“The King is dead, long live the King”. The old man stood in the centre of the small congregation of men, close to a flat stone altar. The walls of the cavern were moist and dripped with tiny droplets of condensation which chased each other as they traced the contours of the rock. The sound of silence within the cavern was broken by the relentless pressure of water falling from the damp ceiling onto the floor below and mixing with small puddles which scattered over the rough terrain of the cavern surface. The old man approached the altar and adjusted his stained robes over his body, the lines on his face etched in with sorrow and masked by a dirty greying beard which fell over the ragged clothing which hid his wiry body.
The light from a flaming torch cast shadows up the walls of the cavern and thrust the varying aspects of the twisted figures across the walls. The old man placed his hands on the edge of the stone altar and sank his head deep into his chest and breathed heavily, “My liege...” he whispered as he sank to his knees.
“Merlin” whispered one of the figures circling the alter. He pulled himself from the shadows and placed his hands gently on the shoulders of the old man. The light from the torch played across his battered body armour, as he knelt quietly by his side.
“Galahad...” said the old man softly, “please...I am fine”. Galahad nodded his understanding but remained in position by the old man. He looked at the Knight and stared into his eyes, his own filling with salty water. “Why?”
The question fell upon deaf ears as Galahad sadly shook his head in response, “I am sorry, I truly am but I cannot answer”
“He was like a son to me” complained Merlin as he knelt in the moisture by the alter, tears trickling freely from his eyes and mixing with the grime on his face and disappearing into the strands of his facial hair. He searched Galahad’s face and peered deep into the Knight’s eyes as though searching his very soul, before tracing a line toward the remaining five figures still hidden by the darkness. Slowly he raised himself to his feet, summoning the last vestiges of energy and forced himself to turn his attention to the six men in his company. He sighed heavily and rested his hands on the altar and stared down at the sombre scene before him. Galahad pulled himself away from Merlin and joined his fellow Knights scattered around the edge of the cavern. His vision was drawn to the figure lying on the altar before him and as tears blurred his eyesight he could feel the energy draining from his body.
The figure before him on the alter was bequeathed in the finery expected of a figure of his position. The fine embroidery threaded through his armour sparkled and shone in the dim light of the cavern. The armour that he wore was laced with golden trim across the breastplate, gauntlets and helmet and a simple golden crown rested around the crest of the helmet. The figure held a large sword between his gauntleted hands, which lay impressively almost the entire length of the figures body. The figures around the altar all held their heads bowed in respect as Merlin circled the altar and the prone figure resting upon the stone.
“Galahad...” he started as he looked toward the Knight, “Gawain, Kay, Tristan, Bedivere, Percival” his eyes flicked and played upon each figure as he spoke, “we few come here to respect the final resting place of our King, Arthur Pendragon” his voice wobbled and tremored with emotion as he spoke. “Here deep within Avalon, we pay tribute to the gracious King of the Britons, cruelly taken from us in battle” he placed a hand on the forehead of the figure and breathed in the dank atmosphere of the surroundings studying the faces of the Knights surrounding their King. “We few, and we alone know of the King’s death...we are the final survivors of Camlaan and to this end it is with the power’s bestowed me that I declare that none may know of this...” he stared at each Knight in defiance to the decree.
“But, Merlin” started Gawain, the light bouncing off his prominent green armour.
“No, Gawain.” reaffirmed Merlin, “For the safety of Briton and the sanctity of its people, no-one but us must know of the King’s demise”
“Surely, Merlin” said a new voice. “Gawain is right, the peoples of the nation should have the right to mourn the death of our Liege”
Merlin walked around the alter and looked into the eyes of the young Knight who had raised his concerns. “My Lord Tristan” he said gently, “as we have seen, there are forces abroad across the country that are waiting for the opportunity to seize the throne for their own ends” he turned and raised his arms high above his head and moved before the altar and his King. “Morgan Le Fay, Lancelot, Balin...all wait for the opportunity to lay siege to the Kingdom, if any of these have any idea that the King is dead, then chaos will straddle the land”. He paused allowing his words to sink in before continuing, “we must for the safety of Briton lead the people to believe that the King is alive and well”
“My Father would not lay claim to the throne” protested Galahad.
“I am sorry Lord Galahad, but it was his actions with Queen Guinevere that led to Mordred uprising” he looked kindly at the Knight, “Your bravery and dedication to the King is noble my Lord, but your Father is a danger to the Kingdom. You must not contact him; do you understand?”
Galahad nodded his understanding, “Today I have lost a King and a father” he commented.
“I do not wish to cause you any increased heartache, but what I say is for the greater good”
“Will people not question the King’s absence?” asked Gawain. Merlin considered the question, the thought had not struck him until now...but yes, people would. He would be conspicuous in his absence, both at court and throughout the country.
“It known widespread that the King and Mordred were to battle at Camlaan...” began Merlin cautiously, “both armies are now laid to waste, with only we seven as survivors” he circled the cavern as he spoke, his arms folded behind his back as he considered his words carefully. He stopped and gazed down the winding tunnel which stretched to the thin opening in the distance at the far end of the tunnel and spoke into the open space. “The King has been injured during battle and has withdrawn his person...here to Avalon to recover” he turned back to the waiting throng of Knights. The Knight stood in silent respect around the body of the King lying on the altar. Merlin approached the body and reached forward toward the body and pulled the sword from the figure’s grasp. “My Lord Bedivere” he spoke softly. A tall figure moved from the edge of the waiting group and knelt before the figure of Merlin. “Take Excalibur...” he said and held the sword out in his outstretched hands toward Bedivere.
The Knight looked up from his position on the floor and stared at the mighty blade resting in the palms of Merlin. “...return it to the Lady”. Bedivere stood and took the sword from Merlin and pulled the object close to his body. “She will be waiting”
“The scabbard?” Bedivere queried.
“That will be looked after...” he trailed off and peered down the tunnel. Through the shadows Merlin watched as s shape detached itself from the tunnel wall and pulled itself along the uneven floor.
“The Fisher King...” whispered Kay.
“Yes” confirmed Merlin, “the Fisher King”
“Is this wise!” demanded Kay watching the figure as it dragged itself down the corridor.
Merlin nodded and glanced between the oncoming figure and Sir Kay, “He is the keeper of the Holy Grail, I see no-one better than to care for the scabbard”.
The figure entered the cavern and stretched itself to its full height in the confined space. The figure stood at eight feet, water dripping from its body, swathed in old rags and an elongated robe flowing from his body. A small plain chalice hung from a belt around his waist and as one hand clutched desperately at a large stick to aid his walking, the other snaked its way to the vessel. “My Lord Merlin” he stated simply in a muted tone.
Merlin walked to the figure and held his hands out in his direction, “my old friend” he gushed as he gripped the hand of the Fisher King. “The years have not been kind to you” he offered as he considered the figure before him.
The Fisher King glanced down at his body, “my wounds have not yet healed...but one day”
“I am sorry, but you are cursed to protect the Holy Grail” apologised Merlin, “for that you must bear your wounds as a symbol of honour"
“I wait for the day...” said the Fisher King sadly.
“How can this...this...cripple protect the scabbard!” demanded Kay, “please Merlin, reconsider. Allow me to protect its honour”
“No...it has to be the Fisher King” said Merlin softly, “he bears the weight of responsibility to protect the Grail, who better to protect the scabbard as well?”
“I refute your logic Merlin” stated Kay reluctantly, “but I accept your wisdom and your decision”. He watched as Merlin presented the Fisher King with the scabbard, “the scabbard is worth ten of the sword” he breathed quietly as he handed over the leather bound object into the deformed hands of the Fisher King who bowed his head in silent acknowledgement. “One day...” he whispered quietly toward the giant before him, “you will be called on again...until then you must sleep and guard this item with your life”
“I understand” replied the Fisher King and slowly he turned and dragged his form down the tunnel, leaning heavily on the stick and disappeared down the tunnel.
Merlin turned back to the attending Knights, “Be about your business” he said, “and guard this country. Your King needs you now more than ever” he glanced toward the body on the altar and lowered his head. “One day my friends...one day the King will resurrect and we must be ready” he trailed off and walked slowly toward the back of the cavern and lowered himself onto a large damp stone, the moisture staining his clothing. One by one, the Knights quietly bowed and left the figure of Merlin in quiet contemplation with his King.
“One day” mused Merlin, “One day..."