“Oh, then perhaps it was someone else,” Constantine said. “It does not matter. I was not there. When I got there, when I answered the summons, he was already departing. Oh, how great a thing it was to have a summons from the King!”
“Why do you always insist on making it sound so glorious?” Porcia asked in irritation. “Your father died that day. Don’t you remember that?”
Constantine forced himself up into a sitting position, despite the pain. “My father died knowing that Gawain had died first. He died knowing that Arthur’s chosen heir had not outlived him and that his son, Constantine of Cornwall, would be king.”
“I suppose that makes up for it, then,” Porcia said, her tone caustic.
“Let us not speak of the dead,” said the old man. “The dead are dead; it does no good thinking of them. The longer I live, the more I see the truth. It is the nature of all things to die and all this earthly life is hollow.”
“Ah, yes, you say that,” Constantine said, “having not known the lives of the great. You have lived a simple life, for you are a simple man.”
“A simpleton,” Porcia added quietly.
“You mistake me,” the old man said.
He sat down at the foot of bed, even though there was barely any room as it was. He turned to the window and his blue eyes grew foggy and distant.
“Like I told your Roman, I have not always been as I am now. I too fought in the wars of the Britons, in the old days.”
Constantine sat up even straighter, his wound suddenly all forgotten. “You fought in the wars? In the old days? Did you fight against the Saxons? Were you at Badon? Did you fight in Gaul against the Goth and the Roman?”
“Yes, to all,” said the man. “I saw it all.”
Constantine now pushed himself over to the man’s side. “Did you see… him?”
“Who, Arthur?” said the man. “Oh, I knew Arthur.”
Constantine’s face grew bright. “Ah, then you too knew the glory.”
“Glory? There was never any glory. Not that I saw.”
“There never is,” Porcia interjected. “Just bodies and blood.”
“Your Roman is right for a change,” said the man. “I fought in all the campaigns that the Britons waged against the five nations. I myself cut down many of the Saxons and their ilk, as I did many Picts and many of the Scots that came over from Ireland and many Goths and many Romans.” Turning his gaze to Porcia, he said, “No offense to your homeland.”
“My homeland is long gone,” she responded. “And I too have killed Romans.”
“Well, then, you know.” His gaze fell once more upon the grey sky. “Glory, it’s a word nobles like to say. Nobles and chieftains and war leaders and kings. They kill for it. They wage wars for it. They rend whole nations, all for the sake of glory. And do they ever find it?”
“Of course!” Constantine exclaimed.
The old man offered a bitter smile. “Well, you’d know more about that than I would, as you are a king. But I did not see much glory in the way you were dumped into my boat like a large fish.”
Porcia let out a little chuckle. Constantine gave her a sharp look.
The man continued, “No, I saw much death, but I never found glory out there. Not in Britain and not in Gaul and not in Rome. Nor, I think, would I find it even if I searched all the lands of the earth.”
“Now, I know that you never saw Arthur,” Constantine responded. “I know not where you stood in the battle line, for I don’t remember you at Siesia, but I know you must have been far from the center. For if you had been there, had you seen him, you would have known what true glory is.”
At this, a cold, mirthless laugh escaped the man’s lips. “You think gilded arms and a sword make for glory? I can tell you about that Arthur of yours, though I doubt you’ll want to hear it. Never has there been such a warmonger as he on the earth since God made it.”
“You know not of what you speak!” Constantine said vigorously, having completely forgotten his pain. “Arthur was a just king and always fought for justice!”
“Justice? I never did meet a truly just king. God is the only king to wield true justice, or so the priests say, and even He seems to forego it most days. Your Arthur fought the Saxons, but he also plundered the Britons. He took land from his foes and doled it out to his favorites, whether they had title or not. Half the petty tyrants of this isle were made kings by his word.”
“He fought the Romans when they dared challenge Britain’s right to her own kingdom.”
“As would any king, to save his own throne. But I suppose you could be right. Perhaps the Romans needed the humbling. But there was no need to send such a force to Gaul. There was no need to provoke the Romans into such a great battle when they were already beaten. He could have just let them go home to Italy.”
Constantine’s brows raised. “The Romans were leaving Gaul?”
“They knew when they were beaten,” said the old man. “They’d already had the worst of it with the Goths and the Franks, so they had no desire left to fight after a skirmish or two. But Arthur wanted more than that. That’s why he brought the army to Siesia and put them between the Romans and their home. He wanted his battle and he got it. He wanted to break the empire forever and he did. The ease with which the barbarians took Italy a few years after was all his doing.”
“Serves them right,” Constantine said. “Had the Romans been wiser, they would have kept Italy and the whole empire.”
“They would have lost it to Arthur,” said the old man. “And then they would have lost Constantinople, and Egypt, and the Holy Land. And then the Persians would have been next, and the vast kingdoms of India afterward, and then the great land beyond whose empire fell in thirds. Arthur wanted more than the world could give him. He would never have stopped.”
Constantine had his answer ready. “But he did stop.”
“Indeed, he did,” the old man said. He then stood up and walked over to the window.
Constantine pressed again. “But he did stop. If he was this villain you claim he was, he never would have stopped. But he did.”
“Even the worst of us gets tired sometimes,” the man said quietly, as though speaking to himself and not Constantine.
Constantine felt his frustration with the old fisher growing. He cast a glance Porcia’s way. “You can’t believe this?” he asked her.
She shrugged. “I never met the man.”
But Constantine was determined to press his case. He leapt from the bed and raised his arm triumphantly. “I have heard only last night of how the bandits were hard-pressed in Arthur’s days. There were no brigands and looters then, because there were knights tasked by him with upholding justice through the isle. For it was he that gathered together the flower of British manhood—”
“And sent them all to their deaths at Siesia,” said the old man.
“That is not true!”
“You said it yourself.” The old man paused, as though he had to force himself to go on. When he spoke, his tone was newly grim. “Kay, Bedivere, Gawain, Cador, Lancelot…. No, Lancelot had left us by then…. But the others, they all went to their deaths at Siesia, those noble knights you love to speak of. And once they were in their graves, who was left to guard the isle of Britain against the Saxons and the raiders and the robbers and the rebel kings?”
Constantine cracked a cold smile of his own. “Why, Porcia and I, of course!”
“And how is that working out so far?”
Constantine fell silent. He looked to Porcia, his eyes pleading with her to come to his defense, to agree.
“He’s right,” she said. “It would have gone much easier for us if we had not lost so many. We never did have the strength we needed to pacify this land.”
“How can you speak like that?” Constantine snapped. “You, who always said we have to have hope that we could restore the kingdom?”
“I said we had to have hope because we had nothing else,” Porcia said. “I still believe it. We still have to have hope. And, thirty years later, we still have nothing else.”
Constantine was stunned. For a moment, he sat in silence. For a moment, he had to consider that he might have been wrong. That made him angry. And for an angry man, there is but one method of settling disputes.
“Well, I will not hear this!” Constantine said. “I knew him, and I knew the kind of man he was. Who is this fisherman to speak so vilely of men he never met? Porcia, where is my sword?”
Porcia grew concerned. “Why? What are you doing?”
“My sword, Porcia! Where is it?”
Porcia would not say, but her eyes betrayed her. Constantine spun around and took up the blade from where it lay, buried amongst a pile of old rags beside the bed. As he raised it, he saw that it was still covered in dirt and dust, to which soot had now been added, making it look rather like one of the fishing rods against the wall. But Constantine did not care. As he raised it, he felt like he could have been holding Excalibur itself in his hand.
What happened next happened so quickly that Constantine barely even grasped it. He rushed for the old man. Porcia grabbed him to try and hold him back. But his anger gave him new strength and he pushed her away. She fell back into the thick bundle of rods. They fell in all directions. Constantine thought that he saw, where once the rods had been, a burst of reflected light and waves as grey as the sea outside. The old man, quicker than his years, had that watery light in his hands now. Now it was above his head.
It was a sword. The sword. Excalibur.
And, as the old man held it aloft, he stood taller. His bearing grew more dignified. He was no longer a mere fisherman; he had the stature of a king. In his eyes, the color of the watery blade itself, Constantine thought he recognized the same burning look he had been given so many years ago, at a little lake amongst the fields of Gaul, at a place called Siesia.
“It cannot be….” he said.
And then, the blade came down. Constantine’s own sword fell from his hand and clanged against the wooden wall. The whole structure shook. Constantine himself went flying backward and would have broken his head against the wall had Porcia not caught him. Constantine held his hand tightly; blood gushed forth. He looked to Porcia as she cradled him. She did not return his gaze. Her eyes were firmly fixed on the other man. That man. Constantine turned to look at him too.
He stood there, with one hand resting on the pommel of his sword as it stood upright beside him, the other on his hip. That bravado, that self-possession, the searing power of that gaze. Constantine recognized it all.
“You’re him,” Constantine said. “You’re Arthur.”
And then, it was gone. Once more, the old man was just a fisherman. He threw the gleaming sword down upon the bed and walked back over to the shelf.
“We had better get that taken care of before it gets worse,” he said as he took up his bowl and a piece of cloth.
They sat in silence as the man mixed something up. He went to apply it to Constantine’s hand but Porcia tore the bowl and the cloth away from him. As she tended to Constantine herself, the old man merely shrugged and walked over to the window.
When Porcia had finished, Constantine arose.
“You’re him,” he said. “You’re the King! How did I not know? How did I not know it was you?”
“Because you never knew me,” Arthur said. “You only saw me on three occasions. That is hardly a bosom friendship. Add to that thirty years, with my face battered by the waves and my hair grown white, and it is no wonder at all.”
“But why did you never reveal yourself to me,” Constantine asked, “after you charged me with upholding your work? Why not confide in me, the man you made your heir?”
“You said it yourself. Gawain was my heir, not you. You were just the one who lived. I never thought you could actually keep the task I set for you.”
All Constantine could muster in response was a weak, “I see….” He cast his eyes down, away from the man before him. That is when they fell upon the sword Excalibur.
“But the sword!” he exclaimed suddenly. “I thought the sword was thrown into the water, returned to the Lady of the Lake who forged it!”
“The Lady of the Lake is a legend!” Arthur said, his voice rising. “She never existed! That sword’s no fairy-blade, no matter what people say. It was the swordsmiths of Damascus who made it, not some sea nymph and her magic. Its watery look and its cutting edge are their work.”
“Then why would people speak of—”
Arthur turned back to Constantine, fire in his eyes. “Because people like their legends! They prefer fables to truth. Try to tell them a real thing and see how quickly they run back to the comfort of their myths. They tell stories of good kings, of noble knights, of mysterious enchanters and evil seductresses because it makes them feel better. They see how bad they have it and so they comfort themselves by saying that once it was not so, that once good was rewarded and evil punished. But that’s never happened in this world.”
“But it could,” Constantine said, approaching Arthur. “It could happen! You could come back. They all say you will come back.”
“I’m not coming back.”
“But you have to come back. You told me you would come back.”
“And once I believed it, too. But I’ve since stopped believing in myths.”
Constantine fell silent. He did not know what to say. He barely felt able to speak. But he knew he had to say something.
And then he had an idea. He lowered himself into a little bow. It was difficult, due somewhat to his pain but more so due to his pride. It had been many years since he had had to bow to anyone. But he did bow, and willingly.
Arthur merely turned away.
“I know I have not been a good king,” Constantine said, his voice soft and low, like a child’s. “I know I have not kept your laws as you would have had them. I know I have let this kingdom fall apart. I have failed you.”
He forced himself onto his knees, winching as he did so. “To you, great king, I renounce the crown and throne of this isle. Today I am King of the Britons no longer. Now, take your rightful throne. Win back the unity of our kingdom and maintain forever the peace of this land.”
“How could I do that now,” asked Arthur without turning back, “when I couldn’t do it the first time?”
Constantine rose to his feet, confused. “What do you mean?”
Arthur spoke slowly and solemnly, his pain clothing every word, “You are not the only one who remembers that day, that terrible morning after the battle, when the sight of corpses and blood dulled the emerald-green of Gaul’s glistening fields. I remember it too well. I remember wandering around those corpses of the dead and counting for myself their number. I recall hearing that Kay and Bedivere and your father had all been slain. Do you know how that felt to me?”
Constantine tried to think. For a moment, he remembered his father and sister. “I too have known loss,” he said.
Arthur shook his head. “Not as I have, boy. They were my closest companions since my youth and now I had lost all of them. Nor were they the only ones. I had already lost so much, so many others. Lancelot had left me, taking half my knighthood with him. My queen, gone with him. And so many had died on that accursed Grail quest. All for what, a cup, a trinket that our Lord may once have touched? What good did these so-called relics do anyone?”
“The Grail quest, I heard, was a great endeavor for spiritual truth,” Constantine said.
“You heard wrong. There was nothing spiritual about it. God was not there, not among the wild forests and adventures where so many died. That was not His work. Nothing but delusion and vanity.”
“Isn’t that the whole life of your Church?” Porcia asked.
“A Roman and a pagan,” Arthur said in disgust. “But I fear you may be right, at least as how things are going. Perhaps it will change someday. But for now, it’s just like everything else.”
“It doesn’t have to be like that,” Constantine said. “Not the Church, not the kingdom. Not anything. You could throw out all the false kings and rich priests and bandits. You could restore balance to the world.”
“Not I. I have already lost my kingdom.”
“You could regain it. You could do all the things the old Sybil is said to have—”
“Another myth! When will you learn? These things have no truth to them. The truth is, I did not lose my kingdom when I gave it up to you. I lost it long before that, when I set out to smite Rome and glorify my own vanity. I left the traitor Mordred to govern the realm, only to have him seize Britain’s throne for himself. He secured the mandate of the kings I had made and called the Saxons back to our shores. He had undone everything I worked my whole life to achieve. It was my fault. I had thought to make myself Emperor, to march on Jerusalem, to command the whole world in my grip. Instead, it cost me everything. I had cost myself everything.”
Constantine nodded. He crossed his arms and felt himself becoming tense. But he had nothing to say.
Arthur seemed completely lost to them now. As he looked out toward the vast, grey sea, he might as well have been on the fields of Gaul. “The news came about Mordred that very day. And I stood there. I stood upon a hill, looking forward. The road to Rome was open before me. Everything I had wanted was there before me. But then I looked back at the field of corpses, at everything I lost. Then, as I was standing there, came the words I most dreaded to hear. Gawain was dead. The man I had raised almost from a boy, the man I had sculpted in my own image. My second Arthur, my heir and hope for the future. He too, was dead. That is when I knew. The justice I had claimed to wield, the glory I had claimed to seek. They were lies. My reign was a lie. It would have been better for Britain had I never been king. And once I knew that, I could let myself be king no longer.”
There was a silence in the room. Suddenly, the old king who no longer looked a king no longer looked like a fisherman either. As he stood there by the window, he slumped over a little. Constantine had known him, even now, as a tall man. But he had never seemed to look so small. He had never seen anyone look so small.
“So… you left,” Constantine said, his tone somber.
Arthur straightened a little. He spoke again, slowly, “I did mean to come back. That’s what I tell myself, anyway. I merely wanted time to clear my head and understand my mistakes. And so, I set off. I wandered Gaul, I wandered Britain, and then I came here. Often times I thought of retaking my throne, of being king again. But I could not. I could not face what I had done. So here I stay, in my little shack, away from all the memories and all the pain.”
Arthur leaned down onto the rough-hewn windowsill itself. He cusped his hands together and gave the grey sky above a plaintive look. He spoke even more slowly, his words taking on the sonorous quality of a chant, “There are many ghosts in these ghostly isles. I fear them not. What I fear is the ghosts I would have to face if I went back. By God’s grace I have found this blessed isle amongst the waves. And here will I stay, if He has any mercy, until my dying day.”
Arthur rose his hands to the heavens above to seal the prayer. He then stood up and turned around. He approached Constantine and put a hand on his shoulder. The touch was gentle. No, not gentle. Broken.
“Yes, you failed at the task, my boy,” Arthur said. “But so too did I. The task cannot be achieved. Not now and, unless God has some new revelation in store, not ever. There is no justice in this world.”
Constantine seemed deep in thought. He barely noticed Arthur touching him. Or perhaps he did not even care. Finally, he spoke.
“You just gave up.”
Arthur nodded. “I suppose.”
Constantine’s voice began to rise. “You gave up. You turned your back on us, on all the people of these isles. You turned your back on me!”
“It was unavoidable.”
Constantine pulled away. “No, it wasn’t! You were needed! I looked up to you! I dedicated my life to you! I needed you!”
“You admired a legend,” Arthur snapped. “You were just a boy believing in a myth. It’s not my fault that you never grew up.”
“That myth is your history! That myth is what people a thousand years hence will speak of whenever any should mention the name of King Arthur. It is what they will remember. And now you are saying that it is all a lie?”
“What I’m telling you, my boy, is that it cannot be different. History does not remember men. History remembers myths. That’s why it’s as stupid as honor, as glory, as hope.”
“Hope?” Constantine asked. He looked to Porcia. “Hope isn’t stupid, is it?” he asked.
“It might be,” Porcia said, “but it’s all we have.”
“If you think that, then you truly have lost,” Arthur said as he pushed past Constantine and snatched up the mixing bowl from Porcia. “Of all the things I did wrong, of all the things I regret, the greatest by far is that I ever thought we could build something better in this isle of Britain. That we could change history. My greatest mistake was having hope.”
Constantine turned to face him. “So, what are we to do?” he asked.
“Live. Die. It doesn’t matter,” Arthur said as he put the bowl up. “Nothing does. You’ll learn that, sooner or later.”
Constantine felt numb. He was suffering far more than he had from either of his wounds. Far more than he ever had, as far as he could recall. And suffering men are desperate men, prone to bold and daring thoughts. A bold thought now entered Constantine’s mind. He looked to the shining blade on the bed. Within a moment, despite the pain, it was in his hand.
Arthur did not even look back. “If you want to cut me down with that, you’re welcome to do so. I won’t fight you this time. The myths will make my end whatever they want it to be. What you do here is of no consequence.”
Constantine did nothing. He looked to Porcia, who had been silently observing all this, as though she would give him an answer. But she had none. He lowered the sword.
“I thought not,” Arthur said, an air of disappointment in his voice. “Well, then, begone with you. I did what you asked of me. My duty is at an end. There’s a second old skiff down there where I tie up mine. Take that back to the mainland. Your Roman will show you the way. Take that trinket if you want. Maybe you can use it to rally your Britons, or at least what remains of them.”
Constantine sneered. “Porcia, I’m feeling much better now. We must be on the move. These rocks and craigs are no place for a king.”
Porcia nodded and took up her halberd to follow him. As they walked past Arthur, Constantine turned to face him one last time. The old man did not meet his gaze.
“Maybe it is a good thing that they’ll remember legends and not us,” Constantine said. “We aren’t worth remembering. But the legends will be. The hope will be. Because the hope was real, if nothing else.”
Arthur did not answer.
Constantine walked out and stood upon the high cliffs, surveying the sea. A light caught his eye. He realized that it was the sun, reflecting off the sword Excalibur. The clouds were beginning to break.
“Are you all right?” came Porcia’s voice behind him.
“All those years,” Constantine said, more to himself than to her. “All those years, believing in something. Something that wasn’t real.”
“You said it yourself. The man might not have been real. But the hope was. And, like I keep telling you, the hope is all we have left now.”
There was something about Porcia’s voice. It was filled with pride. Or, at least, relief that Constantine had finally gotten something into his thick head. Either way, Constantine had to smile.
“You’re right, as always,” he said. “I only wish I had understood before.”
He then looked down once more to the sword Excalibur. His eyes traced the silvery markings, so like the waves of the sea, up to the golden hilt, shaped like a dragon and encrusted with precious gems.
It was, without question, a fine thing. A beautiful thing. A national treasure of the Britons. It made him sick.
“You should have gone into the sea all those years ago.”
With a mighty heave, Constantine lifted the sword aloft high into the air and then, with a quick motion, let it go. It flew like a silver comet across the grey sky, with its blade shimmering in the sun, before disappearing forever beneath the dark waves.
Porcia came running up beside him, but it was too late.
“Why did you do that? We could have used that to—” But she stopped herself when she saw the look in Constantine’s eyes.
“Let’s get moving, Porcia,” he said. “No more believing in myths.”
Porcia spoke softly. “I’ve never believed in them. I thought you would have figured it out by now. You’re the only thing I’ve ever believed in.”
Constantine nodded. “That is one thing I’ve always known. I just wish I knew more things. I wish I knew what to do when all the legends have died and the myths have all faded away. Tell me, Porcia, what do we do now?”
He turned to Porcia. In one hand she held her halberd. In the other, she held a sword. His sword. She must have cleaned it after it had fallen, because the sleek, simple blade shined brilliantly in the light of the sun.
She held the sword out to him as she spoke.