William Rowlands stood just inside the gates of Camelot, and gazed around the city in happiness. William was a sailor, just arriving from the town where his ship had docked, Camulodunum. He was due to stay in Camelot for two months, and he had missed this town more than he thought possible.
I’ve sailed the world and seen many wonderful things, thought William, but there’s no place like Camelot.
William stood there for a moment, remembering how the last time he’d visited Camelot he had loved how he could hear the city bells ring whatever he was doing and wherever he was, and a huge smile spread across his face at the thought of staying here for a month.
“There is no place like Camelot!” he said aloud happily.
A mirthless laugh came from behind him, and a grim voice spoke from the shadows next to the city walls.
“There is indeed no place like Camelot.” But the owner of the voice clearly didn’t mean it in the way the young sailor did.
“Mr. De Rege !” exclaimed William. “I didn’t see you there!”
Arthur Pendragon stepped out of the shadows and looked at the city he used to call home, the city he now despised with all his heart. Then he looked at William, so young and happy and…naive. He reminded Arthur of someone. Someone who it was too painful to think about.
“You are young,” he said to William eventually, “Life has been kind to you. You will learn.” At this, William looked confused.
“Mr. De Rege ?” he said uncertainly.
“It is here we must go our separate ways, William,” Arthur said firmly. He hadn’t meant to scare the boy, but he needed to be alone now. He clapped William on the shoulder. “I will not forget the good ship Bountiful, nor the young man who saved my life.”
He looked the boy in the eye, trying to convey his gratitude. It was the only positive emotion he had had in a long while.
William beamed, glad that the older man appeared to have snapped out of his strange mood. “There’s no cause to thank me for that, sir,” he laughed, “It would have been an immoral man indeed that spotted you pitching and tossing on that raft and not given the alarm.”
Arthur scowled angrily. “There’s many a man who would’ve done just that, and not lost a wink of sleep for it either,” he spat.
William drew back in alarm, and opened his mouth for a question, when he was interrupted by an old beggar man who had appeared by his side out of nowhere.
“Alms, alms,” he croaked in a low voice that made William shiver, “for a miserable old man on such a miserable, chilly morning?” He stared at the sailor balefully with watery blue eyes. His skin was covered with sores and dirt, and his hair was stringy and greasy.
William pressed a few gold coins into the beggar man’s hand, and then bid a hasty retreat. Lord knew what diseases the beggar was carrying.
“Thank you sir, thank you!” gasped the man, pawing at the coins in his hand. He appeared to turn away to leave, and then swung back round so fast that it made William wonder if the man was really old as he appeared to be.
Then he had little time to wonder, because the beggar was right in his face, sneering and cackling, his filthy hand around William’s neck. “Come on sir, come on, is that it?” the beggar screeched, “Gimme some more! Gimme your clothes! Gimme your food! Come sir, come -” William shoved the beggar man away, revolted but not afraid. He was younger and far stronger than him, and there were many beggars who had lost their minds. They were rarely any real threat.
Almost as soon as William had shoved the beggar away he was hunched over again, limping away and calling in his whiny beggar voice. He was clearly insane, and William felt a jolt of pity for him.
He looked across at Arthur, who was glaring at the beggar man with barely disguised disgust in his eyes. The beggar man was clearly not put off by this.
“Alms, alms,” he was calling again, “for a pitiful old man, who’s got wandering wit and –“ He broke off suddenly, peering up at Arthur. “Hey, don’t I know you mister?” He whispered hesitantly.
A bolt of alarm shot through Arthur. This man was old enough; he could’ve been there before… No one could recognise him. No one. Not even an insane beggar man.
“Off with you!” cried Arthur, “Off I say!” The beggar man straightened up again, like he’d done with William. “Come on sir, come on! Gimme your money –“
Arthur cut the old man’s rant short. “Off I said! To the devil with you!” he roared, throwing the man away from him.
The beggar fell with a cry, lay frozen where he’d landed for a second, and then was back up on his feet and shuffling away from them as if nothing had happened.
“Alms, alms, for a pitiful old man…” His wailing died out as he got further away. Arthur tore his gaze away from the man’s retreating back and looked back to William, who was staring at him warily.
“Pardon me sir,” William said carefully, “but there’s no need to fear the likes of him. He’s only a half-crazed beggar man, Camelot’s full of them.”
Arthur sighed heavily. He had overreacted a bit. “I beg your indulgence, William. My mind is far from easy.” He looked around at the bleak town, and then at his young friend. “For in these once familiar streets, I feel the chill of ghostly shadows. Forgive me.”
“There is nothing to forgive.” William replied easily. Arthur smiled slightly.
“Farewell then, William.” He turned to go.
“Mr. De Rege , before we part…”
“What is it?”
William appeared to hesitate a moment. There was something, it seemed, that he wanted to say, but was not quite sure how to say it.
“Mr. De Rege ,” he began again, “I have
honoured my promise never to question you. Whatever brought you to that sorry shipwreck is your affair
and yet, over the many weeks of our voyage home, I've come to think of you as a
And if trouble lies ahead for you in London, if you need any help…” he hesitated again, “…or money…”
“No!” Arthur looked away. He did not have much left, he knew, but he still had his pride. Agravaine and Morgana may have stolen my life from me, but they will not take that, he thought. Agravaine and Morgana. Even the thought of their names made him snarl in anger.
William was staring at him now, and suddenly Arthur wanted to yell it all out, scream his injustices to the world.
“There’s a whole in the world like a great black pit,” he snarled, thinking of the citizens around him whom he hated, “and the vermin of the world inhabit it, and their morals aren’t worth what a pig could spit, and it goes by the name of Camelot. At the top of the hole sit the traitors and liars and scumbags, making a mockery of anything or anyone good. They turn beauty into filth and greed,”
He took a step closer to William, who looked afraid but Arthur was too caught up in his rant to notice. “I, too, have sailed the world and seen its wonders,” he sneered, “for the cruelty of men is as wondrous as the Far East, but there is no place like Camelot!” He spat the words out furiously, and then came to his senses as quickly as he lost them.
Arthur looked at William’s alarmed face and sighed heavily. He really owed the boy some answers now. “Long ago, there was…. There was a king. A foolish king and his queen. And she was beautiful. She was his reason and his life, and she was…beautiful.”
A bolt of pain shot through Arthur as he thought of her. Gwen. Beautiful, incredible Gwen. He hadn’t seen her in so long. “And she was virtuous,” he continued, “And the king, he was…” He searched for the right word. “…naïve.” Yes. That was what he had been. Naïve to have trusted Agravaine, foolish to think that he could ever win against him and Morgana.
“The king and the queen lived in the castle with -,” His voice cracked and he stopped, composed himself, “with the Court Sorcerer. The queen and the Court Sorcerer were best friends, indeed, but he and the king….They were brothers. They loved each other like brothers, and would readily die for one another.” Arthur closed his eyes briefly.
This was worse, in a way, than the pain of missing Gwen. He had longed to see his best friend for twenty years, to hear a joke, or a reassuring word of kindness. Something to pass away the days of fear and pain. But he still continued with the story. “The Court Sorcerer protected the king and queen, and Camelot, from all kinds of evil for many years.
“Together they ruled over Camelot peacefully and wisely and lived in harmony with the other kingdoms and with magic. But then…there was another man. A vicious vulture of a man – the king’s uncle. And with a gesture of his claw, he removed the king from his rightful place. He was in league with an evil witch, and worked his way into the king’s trust.”
After that, the traitor didn’t even have to try. There was nothing for him to do but wait. And the Queen, she would fall - so soft, so young, so lost and so beautiful…”
He cut himself off, not wanting to give away too much.
Arthur couldn’t even begin to tell the young man before him that the evil witch was his sister, whom he had loved with all his heart. Had. He remembered that night, that awful night, in perfect clarity.