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"Arthur's Bane"

 by Wayne Faust  

© 2013 by Wayne Faust
All rights reserved

 

Merlin!

            King Arthur was doing what he always did when he found himself in a rather tight spot. He was calling for his Wizard.

            The landscape around Arthur had changed in the blink of an eye. Again. Yes, the new scenery carried with it a certain rugged beauty. Waves crashed far below the bluff where he was standing. A bracing, salt spray blew into his face. But this was not northeastern England where he had been just moments before. This was as remote a place as he had ever seen. But he recognized it for he had once campaigned here with his knights.

            “Merlin, what are we doing in Wales?” said Arthur to Merlin, who had just raced up the hill.

Wheezing, Merlin tugged on his beard and scrunched up his face like a man who has just bitten into a gooseberry. “I don’t fancy it any more than you do, My Lord, but here we stand.”

            “But Welsh? Am I now supposed to be King of the Welsh then?”

            “Apparently so, Your Highness.”

            “But there are not sufficient vowels in Wales! As King, must I now be expected to pronounce words like Pontrhydfendigaid? Or Nantyffyllon? You must be joking.”

            “I only wish I was, Your Eminence.”

            Arthur sighed heavily and glanced back at the towers of the Camelot fortress, which had also just been transplanted from England to this bleak place. The towers were no longer majestic, having gotten at least twelve makeovers since the Days of Olde. Now they were some sort of pointy abominations made out of white canvas.

            “What has happened to the towers this time?” asked Arthur.

            “They are more energy efficient this way, Exalted One,” muttered Merlin, and as usual, Arthur had no idea what the man was talking about.

Arthur longed for the days when towers were made out of good English stone. Actually, he was longing for a whole world full of things.

            “Why does everything have to continually change?” pleaded Arthur. “Should I not be able to fight Saxons as in Days of Yore, protecting English civilization against the invaders and all that?”

            Merlin shrugged his stooped shoulders, shifted his purple Wizard’s hat, and pointed up at the sky. “It’s Them,” he said.

             “Them?” said Arthur, “I thought we only worshiped one God. At least since we became Christians.”

            “They’re not gods, Your Grace. They’re just Them.”

            “Who?” asked Arthur.

            “Them,” answered Merlin. “The people that decide these things.”

            “But who are they and why do they keep making me do these things?” asked Arthur. “First I’m a hero - a young boy pulling Excalibur from the stone when all the best warriors in the Realm cannot. Then I’m wielding the sword as a young man, winning battle after battle, single-handedly slaying 960 of my enemies in one day. Blood and guts everywhere. Extremely distasteful but somehow satisfying.

“The next thing I know, I’m forsaking campaigning all together to chase all over creation with my knights, looking for a dish. Or a cup. Nobody knows what it actually was because we were never able to find it. I wasted a lot of time on that one.

“And then I found myself dressed like a namby-pamby, bowing down to maidens while lutes played and Lancelot ran off with my wife. The flower of chivalry and all that rot.

“But then it got worse. Suddenly I was breaking into songs of romance at the slightest prompting. Songs to Guinevere. Songs to the weather. Even songs to Camelot. I was singing songs to my own house! Court musicians around every corner to accompany me. Positively beastly! But they made me do it. I simply could not stop.

“And now this. King Arthur a Welshman? What a miserable way to spend my final days.”

Merlin brightened. “Oh, these aren’t your final days, Your Greatness. You’ll never see your final days, if you don’t mind my saying. They’ll always bring you back, won’t they then?”

“Every story must come to an end, no matter how bold,” muttered Arthur.

“Not your story. Or mine, for that matter. Things will simply change.”

“But that is the problem in a nutshell,” complained Arthur. “Every time I get used to something, it changes. I think there is a voice in the sky that says, ‘‘ere you go Arthur! Put on these tights, that’s a good lad! If you bloody hell don’t like ‘em - too bad! And when you get used to tights, we’ll change ‘em into knickers! Because we know better!’”

Merlin chuckled in spite of himself. He had never seen his King this worked up before. Nor had he ever heard him use the colloquial accent.

“You’ll get used to it like always, Your Wonderfulness,” said Merlin soothingly.

Arthur shook his head. “How can I get used to anything when things are changing faster than ever? Was it not just a few years ago when we roamed the countryside on pretend horses with people throwing dead cows over the walls at us? Brilliant! Why don’t we put Arthur in a comedy? The people were laughing at me. Laughing! The great Arthur, Slayer of the Saxons, turned into an object of ridicule. And now this…Welsh thing. It seems to have come out of nowhere.”

Merlin pursed his lips. “Yes, events do seem to be accelerating. Maybe it’s because there are more of Them now.”

“But who are they?”

“They are Them.”

Arthur grunted. “That is terrible grammar, Merlin.”

Merlin continued patiently. “Them are the ones who decide things. I can’t discern all the details. I just know that they’re multiplying, each one looking for new ways to reinvent us. They’re making movies about us. And TV shows. Not to mention internet blogs. And tweets.”

Arthur covered his bushy head with his hands. “Whatever are you talking about? Are you speaking Welsh?”

“No, Your Wiseness. It’s English. Sort of. From America.”

“America?” asked Arthur. “Where is that?”

“It’s after your time. You’re not supposed to know.”

Arthur grunted. “If America is after my time, then by definition I am dead. But you said that they will always bring me back again.”

“And so they did.”

“Very well. So now I can know what is going on and you can answer my questions.”

“You can only know things to a certain point, Your Graciousness. If you knew everything, you might rebel against Them and go your own way.”

“I always go my own way – I’m the bloody King, aren’t I? Master of all I survey!”

“You can only survey what you can see, My Lord. You cannot see Them. Even I cannot see Them. Even with my magic.”

Arthur’s face began to turn as red as a plague sore. He made a sound in the back of his throat like a rooting pig. He began to pace the edge of the bluff and mutter to himself. Merlin was afraid he would actually jump off the edge. But he didn’t.

“Am I still King?” asked Arthur finally.

“Indubitably so, Your Exaltedness.”

“King of the Welsh then?”

“Apparently.”

“Then I still have power.” It was a statement, not a question.

In counterpoint to the King’s words, a wave crashed loudly on the rocks below. Arthur seemed to gather strength from the sound. He took a deep breath and thrust out his chest. He looked off to the west, out over the churning grey waves. He held Excalibur high into the air like he once had in front of an entire Saxon army. He thrust out his chin and shouted at the top of his lungs, his voice echoing.

“I am Arthur, Conqueror of Saxons and Subjugator of Scots! On this day, the Year of Our Lord…” he paused and looked at Merlin questioningly.

“I’m not sure what year it is, Your Powerfulness,” answered Merlin. “With all the changes, I’ve lost track.”

“Never mind then. On this day, in the Year of Our Lord whatever, I resolve to start a Great Crusade to find Them! And when I do find Them at last, I will slay Them, every last one of Them. And I will scatter their pitiful remains to the four winds so that they can never change anything again!

And with that, Arthur raced off the bluff and into the fortress of Camelot to prepare for battle as he had done so many times before.

Merlin watched him go and remained on the bluff alone, gazing down at the surf. He sighed. His job was to comfort the King but there were some times when even the most powerful Wizard was helpless in this regard. No one could stand against Them. Arthur had a better chance of finding the Grail.

But there was no more time to dwell on these great matters. For Merlin sensed something coming on fast, something very big moving in from the west like a winter gale. He knew instinctively that Arthur’s reign as King of the Welsh would be very short-lived indeed. In the next few minutes, a monumental change would come to Camelot that would dwarf everything that had come before.

An ominous rumbling could now be heard far out over the water, from way beyond Wales, from way beyond even Ireland. A wall of darkness was moving in quickly, changing everything in its path. Like a tidal wave it came, engulfing the whole world. In seconds, it had engulfed Camelot. Again.

***

To Merlin, it had simply felt like a blink. One second he had been standing on the cliff over the water and the next second he was somewhere very different. Or rather, somewhere very different had come to him. The rocky, moss-covered ground beneath his feet had given way to some sort of smooth, hard, black surface. The ocean had disappeared, replaced with a jumble of streets and buildings. The sound of the wind had been replaced with a clamor and clanging that was louder than anything Merlin had ever heard, even in the midst of the fiercest battles.

Improbably, Merlin now found himself standing in the middle of a huge city. It was not a medieval city surrounded by stone walls, but a city of concrete and iron. Strange-looking four-wheeled carriages were parked everywhere along an endless maze of streets. There were a few trees, but they were not like the green trees of England. These trees mostly looked tired from trying to live in the noxious air.

Merlin, the greatest Wizard of all, was actually a bit nonplussed. This whole scenario was nearly beyond his vast knowledge, but not completely. And he was nothing if not adaptable. And like always, knowledge of the new situation came into Merlin’s head like magic, along with instructions. So after a few minutes, he laughed. Arthur was not going to believe this one. If the King had thought that the other changes were troublesome, wait until he beheld this latest incarnation. For by now Merlin knew what had happened. Moments ago, Arthur had been asking about America. And now America had come to them.

Merlin looked to the east where Arthur’s fortress had just been. It too had changed. Instead of a castle with canvas towers, it was now a very tall, dilapidated building with endless rows of windows, many of them broken or cracked. On the front of its worn brick façade were the words,

“CAMELOT TOWERS – CHICAGO HOUSING AUTHORITY.”

Merlin took off his Wizard’s hat, which had now become a wide-brimmed, blue cap with a red ‘C’ stitched on the front. But there was no time to ponder this. Once again, he would have to do his wizardly job. Lately he was becoming less and less Wizard and more and more Counselor. And his King was certainly going to need counseling now. Lots of it.

As Merlin looked on and tried not to laugh, Arthur staggered out of Camelot Towers. He was wearing baggy pants that sat halfway down his thighs, making him waddle like a duck. The top of his underwear was showing around his ample, royal behind. Instead of Excalibur, he was carrying some sort of tapered, wooden club. His neck was weighted down with enough shiny baubles on gold chains to rival the Crown Jewels of England. And as he weaved unsteadily towards Merlin, something like music was blaring from everywhere. It had no lilting, medieval melody. In fact, it had no melody at all. It was composed chiefly of throbbing beats, relentless bass notes, and shouted, angry words.

Arthur swayed in the middle of all this chaos, mouth opening and closing like a cod on the beach. His frightened eyes found Merlin’s and the Wizard was reminded of the small boy who had once pulled a sword out of a stone. Merlin was no longer amused, but took pity on his King. He walked forward and put his hand on Arthur’s shoulder.

“You’ve been given a new Quest,” said Merlin.

“Another Grail?” asked Arthur, eyes darting back and forth in misery and fear.

“Much more difficult this time,” said Merlin.

“Good God,” said Arthur. “What is it?”

“You are to gather eight knights and teach them to play a game.”

Arthur pursed his lips. “A game? As in jousting?”

“Something like that,” said Merlin. “And then you are to travel to the Field Of Wrigley to seek out the Sacred Ring.”

“It’s to be a ring this time? What kind of ring?”

“A ring that has been lost to this city for over a hundred years. A ring that can only be worn by Champions Of The World.”

Arthur’s face brightened in spite of himself. “Champions of the entire world? Of every realm and country?”

“Well, not exactly. It’s just champions of America but they like to flatter themselves.”

Arthur sighed. “I feel that this will be exceedingly difficult.”
            “You have no idea,” muttered Merlin. “But at least you still have Excalibur.”

Arthur looked at the wooden club in his hand. It was wide at one end and tapered at the other, with a natural, smooth handle. Words were carved into the wide part.

“Excalibur – Baseball Bat of Champions.”

Arthur wielded the club with both hands and swung it back and forth. “It feels rather formidable. Am I to hit my rivals over the head with this?”

“Not exactly,” said Merlin. “You’re supposed to hit a ball.”

“A ball? But where is the honor in that?”

“You’ll see,” Merlin assured him.

And then there was nothing else to do but seek out the eight knights and find their way to the Field of Wrigley. And then they would go for the Sacred Ring.

As the two of them walked along, or rather, as Merlin walked and Arthur waddled, Merlin looked up at the sky and whispered, “This is your stupidest idea yet.”

As usual, there was no answer.


            END

 

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