“There was a king and his queen. And he was beautiful. A proper king, kind and compassionate, but also wise and brave. But he was banished from England for life. And he was...beautiful.”
Arthur felt a little uncomfortable listening to the obvious infatuation this woman had had with him when he was king, of which he had been completely unaware.
“Pendragon, his name was,” she was saying, “Arthur Pendragon.”
“What was his crime?” Arthur was curious to know what his traitorous citizens thought he had done.
Mrs. Howden smiled mysteriously. “Foolishness.” At Arthur’s confused face, she carried on.
“He had this uncle, you see. Clever man. The Pendragons trusted him, but he turned out to be in league with the witch Morgana. They invaded the castle, killed all the knights, and took the king, queen, and the king’s best friend, the Court Sorcerer, prisoner. Merlin – that was the sorcerer’s name, Merlin. He lived in that room upstairs.”
“Go on,” Arthur growled, his whole body tense.
Mrs. Howden laughed. “My, you do like a good story, don’t you?” At the unamused look on Arthur’s face, she carried on hurriedly.
“Well, the witch placed an enchantment on Merlin so that he couldn’t use magic. It was supposed to be temporary, but when she was killed in the battle, it was made permanent. So, the king was shipped off south, poor blighter, the queen was locked in the tower, and the sorcerer...
“Well, he was weaker without his magic, so the uncle let him go. Left him with nothing but grief and a load of spellbooks.”
“And what then?” asked Arthur desperately.
“Ah, there was worse yet to come, poor thing.” She leaned in closer, caught up in her tale.
“The uncle’s chief guard, Drustan, calls on him a few days later, all polite like. King Agaravaine, he says, is so contrite, regrets what he did. Wants to make it up to him, and he has to come straight to the castle tonight. I don’t think Merlin believed him, but he goes anyway. Says he has nothing to lose.
“Of course, when he goes there, poor thing, the castle is completley deserted, and littered with the bodies of his friends. He wanders about for hours, tormented. He thinks Agravaine is remorseful, he can’t think straight because of his grief, and he walks the castle, screaming for King Agravaine.”
Arhur wanted to be sick. What Merlin had been through...he could hardly think about it. Mrs. Howden’s voice got higher and faster as she became engrossed in her story.
“Well, Agravaine was there alright...only not so repentant. He finally stumbles upon this room, and he’s immediately seized by guards. Then Agravaine comes out of the shadows, dragging the body of one of the knights, one of his closest friends.
“He’d thought this knight had been killed, but he was still alive, and he was forced to watch as his friend was tortured to death in front of him.”
She paused for a moment, for the first time looking upset at the story. Arthur couldn’t breathe. Which knight had it been, that had died so horrifically? And for Merlin to witness it...
“He never told me exactly what they did, but it was horrific things. The worst way to die, he said. Anyway, so once it was over, and the knight was dead, Agravaine walked over to him, and crouched down in front of him, and said that if he ever did anything to threaten his kingdom, he would do the exact same thing to the queen.”
Arthur couldn’t take any more.
“NO!” he roared wildly, leaping up and striding to Mrs. Howden. He yanked her out of her seat and pressed her against the wall, his face right next to hers. “Would no one help them?” he snarled.
Mrs. Howden didn’t look terrified, like he expected, or even afraid. Just amazed.
“So it is you,” she breathed, “Arthur Pendragon.”
Arthur didn’t care that she knew who he was anymore. “No!” he snarled vehemently, “Not Pendragon. That man is dead. It’s De Rege now. Adalet De Rege . Where is he?”
“So changed!” breathed Mrs. Howden, amazed. “What did they do to you down there in bloody Seres or wherever?”
“Where is he?” he cried again, letting her go and sinking on to a seat, “Where is Merlin?”
Mrs. Howden looked at him carefully, and sat down opposite. “Poisoned himself,” she replied, “Arsenic from the apothecary round the corner.”
Arthur let out an agonized moan, his head in his hands. He was too late. Too late to save his friend, who had saved his life so many times.
“I tried to stop him, but he wouldn’t listen to me.”
“And my wife?”
“Guinevere? He’s still got her.”
She nodded. “Keeps her in a room in the castle. I suppose he didn’t have the heart to kill her, and he didn’t want her organising a revolution or something. Adopted her as his ward.”
Arthur sat and absorbed this sickening news.
“Twenty years,” he growled, “sweating in a living hell. Twenty years dreaming I might come home to my wife and my friend.”
But even as he said it, he realised that he’d always known that was never a possiblility. It had only given him hope and kept him going through the years of loneliness.
He hit the counter in fury. “Let them quake in their boots – Agravaine and Drustan – for their hour has come!”
Mrs. Howden stared at him, half awed, half incredulous.
“You’re going to – get ‘em?” she said, “You? A bleeding little nobody of a runaway convict? Don’t make me laugh! You’ll never get His ‘igh and Mightiness! Nor Drustan neither. Not in a million years!”
There was no reaction from Arthur.
“You got any money?”
Arthur simply stared broodingly into the fire.
“Listen to me! You got any money?”
“No money,” Arthur said eventually.
“Then how you going to live, even?”
“I’ll live,” Arthur muttered grimly, “If I have to beg from the gutter, I’ll live – and I’ll have them.”
There was a long silence, and then Mrs. Howden gasped suddenly.
“I’ve just remembered!” she cried, and raced out. She returned quickly, holding a long wooden box wrapped in a red cloth.
Arthur stared at it uncomprehendingly as she placed on the table with reverence.
“See! It don’t have to be the sewers. I hid it, you see, for Merlin,” she explained as she unwrapped it, oblivious to Arthur flinching at the mention of the warlock. “He brought it back after the battle, said he couldn’t let Agravaine get his hands on it. I promised him I’d look after it. You can work, maybe teach fighting!”
She took the lid off, and Arthur’s jaw dropped. He reached out, his hands shaking.
“I don’t believe it,” he breathed. He gently picked up his sword and gazed at it, reading the inscription along the side.
“It’s chased silver, ain’t it?” Mrs. Howden whispered excitedly.
“Silver, yes,” Arthur replied vaguely, barely listening anymore. “This is my friend.” Now he was almost talking to himself, nearly unaware that Mrs. Howden was even there. “See how it glistens, and shines, and smiles in the light. My faithful friend.”
Mrs. Howden looked at him a little strangely, but he hardly noticed. He ran his hand along the edge of the blade, feeling how sharp it was.
“Speak to me, friend,” he smiled for what felt like the first time in years, “Whisper, I’ll listen. I know, I know – you’ve been locked out of sight all these years. Like me, my friend!”
He couldn’t contain his
joy at having his sword back. At last, he felt like something good had
happened. He felt like he belonged.
“I’ve come home!” he laughed joyfully, “To find you waiting! Home, and we’re together, and we’ll do wonders. Won’t we?” He laughed again, thinking about his beautiful sword killing Agravaine.
Mrs. Howden stepped forward, almost in a trance of her own – a trance of infatuation with Arthur.
“Ah, my friend. Let me hold you.”
“I’m your friend too, Mr. De Rege ,” she said quietly, “If you only knew.”
“Rest now, my clever friend. Soon I’ll use you.”
“You’ve come home!” Mrs. Howden smiled comfortingly, “Always had a fondness for you, I did.”
“Soon, you’ll know splendors you never have dreamed all your days!”
“Never you fear, Mr. De Rege . You can move in here.”
“My lucky friend. Till now, your shine was merely silver.” He smiled to himself as he imagined his revenge.
“Friend, you shall drip rubies,” he hissed, his eyes glinting, “You’ll soon drip precious rubies.”
“I’m your friend. And you’re mine,” Mrs. Howden touched his shoulder gently, and finally looked at the sword, rather than at Arthur. “Doesn’t it shine beautiful?” she whispered, “Silver’s good enough for me, Mr. D.”
Arthur raised Excalibur high in the air, watching it shine in the candlelight.
“At last!” He laughed out loud, for the first time in 20 years full of joy. “My arm is complete again!”