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The Red Knight

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The Red Knight

by David Pilling

I, Sir Kay, son of Sir Ector and foster-brother to King Arthur, am a dying man. I stopped an arrow during yesterday’s battle and the surgeons made a mess of cutting it out of my shoulder. Gangrene has set in, filling my tent with an awful sweet stench, and I can feel the chill of death creeping through my body.

I have a few hours left, long enough for me to dictate the truth about the fall of Camelot, and my failure to understand what was happening until it was too late.

The monk who sits at the end of my bed scribbling down my words will stay until I am done. If he does not, if he attempts to tear the rings from my nerveless fingers and steal away into the night, then I have instructed my squire to cut his useless balls off. My squire is a good lad and eager to do his duty.

Did that get your attention, worm? Good. Keep writing.

#

My vision blurs, and I drift in and out of awareness. The pain of my dying is eased by opium, but the medicine induces waking dreams and hallucinations. Among the meaningless jumble of dragons and leaping fires and leering demonic faces, I glimpse the Red Knight and the Iron Tower.

The Red Knight is just as I remember; a giant figure in crimson armour perched upon a monstrous black steed. He turns his face towards me, but it is hidden behind a featureless steel mask. His helm is shaped like a cone and has no visor or eye-slits. Behind him looms his Iron Tower, a massive column of corroded red iron thrusting into the dark northern sky.

News of this ghoul first reached Camelot a year ago on Christmas Eve. I was half-dead from my labours to make the holiday a cheerful one, for Camelot had become a castle of shadows and ghosts, haunted by the memory of those knights who had died on the futile quest for the Holy Grail.

As Arthur’s steward, it was my task to hide the rot and restore some light and joy to the place. In practice this meant weeks of chivvying and screaming at servants, stocking the cellars with enough victuals to feed an army and decking the halls and corridors with acres of fresh tapestries and hangings.

The effort had left me even more pinched and irritable than usual. On the evening of the feast I sat in my usual place on Arthur’s right, scowling at every drop of wine spilled by the servants and every fudged note by the musicians playing in the galley above. My mood wasn’t helped by my worry for the king.

Arthur was dangerously ill. Besides himself, only I and his doctor knew it. The doctor, a clever Arab called Nasir, kept him going with regular doses of bark and mercury and God knows what else, but it was becoming difficult to hide his symptoms. At the feast, he sat braced in his chair, talking seldom and picking at his food.

The chair to his left was empty, though it had once contained Queen Guinevere. The empty chair was a constant reminder to Arthur of the humiliation she had inflicted on him by eloping with his supposed best friend, Sir Lancelot.

Lancelot and Guinevere. Treacherous scum. One of my regrets is that I never got to wring their selfish necks.

Guinevere’s was not the only empty seat. Of the one hundred and fifty places at the Round Table, a third were vacant and too many of the others filled by new recruits. Noisy, vain, empty-headed young knights who stuffed and laughed and drank themselves sick, all the time sneering and making jests about us older men.

My fragile mood was in no way improved when the double doors at the far end of the hall suddenly swung open. I rose indignantly from my chair, spluttering curses and bits of half-chewed pheasant.

“What in God’s name is this?” I shrieked, “I gave no permission for those doors to be opened!”

What came through the doors plunged me, and everyone else, into silence. The laughter and chatter died away, as did the music in the gallery. Camelot had witnessed many strange things, but none stranger or more horrible than this.

A man limped into the hall. He was tall and thin and dressed like a Fool in a suit of black and red motley, and his thin ash-blonde hair floated like mist about his oversized head. A length of fine silver thread was wrapped around his wrist. The other end was attached to the collar of a donkey.

Strapped to the donkey’s saddle was the naked remnant of a man. His arms and legs had been lopped off and their stumps roughly cauterised. Mercifully, he was dead.

A knight, I believe it was Sir Griflet, broke the silence. “Oh my God,” he croaked. “That’s Sir Meliot.”

Cries of bewilderment and anger broke out as more knights recognised the awful mutilated dead thing as their Round Table comrade. Sir Meliot had been Arthur’s Warden in the North, appointed to guard the border and enforce the king’s writ in that often wild and lawless country.

The Fool smiled crookedly, but said nothing. Enraged by his smug expression and the fate of poor Meliot, I hammered my staff of office on the flagstones and bellowed for silence. I was ignored and the uproar only died down when Arthur rose from his chair.

The force of the king’s presence rolled across the hall, and all eyes turned to look at him. He was still an impressive figure, tall and commanding in his royal robes with the red dragon emblazoned across his tunic, and he radiated calm dignity. Only I was close enough to him to see that his body trembled with the mere effort of standing upright.

“The Fool will explain,” he said, and it was a statement rather than a command.

The Fool smiled and gave an absurd bow, bending from the waist until his hair touched the floor, and then straightened up.

“Greetings, lord king,” he said in a high sing-song voice, “greetings from my master, who sends you this dead knight as a gift, a warning and a challenge.”

His words were too much for the warmer spirits in the hall, and there was a hiss of steel as swords were drawn.

“Enough of that,” I shouted, banging my staff again, “nobody sheds blood in Arthur’s hall, except me. “

“You spoke of a challenge,” said Arthur. His eyes were bright and his face pale but for two spots of colour in his cheeks, sure signs that the Pendragon’s temper was close to snapping.

“Indeed,” replied the Fool, “for my master has set up his own court in opposition to yours. Where you prize chivalry, he insists on decadence. In place of your noble ladies, he has stocked his court with common drabs. His knights are brute savages, criminals and broken men, and my master encourages them in every form of rapine and depravity. Thus he proves his superiority to you, King Arthur, for his subjects have the courage to do what they want, instead of what they are told.”

The atmosphere in the hall was now seething with tension and anger. Arthur himself was struggling to maintain his composure, and his hand was clenched around Excalibur’s jewelled hilt.

“Who is your master?” he demanded.

“He has no name, but is known as the Red Knight of the Iron Tower. I am commanded to say that he spits defiance at you. Like so.”

The Fool loudly worked up some phlegm in his throat and hawked a great gobbet onto the floor.

That did it. Sir Mordred, a fearsomely proud little runt and Arthur’s nephew, shoved back his chair and rushed at the Fool with his sword. Ignoring the king’s shouts, he hacked wildly at the defenceless man’s neck and managed to chop through an artery. A great spray of blood arced from the wound, like a crimson rainbow, and the Fool flopped to his knees.

More knights left their seats and ran to join in the kill. Their faces were twisted in feral hatred as they chopped and bludgeoned the Fool into pulp, howling like animals as they drove their swords into his flesh.

#

My throat is parched. Give me some more wine. No, you unfeasible clod, don’t write that down, just hand me the jug.

That’s better. The wine is laced with opium, and the creeping chill in my limbs has receded for a while. On with my tale.

#

The younger knights at court had never witnessed Arthur in his royal rage, for the long years of peace had mellowed him, but after the murder of the Fool they witnessed a demonstration that shook the walls of Camelot.

I had not seen the king in such a passion for many a year, and for a while I feared for his reason as well as his health. The death of Sir Meliot, the insult of the mysterious Red Knight’s challenge, the savage and dishonourable murder committed before his very eyes, all combined to make Arthur forget himself and briefly play the tyrant.

Those knights who had murdered the Fool, six in all, were arrested and thrown into the dungeons beneath the castle. At first the king promised to hang the lot of them and set their heads on spikes above the gate, but after a couple of days his better nature re-asserted itself and he commuted the death sentence to exile.

“But first, you will be stripped of your knighthoods,” Arthur raged, “and you will not leave Camelot as free men, but as penitents.”

He was as good as his word, and the culprits had to endure the ritual humiliation of having their spurs cut off and thrown into a pot of boiling soup before their fellow knights in the great hall.

I watched them leave, six disconsolate young men with their heads bowed as they trudged over the drawbridge. They were barefoot and dressed in white shifts, as befitted penitents, and each wore a crucifix about their necks. They were oath-bound to take the shortest and most direct route to the coast, and there spare no efforts to find a ship to take them out of the kingdom forever.

The morning after they left Camelot, Arthur summoned me for a private audience in his chamber. I found him wrapped up in furs against the winter cold and gloomily contemplating a map of the North laid out on his writing table. Nasir hovered nearby with a cup of some vile-smelling liquid in his hands.

“We are too soft, Kay,” he said without looking up as I entered. “Peace has made us complacent, and our young knights have grown up knowing nothing of the hardships of war and quest. That explains their lack of honour and restraint. They fight mock battles in the lists and prance about competing for ladies’ favours, and think they are men. They are not.”

“Maybe, but that is hardly their fault,” I replied, taking the cup from Nasir and passing it to Arthur. “There have been no wars since we won the last one over twenty years ago, and questing is out of fashion.”

Arthur tossed back his medicine and grimaced at the bitter taste. “There is a war now,” he said, wiping his mouth, “this upstart Red Knight must be dealt with. I will take our young knights north, to pull his Iron Tower down about his head.”

I looked at him in alarm. “Brother, let me be honest with you. You are not well enough to fight a campaign, or to even sit a horse. Let some veteran knight lead them.”

“No. I must do it. The younger men love me not, nor respect me. I must show them that I can still ride and fight, or risk losing my authority.”

“And when you fall in a dead faint from your saddle,” I said severely, “that will prove your authority, will it? Don’t be a fool.”

He smiled at my bluntness. “If I look like falling, I will rely on you to catch me. You are coming as well, and so is Sir Bedivere. I need a couple of experienced captains with me, of sufficiently vile temperament to keep the striplings in line. As two of the most horrible old bastards under my command, you and Bedivere are ideal.”

I was about to protest again, but he waved me into silence.

“I have another task for you first,” he said, “you will go into the forest, and speak to Merlyn. Ask him about the Red Knight.”

He waited patiently until I had finished cursing. “Merlyn is still valuable”, he reminded me. “He can work magic and see into the future.”

“He is a blind lunatic who breakfasts on his own dung!”

“Hold your nose, if he offends you so much. But you will go and consult him. I command it.”

#

The King had spoken, and I had no choice but to obey. I set out from Camelot that same day and rode west, towards a place that very few people knew about.

Nobody knew how old Merlyn was. His hair was white when Arthur first came to the throne, and over three decades later he was still with us. He was a central part of the myths and legends that shrouded Camelot, most of which he had invented himself, but in recent years he had gone utterly insane.

When it became clear that the old man’s madness could no longer be tolerated, for Arthur could not be seen to have a drooling, shitting, ranting geriatric for his chief advisor, he was quietly removed. Arthur told everyone that Merlin had fallen in love with a wicked enchantress, who tricked him and locked him in a magic cave. Incredibly, people believed the story. Arthur always could spin a lie.

The task of removing Merlyn had fallen to me, as did most of the dirty jobs, and myself and a few trusted servants bundled him away one night to a secluded monastery deep in the wild forest.

The monastery was well off the king’s highway, an ancient fortress-like place built into the rock of a narrow valley. I had cleared out the monks and replaced them with soldiers, for Merlyn needed to be guarded. Impossibly old, blind, raving and incontinent he might be, but he still possessed strange powers of prophecy and intuition that could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

The door to the monastery’s squat tower opened at my knock, and I was admitted by the grave-faced captain of the guard.

“How is he?” I asked, dismounting and handing him my reins.

“Much the same, sir,” the captain sighed. “We still have to keep him chained up most of the time. He bites.”

I nodded and followed him into the cool darkness of the tower. We passed through a corridor and out into a wide courtyard. Here were the stables, living quarters and and a couple of soldiers nervously watching the man they were paid to guard.

Merlyn was tied to an iron stake via a length of steel chain attached to his ankle. His long lugubrious face was all pits and craters, with a thin loose-lipped mouth and two blind milk-white eyes either side of a hooked Roman nose. An ocean of straggling white hair and beard covered most of him, and he was making great play of squatting in the dirt and twisting his whiskers in knots.

Steeling myself against his dreadful stench, I carefully approached him. “Merlyn...” I began to speak, but the old man lifted his head and stared right at me with his blind eyes.

“Wait,” he whined, sniffing the air and making vague movements with his yellow claw-like hands. “I know you, I know you...ha, yes! You are Kay!”

“Sir Kay, son of Sir Ector,” he went on, scratching at a louse in his horrid beard, “I brought the infant Arthur, fresh from his mother’s teat, to your father’s castle. You were but a child yourself, Kay, but I made you swear an oath to be Arthur’s guardian and protector. Have you broken your oath?”

“Certainly not,” I replied indignantly, “I have stood by his side all my life.”

“Ah! But Arthur is sick. I have seen it in my dreams. He is eaten away from the inside by a vile disease. His life ebbs away, and you do nothing.”

“There is nothing I can do! I am no doctor, nor a magician. Do you expect me to reach inside him and drag the sickness out?”

Merlyn gave no answer but threw his head back and cackled. He slapped his hands together and rocked back and forth, singing “Oath-breaker!”

The old idiot was mocking me, something I could never abide, but I drew a deep breath and willed myself to be calm. “Merlyn,” I tried again, “Arthur has sent me here for a reason. He wants to me to ask you about the Red Knight.”

He stopped singing and clapping, and gaped vacantly in my direction. It seemed as though I had caught his attention, so I pressed on.

“A man recently came to Camelot, claiming that his master had taken over the North. His master has no name, apparently, but is known as the Red Knight of the Iron Tower. What do you know about him?”

Merlyn remained silent. For a moment I thought his wits had deserted him entirely, but then he buried his face in his hands and shuffled on his knees towards the stake. He threw his scrawny arms around it and began sobbing like a child.

“No, no, it cannot be,” I heard him whimper. “Mea patrie, mea patrie...loose in the world, now? Ah, God, he comes against us now, and we have no strength left to face him!”

“What are you talking about?” I demanded. “Who comes against us?”

But that was as much sense as I could get out of him. He cried and whined and pawed at the ground, throwing dirt over his hair and beard, and I turned away in disgust.

“Keep the old wretch alive, if you can,” I muttered to the captain of the guard as I stalked back to the gateway, “apparently he is valuable.”

#

Sir Bedivere was an old comrade of long standing, and one of the first knights to join the Round Table.  A slender beauty in his youth, he was now in his fifties and not so much a man as a foul-mouthed lump of scar tissue.

“Before you ask, the campaign is shaping up bloody badly,” he growled when I met him upon my return to Camelot. “Arthur’s refusing to take any veterans except you and me. So it will be the three of us and forty untested boys whose balls have just dropped, riding north to face this Red bastard and his hordes.”

I tried to reassure him. “You never know, he may not have a horde. He’s probably just some nasty local baron with ideas above his station.”

“How do you explain what happened to Meliot, then? He was one of the toughest knights I knew. Mark my words. We are heading into a sea of shit.”

I left him glooming and chewing his fingernails and went to find Arthur. The king looked worse than when I left him, paler and thinner, and my report of Merlyn’s words did nothing to lift his grim mood.

“Merlyn used to speak in riddles,” he said irritably, “now he just speaks nonsense. My apologies, brother, it was a waste of time sending you. We ride out tomorrow.”

And so we did, though Arthur had to be secretly strapped into his saddle. I acted as his squire and rode close behind him, anxiously watching for any signs of tiredness.

I shared Bedivere’s pessimism about the young knights, but they made a brave show at least, their armour polished bright and their lances decked with colourful pennants and ribbons. They were eager to prove themselves and thought that war was just like a tournament, only on a bigger scale and with richer rewards.

They quickly learned different. Within a few days of leaving Camelot we began to encounter signs that the Red Knight had been at work. At first we met straggling bands of refugees on the highway, broken and empty-eyed peasants, many of them bearing dreadful injuries. They called out in pathetic voices as we rode past, imploring us to help them, but we had no money or provisions to spare.

“Just like the old days,” remarked Bedivere when we stopped to rest our horses. He pointed north, where the sky was streaked with drifting columns of smoke. A few of the young knights stopped what they were doing and shaded their eyes to gaze at the smoke, their boyish faces full of consternation.

“At the first sign of trouble, these bloody children will either bolt or go berserk,” Bedivere snarled. “I tell you, we should have brought some proper soldiers.”

I snapped at him to stop croaking, for his endless pessimism did nothing to lift morale. Deep down I knew he was right, but Arthur was determined to continue and so we rode on, deeper into the lands that the Red Knight now claimed to rule.

The smoke, inevitably, came from burning towns and villages. We passed through several such ruined settlements, timber stockades smashed all to pieces and the people gruesomely massacred. I had seen it all before, when the Saxons had ravaged our coasts, but many of the ‘bloody children,’ as Bedivere called them, must have been horror-struck.

On the outskirts of one of the destroyed villages we found a survivor.  He had been dismembered, like Sir Meliot, though his tormentors had left him one arm. He was tied to a stake and his remaining hand pointed rigidly north.

“Follow,” he murmured, lifting his head to gaze blankly at us. “Follow.”

During roll-call the next morning I discovered that three of our knights had deserted, taking their horses and squires and stealing away during the night. Bedivere flew into a rage at the news and, between curses, did his bit for morale by threatening to snap the neck of the next man who even looked like running away.

The trail of burning villages led roughly north-west into a land ravaged and cursed, full of butchered people and charred dwellings. We witnessed endless atrocities: hanged knights on trees, spurs clinking as they waved gently in the wind, raped and slaughtered nuns, little children with their eyes plucked out and turned loose to wander on the roads.

At last, a week after leaving Camelot, we came within sight of the Iron Tower.

It was visible from several miles distance, a dark column jutting into the sky amid a gloomy landscape of low-lying fen and salt marsh. Why anyone would build a tower in such an inhospitable place was a mystery.  As we rode closer, it became clear that the thing was massive, at least twice as high as any keep I had ever seen.

My wonder increased, for the tower was a crudely-constructed heap of rusting iron, windowless and surely uninhabitable. A ramp on its southern side led up to a pair of closed iron doors, and beside the ramp was one final horror: a headless knight, dangling from a spindly tree by his heels with a round shield hanging beside him.

This was a clear enough challenge, so I cantered up to the shield and banged my armoured fist against it. The boom of metal on metal raised a great echo, and there was a scraping noise as the doors to the tower opened.

The Red Knight emerged, a demonic figure in crimson armour and mounted on a truly enormous black steed with eyes like flaming coals. His helm, an awful blank mask of red steel with no slits to breathe or see through, seemed to gaze down at us.

“Which of thee is King?” The voice was that of a man, high-pitched and clear, though it should have been muffled by the helm.

Arthur spurred forward. “I am,” he said, placing his hand on Excalibur. The Red Knight laughed, a harsh metallic sound, and urged his horse slowly down the ramp.

“Thou!” he shrieked, “thou chicken-hearted king, who makes eunuchs of men by binding them with laws! Hast thou come to take revenge on me?”

Arthur’s face was white, and my heart skipped a beat as I saw him sway in his saddle. “I have,” he said through gritted teeth, “for what you did to Sir Meliot, for attempting to take half my realm, for the slaughter and plunder you have inflicted on my subjects. For those crimes, I will bring you to justice.”

The Red Knight laughed again. “Then defend thyself!” he squealed, and drew his longsword, its hilt crusted with crimson stones, from the scabbard hanging at his hip.

Bedivere started forward, but I was ahead of him and put myself between Arthur and the Red Knight. “The King does not engage in single combat!” I cried. “A lesser man must stand in for him. I, Sir Kay, offer myself as his champion.”

This was so much nonsense, of course, but I knew that Arthur was in no condition to fight a duel. He knew it too, so despite his pride and anger he drew Excalibur and held it out to me, hilt-first.

I took the famous sword, which I had never presumed to touch before, and nodded gratefully at Arthur. Excalibur was heavy, but I felt no tingle of magic or singing of ethereal voices as I hefted the blade. It was a superb piece of workmanship with excellent balance, but nothing more than that.

“I give Sir Kay a true king’s sword to kill a false traitor,” declared Arthur. This little touch of drama impressed the watching knights, who might otherwise have thought him a coward for refusing the duel.

“Beware!” shouted Bedivere, and I wheeled my horse just in time to meet the charge of the Red Knight. His sword whistled over my head as I ducked and drove in my spurs, urging my horse to butt into the flank of his. His beast staggered, almost losing its footing in the wet mud, and I rose and slashed Excalibur at the Red Knight’s helm.

He parried my blow, somewhat awkwardly, and sparks flew as the blades scraped together. I struck again, beating a dent in his shoulder plate, and encouraging shouts and cheers broke out from the watching knights.

“That’s the way, Kay!” bawled Bedivere, “that’s your sort! Take the bastard apart, piece by piece!”

Emboldened, I hit him again, and excitement surged through me as I realised that the Red Knight was a dreadful swordsman. I was no great fighter myself, and distinctly average compared to the likes of Sir Lancelot and Sir Tristram, but I was at least competent. By contrast, my opponent handled his sword like a village watchman with a cudgel.

The Red Knight lurched drunkenly as I beat down his feeble guard and hammered at his head and shoulders, Excalibur ringing against his armour like a blacksmith’s hammer against an anvil. He made no sound as I pummelled him, no grunts or cries of pain, but at last I struck him a terrific backhand blow that knocked him clean out of the saddle.

He landed face down in the mud and lay there weakly thrashing his limbs, like a trapped tortoise.

“I want him alive!” I heard Arthur shout above the triumphant shouts, and I turned my horse to see many of our knights eagerly dismounting and splashing towards the fallen man.

For a moment I thought they were going to help him up, but one look at their flushed faces told me otherwise. They wore the same expressions of unreasoning bloodlust and hatred I had seen on the faces of those who had murdered the Fool.

They descended on the defenceless knight like madmen, beating and hacking and stabbing at him with their swords and maces. One knelt in the mire and leaned on his helm, screaming “Drown! Drown, you bastard!” while others chopped and dragged his limbs from their sockets.

At that moment a horn sounded from inside the tower, a weird echoing drone, and the Red Knight’s followers boiled forth like a cloud of bees from a hive.

Savages, criminals and broken men the Fool had described them as, and so they appeared. Bearded, dirty, clad in rusting bits of armour and wielding makeshift weaponry, they charged wildly down the ramp with no semblance of discipline or order. Having done with the Red Knight, our knights joyfully sprang up to meet them.

I don’t know how our young men might have fared against a more formidable enemy, but against this ill-armed rabble they were in their element. They cut them to bits, fighting like animals in the grip of a berserk fury. I tried to reach Arthur, who was watching the butchery with absolute disbelief on his wan face, but then screams broke out behind me.

They were the screams of women. Arthur spoke urgently to Bedivere, who galloped through the press and grasped hold of my reins.

“Some of our boys have got inside the tower!” he roared, “Arthur wants us to stop the swine before they rape and murder everything in sight!”

I nodded and dragged my horse about. We forced a path through the killing, battering aside or riding down anyone who got in our way, friend or foe, and urged our horses up the ramp and into the tower.

Inside was a large round chamber with a high domed ceiling and several doors leading off to spiral staircases. Shouts and screams filtered through the doorways, suggesting that all Hell was being unleashed on the upper floors.

Bedivere lumbered off towards the nearest doorway to his right, spear in hand, so I chose one at random on the left. My joints creaked as I struggled up the steps, and I reflected that I was getting a little old to be playing the heroic rescuer. Not that I had ever been much of one, really: that sort of thing was Lancelot’s speciality. Mine was kitchens.

The stairs wound past another dome-ceilinged chamber, smaller than the one below. It was furnished with benches and stools, all overturned or kicked aside, and the floor was strewn with smashed crockery and spilled wines. Two dead men also lay on the floor, their skulls smashed like eggshells. In the middle of the room one of Arthur’s knights was raping a woman.

I killed the rapist, driving Excalibur into his back, but could do nothing to halt the atrocities being committed elsewhere. All was blood and screams and men, belted knights sworn to honour and mercy, behaving like brute beasts.

After the slaughter and rapine was over and the young knights had come to their senses, Arthur ordered them all to gather before the tower. There he harangued them, in a final display of royal contempt and anger. His words were bitter.

"You are not mine! I deny you! Honour, pride, mercy, obedience, humility, all the virtues of knighthood, you understand them not! I shall turn you loose, to practise your abominations elsewhere. Your ties of loyalty to me are severed. Get you gone!"

Some of the boys wept and pleaded with Arthur for forgiveness, going down on their knees in the mire and holding out their hands to him, like babes reaching for their mother. Others, their swords still bloody, stood unrepentant and looked at the king with hard eyes. Arthur turned his back on those who begged for his mercy, so they could not see the tears plodding down his sallow cheeks.

In the end, they all rode away and scattered to the four winds, leaving only Bedivere,  Nasir and myself with the king.

I slept ill that night. In my dreams I saw the Iron Tower grow in size until it dominated the lands and oceans of the earth and cast a monstrous shadow across the stars. My mind's eye seemed to rove through the chambers inside and I saw the slaughtered men and violated women rise as one, their bodies whole and their faces alight with joy.

Then the tower was consumed by a sudden fire, but instead of fleeing the people danced and sang among the flames, laughing with uncontrolled glee as they were consumed. The tower melted and sank into a pile of ashes until nothing remained but the figure of the Red Knight. He, like his followers, was whole again, and he pointed his sword at me and laughed.

I woke with a start and staggered, barefoot and still in my nightshirt, out of my tent. It was early morning and the feeble winter sun had yet to disperse all of the freezing mists that rolled across the marshes, but there was enough light to see by.

Shading my eyes, I looked north to where the Iron Tower should have stood. It was gone.

#

The Red Knight had fooled us, though how was beyond our understanding. Baffled and robbed of any sense of victory, our little group started the long journey south.

“When we return to Camelot, I shall root out the taint of corruption,” vowed Arthur, “vainglory, selfishness and evil shall be purged, even if it means I have to stock the place with virginal monks.”

Deep down, I think the king knew that he would never see Camelot again. We had only ridden a few miles before he doubled over in the saddle and began coughing up blood. Bedivere and I helped him off his horse – I was amazed by how light and frail he was - and hurriedly set up his tent.

Nasir attended to the king while we attempted to set up a fire on the sodden ground. After a while I left Bedivere grumbling and cursing at the damp tinderbox and went to see my brother.

Arthur lay asleep on the ground, still in his armour and with his head resting on his saddle. His face was yellow with dark smudges under the eyes and his breathing was shallow. Nasir was bent over him, dabbing at his lips with a tissue, and at sight of me he stood up and bowed.

“Lord,” he said in his deep voice. He was always correct and formal, this Arab, a lean handsome man in late middle age. Unable to bear the cold weather of our island, so unlike the warmer climes of his homeland, he wore a fur-lined cloak over loose robes. Other than noting he was steady and reliable and more skilled than most of our native doctors, I rarely took much notice of him.

“How is he?” I whispered, nodding at the king.

“As well as can be expected, lord,” he replied, and I read the hidden meaning in his intelligent brown eyes. I held their gaze, and he shook his head slightly.

His case of instruments and medicines was laid out on the ground beside him. I knew little of the doctor’s art, but was aware that the potions he mixed could kill as well as heal.

“His Majesty will not recover, lord,” Nasir’s quiet voice broke in on my thoughts. “He suffers from a malady known as The Crab in my own land. It devours a man from the inside. There is no cure.”

No cure. Merlyn’s words came back to me. I made you swear to be Arthur’s guardian and protector. Have you broken your oath?

I could at least protect him from any further agony. “There must be no pain,” I hissed, and Nasir bowed as I hurried out.

For the next hour or so I snarled and bickered at Bedivere as we struggled to light a fire, and then Nasir emerged to inform us that Arthur was dead.

At first Bedivere refused to believe it and went raging into the tent, but when he touched the king’s cold face his rage dissolved into tears and he collapsed, weeping like a babe.

I sat quietly and watched the sun rise, while Nasir stood respectfully behind me. Through the blur of my own tears I saw a horseman in the distance, a knight in crimson armour mounted on a black steed. He raised his sword in triumph, and from afar I heard the sound of his gloating laughter.

#

We buried Arthur there in the marshes, having first sworn an oath not to tell of his death. “What became of him should always remain a mystery,” I said, “so people might hope that, one day, he will return.”

Bedivere agreed, and after we had buried Arthur he took Excalibur and threw it into a deep pool. The sword flashed as it fell, like a falling star, and vanished with a splash into the murky waters.

After that we cut Nasir’s throat and dumped his body in the marsh. The man was just a servant, and since he was not bound by the laws of knighthood we could not trust him to keep Arthur’s death secret.

We two knights returned south to find Camelot deserted and blackened by fire. In the ruins of the stables we found a dying page-boy, who told us that Mordred and the rest of the exiles had returned to Britain with an army of foreign mercenaries.

They had stormed Camelot, though not without suffering huge casualties, and then fallen to fighting among themselves. The halls and corridors of Arthur’s splendid castle had run with blood. Before he breathed his last, the page said that the survivors had departed to raise new armies.

Arthur's realm was now torn apart as lesser men fought each other for the vacant throne. The Saxons returned to raid our undefended coasts, as did other heathen pirates, and it was as though the long peace had never existed.
Bedivere, his fierce spirit crushed by Arthur’s death, retired to live as a hermit in a lonely chapel by the sea. Lacking the decency to do anything half so virtuous, I chose to remain a Knight of the Round Table. There are very few of us now, foolish old men in rusting armour who refuse to forget the heady days of Camelot.

I joined the faction of Duke Constantine of Cornwall, since he had been Arthur's friend and seemed the most able of the squabbling pretenders. But really he is a grasping and small-minded man, full of petty cruelties, and I tarnished my honour by serving him.

My mind darkens, and I lose track of the wars that rage up and down the land. I did have the satisfaction of seeing Mordred die, his brains trampled out by his own horse during a skirmish. Two days later, the remnant of his army ambushed Constantine's troops at a river crossing, and there I took the fatal arrow in my shoulder.

#

The monk is impatient. I see him fidgeting in his seat, cracking his knuckles as he waits for me to die. He is desperately wondering how much longer I can last.

Not long. My body is cold as a stone, and the fingers of death creep about my throat. There is no pain. 

To finish. I now know what Merlyn meant. "Mie Patrie, mie patrie", he whined in terror when I told him of the Red Knight. My father, my father. I thought he merely raved, but I had forgotten who his father was. The Devil.

The Red Knight was Lucifer himself, and the people of his Iron Tower were fiends from Hell. He came to mock Camelot, to bring it down as punishment for Arthur’s dream of creating a perfect kingdom on earth. And he succeeded.

I hear his laughter. He shall not have my soul. He shall no...

©2010

 

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