Chapter 1 - The door
Allan turned around in his bed, hoping to block out the light of day a little longer by pulling the blankets and pillow both over his head. It was of course no use at all. The daylight crept in whether he liked it or not.
'Get out,' his wife told him. 'You're on duty today.'
Didn't he know it. Allan was a guard in the castle of Camelot, and quite a senior one at that. He had the command over two dozen men if his superior called in sick, which he did quite a lot, although it was up for discussion as to how he came to be ill so often. Most fellow guards suspected his alcohol consumption had something to do with it.
'I don't want to,' he moaned, tugging the pillow tighter over his head, conveniently forgetting how childish that sounded.
His wife however had no compassion for him. She roughly shoved him out of the bed and onto the stone floor, making him shout an incoherent protest. But he was out now anyway, so he'd better get dressed before he froze. Winter held Camelot tightly in its grip and he was scheduled to spend the day standing still. To make it even worse he was forced to stand still outside, in front of the main entrance to the castle. By the time he would come home he was likely to have forgotten that he had actually fingers, feet, ears and nose attached to his body.
But that was not the worst part, he admitted to himself as he dressed and snatched some cold breakfast to eat as he made his way to the castle. The cold he could handle. He was used to it and at least he had his wife's delicious cooking to look forward to at the end of the day. No, the worst part was that he had to stand guard duty with a new guy. No, forget the guy. He was all but a boy, not even out of his teens. Allan had seen him the previous day when he had first reported: one piece of energy and enthusiasm, eager to do his duty to king and kingdom. Unfortunately he was also as naïve as he was enthusiastic, with no clue as to how things were done in Camelot. And of course it would be up to Allan to explain everything. He would have moaned again had there not been anyone else in sight.
He reported to his superior, who failed to be ill today of all days. Had he been absent Allan might have been able to get someone else to stand in for him, which not only saved him from spending the day with the new boy, but also had the added bonus of spending the day inside, by the hot fire.
One look at the kid was enough to confirm his worst assumptions about the latest recruit. He was practically bouncing up and down, shaking Allan's hand with more enthusiasm than anyone had a right to be so early in the morning.
'What do we do today, sir?' the youngster asked. He might have been asking that before. Allan couldn't be sure. The boy hadn't shut up since he had walked into his line of sight. The elderly guard had only picked up the most relevant information, like the boy's name (Tom) and age (eighteen years and seven months to be exact).
'We guard the door,' Allan replied with calm dignity, hoping the boy would take the hint and look at it as an example of how a guard of Camelot should behave.
The enthusiasm wavered a bit for a moment, before coming back in full strength, although it did look a bit forced now. 'That sounds interesting, sir.'
Poor guy. He had no idea, had he? Allan assumed he was just one of those naïve kids who believed they were destined to save the realm from dangerous monsters and get knighted for their troubles. Allan had seen his like come and go over the years. Some of them grew up eventually, others, most of them, left disappointed when they realised that being a guard wasn't quite that heroic.
He measured Tom up as they took their positions next to the door, each taking one side. By the looks of things Tom would not last a week here. He was already shivering with the cold, looking rather crestfallen when he realised there was not a monster in sight. Allan smiled smugly. Not what you expected, is it, lad?
Unfortunately his smugness was short-lived, because a magical creature with wings landed in the courtyard and made for the people in it. The elderly guard sighed wearily. He should have been expecting something like this might happen. After all, it had been two full weeks since the last attack had taken place. If his memory had served him right it had been an evil sorcerer that time who had, how predictably, gone after the king. Ten to one this thing, whatever it was supposed to be, had set its sights on him as well.
He watched quite relaxed as the civilians quite organised ran for cover. It was nothing new to them either, so the running had become something of a routine for them. Nobody was actually panicking. They saved that for when something really dangerous, like Morgana, made an appearance.
No, the only one panicking here was Tom. He stared at Allan with wide eyes. 'Why are you standing there?' he demanded.
Allan corrected his assessment of the recruit's state of mind. He wasn't panicking, he was anxious to do something. He moaned, out loud this time. That kind was usually the worst. 'Because we are guarding the door,' he replied calmly.
'But those people…?' The tone was now more puzzled than anything else.
'Can take care of themselves,' Allan finished. Most of them had cleared out of here anyway.
'And the monster?' The boy had grabbed his weapon tightly. The will to fight was burning in his eyes. Oh, he was really eager, this one. 'Shouldn't we try and kill it?'
Allan calmly shook his head, taking one look at the monster who had taken to terrorising the only group of people still in the square. The monster had them cornered and some of them were starting to show signs of alarm. 'No,' he answered. 'That's what the knights are for.'
'But those people are in danger!' The tone was laced with righteous indignation. Tom really had a lot still left to learn.
He sighed. 'The knights will be here any minute now,' Allan told the kid. And when he once again got an incredulous look for that statement he added: 'Let's say we do it your way and we attack the monster, then who will guard the door?'
The youngster clearly hadn't thought about that. A deep frown appeared on his forehead. 'Nobody, sir.'
'That's right,' Allan nodded. 'So that is why we stay here and guard the door.' Maybe this was his lucky day after all. Tom seemed to get it already.
But of course he wasn't that lucky. A thoughtful look had appeared in Tom's eyes. 'And if the monster makes for this door?'
Allan was tempted to roll his eyes at the obvious hopefulness in the boy's voice and eyes. 'Then we may fight it,' he admitted.
Of course it didn't come to that. It never did. It was only ten seconds later that the Knights of the Round Table rushed out into the courtyard, led by the young king Arthur, who, naturally, took the lead in the attack. The whole scene was so horribly predictable that he seriously considered doing something more interesting than watching the fight, like counting birds or something like that.
But he thought of the impression that might make on his new recruit and decided against it. Let's not push it on his first day. So he watched the fight, noting with interest that this time it was sir Gwaine and not king Arthur who was the last man standing. But eventually and inevitably he too was flung through the air, landing on the ground in an unconscious heap.
'Sir?' Tom sounded a bit frightened now. 'They're all down, sir!'
Allan leaned on his spear with practised ease. 'I can see that.'
'So, what do we do now, sir?'
'Now we guard the door,' Allan responded.
'But…' Tom seemed to be at a loss for words. 'What about the knights? The people? The monster?'
He began to get a little impatient now. 'Has the monster made for this door, Tom?'
'Then we remain at our post. Merlin will take care of the rest.'
Now that caused the kid's eyebrows to shoot up. 'Merlin?'
'The king's manservant,' Allan clarified. 'I think he will be here soon. Ah, there he is.'
And indeed said servant rushed through the door into the square, took in the scene and then made a beeline for the king. 'Arthur!' he shouted in a tone that suggested that the world had just ended.
Allan snorted. Didn't that boy know better by now? King Arthur was never killed by a magical monster before. He wouldn't suddenly start doing so now.
But at least Merlin wasn't the only one feeling distressed today. Tom too was obviously on edge, staring at the scene with wide eyes. His entire posture betrayed he would like to do nothing more than to run out there and skewer the monster and save the day, although how he thought to succeed at that when even the knights had failed was entirely beyond Allan.
'Can't we do something?' he all but begged.
'We are doing something,' Allan pointed out. 'We are guarding the door.' This was why he hated working with new recruits. They never seemed to be able to get their priorities right. All they ever wanted to do was slaying monsters and be hailed a hero. But the Camelot guard was no place for heroes. That was a prerogative of the knights and king. The guards only did their duty and would never get any credit for it. And the sooner Tom learned that, the better it would be for him.
'But we should be helping them!' Tom exclaimed, forgetting all his dignity – not that he had any to begin with – and throwing his hands in the air in exasperation.
'No, we should not,' Allan disagreed. 'The commander told us we should guard the door so that is what we shall be doing and nothing else.'
Tom's incoherent protest died away as the monster demanded their attention once again.
It had now spotted Merlin and made to attack him. The manservant glared at the beast. 'You will not touch him,' he stated, moving protectively in front of the king.
The beast growled and moved closer, which was a very foolish thing to do in Allan's opinion. Tom however seemed to fear more for Merlin than for the beast. He held his spear so tightly his knuckles turned white.
'Go away,' Merlin warned the monster. 'I won't let you touch him.'
The monster unwisely ignored that too, moving ever closer.
'Then you leave me no choice,' Merlin sighed. He held out his hand and blasted the monster to pieces without batting as much as an eyelid. Then he calmly grabbed the king and started to drag him away, no doubt to take him to see Gaius, as usual.
In the meantime Tom appeared to suffer a heart attack. His face was a deathly pale and he looked like he had seen a ghost, still staring at the spot where the monster had been only a minute ago.
'You all right, lad?' Allan asked.
'He… he used magic!' the boy stammered.
'I am well aware,' the elderly guard nodded.
The frown was firmly back in place now. 'Shouldn't we be telling someone?'
Now it was Allan's turn to frown. 'And why on earth would we do that?' he wondered.
'Well, magic is outlawed, isn't it, sir?' The kid looked at him as if he was one hundred percent convinced his superior had lost his mind.
'Were you ordered to report a case of magic, Tom?' Allan asked patiently.
'No, sir.' He looked quite taken aback by that. 'But…'
Allan cut him off. 'Indeed,' he said forcefully. 'You were ordered to guard the door, and that is what you shall do.'
It really wasn't that hard to understand, was it? In fact, it always was very simple to Allan. But Tom gave the, probably very accurate impression, of someone who just had his world turned upside down. 'But…' he began again.
The elderly guard now felt something of pity for him. After all, it was only his first day. He could go easy on him just this once and so he decided to share some guards wisdom with him. 'What do you think we guards are here for, Tom?'
'To protect the kingdom.' The answer was immediate and without hesitation.
'No, we are here to guard things,' Allan corrected. 'You were told that upon arrival, weren't you?'
'Yes, sir.' The boy was clearly disappointed.
'That is what we do,' Allan explained. 'We guard this kingdom. Today we guard the door, but there is always something else that we guard as well.'
Now that peeked Tom's interest. 'And what is that, sir?'
Allan was a little surprised he even needed to ask. 'Why, secrets of course!' he exclaimed.
Some understanding now started dawning on Tom's face indeed. He nodded thoughtfully. 'I see,' he said.
'That's right,' Allan said, relieved that it took so little to make the boy see sense. He had taken him for one of those stubborn I-want-to-save-the-world kind of guy. He might just be lucky. 'So, what will you do now?'
And Tom straightened his back, raised his head and held his spear up right. 'I will guard the door, sir.'
And Allan smiled. He would go far in this job.