'Arthur' a man of legend inspired by an historical figure. Is the man the only aspect of the legend to be based on fact? What of his equally legendary blade?
The Dark Ages
6th Century AD, exact date unknown
Near Glastonbury, England
LEGENDS might never die, but they are always born out of death. In the space of a few hours, perhaps the last great bastion of Roman influence had been annihilated, cementing Britain’s place in the Dark Ages. What had once been a booming outpost of civilisation was now doomed to centuries of decline.
The Romans had conquered Britain during the reign of Domitian, nearly five centuries before. The primitive tribes of the island possessed valour and freedom without any established code of conduct or union amongst themselves. Time and again, they took up arms with a savage fierceness and then would lay them down without warning, or turn against each other in an instant. With this inconsistency in battle and their habit of fighting individually, they were easily defeated by a tactically thinking army. Caractacus, Boadicea and the Druids were able to avert the subjugation of their country and resist the progress of the Imperial forces. Led by the most dedicated generals in the world, they fought to maintain the glory of Rome, even when the weakest, the most vicious and the most despicable specimens of humanity disgraced the throne.
At the extreme northern reaches of the island, the Caledonians were alone in withstanding the onslaught of a continent-wide empire to preserve their independence. Repeated incursions by the Romans were attempted but, despite their lack of tactical skill, the Caledonians held out and the country of Scotland never fell. The strongest, most skilled army on Earth found their relentless advance brought to a halt by a group of filthy, savage barbarians who were ignorant in the ways of tactical warfare. The Roman generals from the fairest and wealthiest regions throughout Europe were forced to turn back from the gloomy hills with contempt. The cold, wet weather and the barren heaths disgusted the ‘civilised’ men as much as the sight of the primitives chasing deer through the forests.
Although Scotland retained its freedom, the rest of what would later become Great Britain found itself under the control of the Roman Empire for the next four centuries. Roman laws, beliefs, technology and civilisation were imposed upon the barbaric land. When the Empire fell and the Romans were forced to relinquish their grip on their extended African and European territories, they quickly fell victim to invasions from other lands that were nowhere near as advanced as the previous occupation forces had been.
Britain, partially due to her isolation as an island, was alone in maintaining a long and rigorous stand against the Scot, Pict and Saxon hordes. The Saxons in particular were a major threat to Britain’s newfound independence. Spreading out from the Saxony province of northern Germany, they brought with them a reputation for terrorising their neighbours. Having invaded Gaul on several occasions, they finally succeeded in crossing the English Channel, and then began their conquest of Britain. The Saxons would remain the dominant force in the country until Charlemagne eventually subdued them in 808AD.
Kent became the home of many Saxons and some were even employed by the British kings in fighting the Pict invasions. The first great Saxon leader to storm Britain had been Hengist, and he met such strong resistance that Kent became his only prize following thirty-five years of continual war. His attempt at conquest came to an end circa 488AD.
It was at about this time that Ambrosius Aurelian, a descendant of Roman nobility, acted as leader of the cast-off British realm. Aurelian was a successful general and quickly became a symbol of British resistance. In the end, his final disastrous defeat allowed the Saxons to consolidate their foothold on the island and set in motion a chain of events that would provide the foundation for Britain’s greatest legend.
Following Hengist’s death, his successor, Cerdic, was to become the next great Saxon leader and the main opponent of the next senior British general. Over his lifetime, he conquered the Isle of Wight and Hampshire before finally being defeated by General Arturius at the Battle of Mount Badon. He died soon after somewhere around 534AD.
First rising to prominence in 501AD, Arturius became something of a legend in his own right. For thirty-seven years and over the course of a dozen major battles, he inflicted a steady stream of defeats on the Angles in the north and the Saxons in the east. His campaign culminated in the victor at Mount Badon, which gave Arturius his greatest prize: London.
For years he had managed his armies and based his strategies around defensive requirements, such as the refurbished hill forts that had originally been constructed during the Roman occupation. His personal home, and centre of his own significant piece of territory, was a large Imperial fort that he had rebuilt and expanded at Cadbury. In fact, with his increasing fame throughout the country, a sizeable town began taking shape around the ancient building. As time went by, those people living in the areas controlled by Arturius started to look up to him as a king, something he had never intended to happen. In the end, his popularity with the people ensured that his fall from grace would be as spectacular as his rise to prominence had been.
As Arturius entered the final years of his life, the lands that he owned and presided over began to experience revolts. A series of droughts, floods, severe winters and outbreaks of disease ravaged the countryside. His subjects, perceiving him to be their king, placed the blame squarely on Arturius’ shoulders, in some cases reverting back to pagan practices. Those that still had faith in him expected him to put things right quickly.
If the difficulties being experienced by his kingdom weren’t a sufficient challenge for him to overcome, his marriage was in shambles after the revelations that his wife had been having an affair. The man in question was also Arturius’ protégé and heir-apparent after being taken under the Roman general’s tutelage years earlier. A combination of the two problems served to ruin his health, already failing due to his advancing years.
During a delirious spell, he had what he believed to be a vision from God. Under advisement from his oldest and wisest friend, Mallin, a man who had travelled the known earth and beyond, according to his stories, Arturius despatched the majority of his Council of Knights in search of the Holy Grail.
Some said that they succeeded in recovering it, whereas others claimed all the knights died during the search. However, regardless of success or failure, less than a year after his vision, Arturius began to recover from his variety of ailments. The situation throughout his lands also showed improvement and his people’s faith in him was restored as a result.
Realising that the improvement in his health was likely to be temporary, Arturius made the decision to try and rid Britain of the Saxon invaders once and for all. Expecting that it would be his last battle, Arturius took time out from preparing his battle plans to visit his wife’s chambers, where she had remained since news broke of her infidelity. Making his peace with her, they bade each other farewell for the last time.
The reason for Arturius to go to war with the Saxons once again had come following news of a new leader who had assumed control over most of their forces. Following Cerdic’s death, the Saxon armies had been lacking a ruler who could give them a direction following their defeat at Arturius’ hands. However, one of Arturius’ own commanders had defected to the Saxons after a failed coup attempt.
Initially attempting to sow discord among Arturius’ household, Mordelas claimed he was of the same blood as Arturius and began demanding a share of the revenue brought in by the subjects. When Arturius rejected his claims, Mordelas tried to seize control by force. Although the attempt was thwarted, he managed to escape relatively unharmed.
Rather than waste time and manpower trying to find Mordelas, Arturius banished him under threat of execution should he return and placed a reward on his head should anyone be able to catch him. It was a decision that would come back to haunt Arturius for, instead of finding somewhere to hide and live out the rest of his days in safety, Mordelas fled north and began assembling a respectable force of Scots.
Bringing his army south, he travelled straight to the Saxon enclaves in an attempt to convince them to join with him in an attempt to bring down Arturius. His negotiations with the ineffectual leaders of the Saxon groups he encountered were successful and Mordelas not only managed to secure Saxon support in his mission to destroy Arturius, but he also managed to use his significant military power and experience to become the recognised leader of the Saxon forces in Britain. The Saxons, not realising the full truth of his dealings with Arturius, were overjoyed to have someone leading them who hated the British warrior-king and was as devoted to bringing about his downfall as they were. It would be at Camlann that Mordelas would have the chance to achieve victory for the Saxons and supplant Arturius as the most powerful man in the country.
The only alternative he would contemplate was death. There would be no surrender and could be no compromise.
* * *
Billowing clouds of fog rolled across the ground, slowly being burned away by the sun as it rose higher in the late-morning sky. Hundreds of men lay dead or dying on the ground, bleeding to death after having willingly put their lives in jeopardy for the man they believed in. As their blood turned the field into a putrid swamp of mud, death and decay, their beliefs and faith in their lords and commanders gave them little comfort. Some looked inward to their faith in whichever god or gods they believed in to find some measure of relief from their suffering before death consumed them. Their lives slowly leaked from their many wounds, drawing the spectre of death to them as surely as the moon draws the tides. Already, scavengers of the human variety had descended upon the battlefield to loot the bodies for anything that might be considered even remotely valuable. In the end, the last thoughts of the dying soldiers were about whether their allegiance to their leaders was worth the sacrifice they had paid, a price consisting of their lives and the happiness of their surviving family members.
Atop the small rise, a single man clad in a regal suit of armour that was emblazoned with red dragons, watched the sun climbing steadily above the fog bank surrounding his position. His own blood stained the ground where he lay, propped up against a rock. Thick, dark blood oozed from matching ragged holes in the front and back of his metallic suit. The pain was there, but it almost felt as though it belonged to someone else. One moment he was awake, the sun only just clearing the fog and then he closed his eyes for a brief moment. When he reopened them, the sun was bright and high in the sky.
In his mind, he could visualise the small hill becoming his final place of rest. This was the second time he had come to this place. The first time he had been to the Glastonbury area had been to liberate the daughter of a childhood friend from Mewlais, to whom she had been pledged as a token of peace until Mewlais broke the agreement. After breaking her out of Mewlais’ household, he had been given her hand in marriage. Now he had returned to face the army of Saxons who had flocked to Mordelas’ banner.
Mordelas and his forces had seized the once glorious tower fort of Arturius’ old enemy and now it lay in ruins. The battlements crumbled as the flames ravaged the interior. The villagers who lived in the surrounding area and found themselves conscripted into service were now pillaging everything they could before it was destroyed forever. Taking heavy casualties, the Saxons and Scots had turned away from the battle when it was clear that Mordelas was going to be defeated.
The conclusion of the battle was determined through single combat when Mordelas defiantly challenged Arturius in the midst of the carnage taking place all around them. After a hard-fought contest, Arturius decapitated his opponent with a single blow from his legendary sword, but not before Mordelas managed to inflict a mortal wound into the abdomen of General Arturius Pandraconus by driving his lance into the side of the breastplate where it fastened to the back.
In the years leading up to his death, Arturius had become increasingly uncomfortable with the adoration shown to him by the people who lived on his land and the situation only became more awkward for him when they began referring to him as their king. Nevertheless, he accepted the unofficial title given to him by his subjects, more to appease them than for any personal reason. If he could have been completely honest with the people who were so devoted to him, Arturius would have told them that it was a hindrance he could have done without.
What the populace saw as inspired leadership was something completely different behind closed doors. The people never quite realised that the main reason for his success as a leader was due to his inner core of closest knights and friends. Over the years, his council of advisors had become famous throughout the continent for giving him the advice that allowed him to make the right decisions. When in Council, Arturius made sure that all who sat with him could behave as though they were equals. For that reason, he had arranged for the construction of a circular stone table surrounded by plain wooden chairs. In the meeting room, no one had any position of rank and they were all considered to be nothing more than men trying to reach a decision. They were free to speak their minds without any fear of recrimination. The meeting that had taken place the previous night would turn out to be the last time the Council of Equals sat together. Their rule was over.
Slumping against his rock atop the hill, Arturius knew that his time had come and that death would reach for him as soon as it had finished claiming his comrades, supporters and friends on the field below. In his mind, he knew that his death could bring about the destruction of everything he had worked to build and maintain over the last thirty-seven years.
Looking at the ground beside him, he tightened his grip on the surprisingly simple hilt of the sword. Given it by Mallin, in all the years he had held the weapon, its edges had never dulled, nor had the blade become nicked or marked in any way. It truly was the finest weapon in the land, made from a metal that no one had ever seen before or since. When Arturius had asked about the single, simplistic engraving on the hilt, Mallin explained that it was a word from a distant language that he would never encounter again, but would give no further information. Desperately trying to think of some way to dispose of the sword before one of his enemies could get their hands on it, Arturius failed to notice his last remaining knight approaching him.
Bedevarius was one of the few still capable of walking, albeit slowly and with a noticeable limp. He was lucky enough to have escaped without serious injury, although a mace had badly dented his breastplate and broken two of his ribs. The ensuing fall from his horse had damaged something in his right leg preventing him from moving it freely. A gang of bruises and a number of scrapes were the only other injuries he appeared to have suffered. After a few seconds, Arturius noticed his approach and saw an opportunity to have the sword taken somewhere safe.
“My Lord? How badly are you injured?” Bedevarius asked, wincing as he forced himself down to one knee.
“I am dying,” Arturius replied simply. “I have one last task for you, my young friend.”
“But you cannot die, Sire. We still need you,” wailed Bedevarius
“I can and I shall. As sure as night must come at the end of the day, so the time for my death has come. Carry out this final command,” Arturius said, his voice still filled with authority.
“Of course, my Lord.”
“Take my sword and dispose of it. Take it somewhere far away from here and hide it where it shall not be found.”
“Forgive me for speaking out of turn, Sire, but you must be delirious,” Bedevarius blurted.
“It must not fall into the hands of those who would use it for evil purposes. It was created for good and noble acts. I no longer have an heir, nor anyone in a position to succeed me. Until someone comes forward worthy of wielding this weapon, then it should remain hidden. Take it somewhere that it will remain hidden until it is needed again and will not be discovered by accident. Mallin should be able to help you find such a place.”
If Bedevarius understood, he gave no indication of it. “Sire, I shall do as you say, but I must beg you to reconsider. Could you be making a mistake in discarding Caliburn, my Lord?”
Arturius could barely summon the strength to lift the hilt far enough so that Bedevarius could grasp the sword. “Ride far and fast, my trusted knight and friend, and do whatever you must. Remember, this sword must remain hidden and safe. One day, someone will come who has a genuine need of it and it must be protected until then.”
“Sire, I swear this to you; if it is the last thing I do in this mortal life, I will find a place to hide your sword until it is needed once more. When that is done, I shall guard its location with my life.”
“I wish you good luck, Lord Bedevarius.”
Not knowing what else to say, Bedevarius rose to his feet, wincing at the combined protests from his cracked ribs and injured leg. Nodding to Arturius one last time, he turned and limped down the hill to begin his journey. Arturius watched his last remaining knight walk away with a feeling of serenity and allowed his tired eyes to close. His last conscious thought was that he could rest with a clear conscience, for the world would now be safe from his sword being wielded by the wrong man. Then, all sensation faded away and Arturius embraced nothingness.
It was only a matter of time before the people who were looting the dead discovered where Arturius lay. As some of them began making their way up the hill, there was movement from a small grove of trees nearby. A moment later four women, dressed entirely in white, strode from amongst the trunks and calmly walked up the hill while carrying a litter behind them.
Being superstitious and fearing what the women might represent, the local villagers ceased their movement and watched with fear and trepidation. Unconcerned about their audience, the women continued up the gradual slope until they reached the rock where the body of Arturius lay slumped. The four of them shared a look before they reverently eased the heavy, armour-clad body onto the litter. As calmly as they had entered the field of carnage, they took up the straps attached to their precious cargo and walked back into the woods.
* * *
Bedevarius was still having a great deal of difficulty in understanding why his lord and commander had ordered him to throw away the sword. He could understand the need to keep the powerful weapon out of the hands of those who would use it for evil, but surely handing the blade over to someone who could be trusted to use it wisely would be a much better use for it. Certainly, Lord Arturius had been betrayed by those closest to him in recent years, namely his wife and his protégé, but there were others who could undoubtedly be trusted.
Even if the successor was not the same breed of man as Arturius, the sword Caliburn was not only impossible to damage, but it could also be a symbol to a new leader and regime, much as Arturius and Caliburn had been seen as a symbol of power and justice throughout the land. Bedevarius considered the possibilities of the sword being used as a symbol for someone else and began to understand Arturius’ concerns. People are susceptible to corruption, even those considered great and noble like some members of the court within which he had served. If some of them could succumb to even the most simple of temptations, much as Launcellus had, then how would the temptation of something as wondrous as Caliburn affect them? In the wrong hands, all the good achieved by Arturius and his Council could be undone easily.
It was still a bitter pill to swallow. The fact that Arturius no longer held trust in any of his closest allies felt like a betrayal to Bedevarius. Had he not fought beside the general, as had hundreds of others? Though he had never sought glory for himself and been astounded when he was nominated for a seat on Arturius’ Council, he couldn’t understand why he might not even be considered as a successor. Why couldn’t he be trusted to keep Caliburn for himself and continue fighting for the same causes as Arturius? Surely someone who had been part of the Council would be best placed to continue the work carried out by their leader. Even if Arturius didn’t think Bedevarius were suitable, Ghavilan still lived, as did Launcellus, and either one would strive to continue the work of Arturius, despite their past mistakes.
Whatever Arturius’ reasoning, Bedevarius would respect his wishes and carry out his final order, regardless of how difficult, dangerous or confusing it was. It hadn’t taken Bedevarius long to find on of the horses that he and his comrades had ridden from Cadbury. It wasn’t his, but the chances were that whoever the horse originally belonged to was no longer in any condition to need a horse, let alone object to him taking it. Awkwardly climbing into the saddle, he turned the horse westward and set off at a slow trot.
As he moved away from the site of the battle, he could not help taking one last look behind him to bid his fallen friends farewell. When he swept his gaze across the horrendous landscape he was leaving behind, it wasn’t the hundreds of mutilated corpses that caught his eye. Something that was brightly reflecting the sun was moving slowly along the River Brue.
Deep in his soul, he knew that it had to be the body of Arturius and somehow it seemed right. Squinting, he thought he could see a number of other figures in white moving about the small raft, but they weren’t the human scavengers that had plagued the aftermath of the battle. Whispering a brief prayer for his former lord, he continued on his way back to Cadbury.
The journey was sombre and several times on the way, Bedevarius felt the tears streaming down his face as he remembered his friends who had died earlier that day. He passed residents from the village of Cadbury that sprung up around Camelot Hall along his way. All of them took in his bloodied and battered appearance and knew that something terrible had happened. Many rushed back to their homes to spread the news of a lone Knight of the Council returning with no sign of any other soldiers.
Moving no faster than walking pace, Bedevarius entered the town to a rapidly growing mass of people. Questions were shouted at him about loved ones and for information about the rest of the Council. Ignoring them all, Bedevarius picked up the pace of his horse and all but galloped to the main gate of Camelot Hall. The stablehands were no less curious about events on the battlefield, but Bedevarius was in no mood to talk about it. Releasing the fastenings of his armour, he left it to fall on the ground as he walked towards the gardens.
No one other than Arturius had ever entered the section reserved for Mallin. Bedevarius stepped through the small ring of rose bushes that served as the boundary for the wise man’s ‘home’ and moved through the trees until he found the small wooden hut. Pounding on the door, it was opened almost immediately.
“Arturius is dead or you would not dare approach my home,” Mallin said simply.
Bedevarius held up Caliburn. “He wants me to get rid of this.”
Mallin nodded and gestured for his guest to enter. “Be seated. When Arturius was ill, we discussed what would happen with his sword after his death. I promised him, as you must have, that it would be safe until a time when it was needed again.”
Studying the old man with a mixture of curiosity and suspicion, Bedevarius wondered exactly how much he knew. For certain, no one like him had ever been seen in their part of the world. Mallin’s hair was as straight as an arrow, and from descriptions had been as black as coal when he first arrived. When he spoke his native language, no one could understand him, yet he was also able to speak Latin like a native. His skin was darker than that of most people Bedevarius could claim to have encountered. “So where is this place you speak of?” Bedevarius asked.
“Before I tell you, I must know how far you are willing to go to carry out your promise.”
“I promised Arturius I would guard this sword for the rest of my life,” stated Bedevarius.
Allowing a smile to crack his wrinkled face, Mallin’s eyes searched those of the young knight in his home. “Then allow me to tell you a story. It is the story of my life and after you have heard it, you will know where Caliburn must rest.”
Leaning forward with interest, Bedevarius listened as the journey he was to undertake was laid out before him. His life in Britain was over.