It was a beautiful day in Camelot. The sun was high, the air was warm, and a gentle wind was blowing through the trees, rustling their leaves.
In a small clearing, there was an ancient oak tree. Under its shade, sitting against its trunk, good king Arthur Pendragon was enjoying his afternoon.
He had left most of his royal attire in the castle, and was not wearing his crown. Instead, he wore a simple red tunic and black pants. He had removed his shoes, and was enjoying the feeling of the grass against his bare feet.
The only telling sign that he was the king of the Logres, which these days was a kingdom which territory reached all the way across the sea all the way down to Rome, was the sword, held in its scabbard, which laid on the ground right next to him.
The blade was hidden away, so its holy light was not visible. Yet, the hilt featuring two golden snakes was easily recognizable, for almost half the people of Britain had once taken it in their hands, trying to pry it away from the stone where it had been held. And then he, a young, unknown squire, had taken it easily.
And from that moment on, Excalibur, the holy sword of the righteous king, had never left his side.
Arthur was enjoying a rather pleasant afternoon, free from the bustling of the castle. He held a book in one hand, and his other hand was nonchalantly scratching his brown beard. Every so often, he reached to his side to take a sip from the glass of wine he had poured himself.
In a few days, the castle would be again full of servants and knights. He was going to celebrate his sixtieth birthday, and the most noble and powerful of his subjects would be there. There would be so many meetings to be held, like the annual grand meeting of the Knights of the Round Table, where, unlike most the other meetings, all knights who were part of the order were required to attend.
The heads of the various clans that made up Britain would come of course, and diplomatic talks would be held… Though these days, he didn’t have to worry too much about that. Sure, there would be some petty squabbling, claims for wider hunting grounds rights, reports on the handling the occasional Saxon raids coming from the sea, or, of course, protests against the always-too-high taxes they paid to Camelot… But the times were peaceful. He had united these clan leaders under his banner, and dealing with them now was far easier than when they called him an illegitimate bastard king and only collaborated with him out of fear of being crushed by the then-prevalent Roman Empire.
Overall, Arthur reflected, the times were peaceful, and everything was going pretty well.
— King Arthur!
He was roused from his reverie by the voice of a young man.
— King Arthur! Where are you?
He sighed. He had asked to be left alone… But he knew who that voice belonged to, and he liked the lad enough to forgive him.
— King Arthur! Sire! It is I! Your noble servant, Galahad!
— Over here, Galahad! yelled Arthur at the voice.
Preceded by the noise his armor made as he approached, Galahad emerged into the clearing. He seemed to be in a rush, and Arthur was alarmed for a moment, but relaxed when he saw the big smile the knight wore on his face.
Galahad was a young man in his early twenties, with blue eyes, freckles on his cheeks, and blonde hair reaching to the bottom of his neck. Apart from his helmet, which was nowhere to be seen, he was wearing the armor he had been given when he had been made knight. It seemed to have been through a lot since the last time Arthur had saw him, as it was dirty and a bit bent in some spots. He was holding a small package of some sort in both his hands, covered in a cloth that had once been white but now had some visible traces of dirt all over it.
— Sir Galahad! Nice to see you, young man! How are you doing?
Arthur smiled amiably, and straightened himself, but did not make any effort to get up. It was his free time after all, and if Galahad could not uphold protocol by waiting for him to be back in the castle to talk to him, he was not about to bother either.
Galahad hurriedly bent the knee and lowered his eyes. He dropped the package on the ground right next to him, as he put his left arm along his side, and his right hand over his heart.
— King Arthur, sire! It is a pleasure to see you again!
— Raise your eyes, sir Galahad, and be at ease. How are you? I see you’re back from your trip! It’s been almost a full year since you’ve been gone! You had me worried lad, and so was your father!
Galahad did not change positions, but he raised his eyes, and an apologetic look crossed his face.
— I’m truly sorry, sire. I… Well, I lived the strangest of adventures, and was unable to send messages for some time as I was badly hurt.
— Badly hurt?
Arthur could not prevent the concern from leaking into his voice. He liked Galahad, and liked him a lot. There was something about the boy he found refreshing. He was a warm, nice, even pure young man, who he had himself knighted despite his father’s, sir Lancelot of the Lake, protests. In a way, Arthur saw, or probably idealized, a younger version of himself in the lad. Seeing Galahad reminded him of when he had been a foolish and idealistic boy, when he had pulled the sword out of the stone for the first time, led by Merlin… Foolish, perhaps, but these foolish days had been happy days for him.
— Don’t worry sire! I’m perfectly fine now, as you can see!
Galahad got up on his feet and lightly jumped on his feet, moving his arms around to demonstrate his well being, as his armor noisily clanked.
He looked silly, and the king loved it. Foolish and happy, indeed.
— Very well, Galahad. I’m very happy to see that. And? What is it you wanted to see me about? If you were send here by the guards, I’m guessing you told them that it was about something important.
— Yes, sire! Galahad fell down to one knee again. I have brought you a great present from my trip sire, a present I just could not wait to give you!
He took the package he had put on the ground and carefully held it in front of him, peeling away the cloth that covered it.
— It is my great honor, sire, to offer you the thing that we have been looking for so many years. The object of our grand quest, the holiest of treasures…
He removed the last part of the clot, and looked up at Arthur, beaming, eyes moist with emotion.
— For you, my king, The Holy Grail!
— Wha— ?
Arthur, who had just taken a sip from his drink, was suddenly coughing and wheezing. Galahad, clearly not expecting that, was shocked for a second, then got up, trying to help his king. Arthur raised a hand preventing him from moving, though, so he remained in place.
After a good thirty seconds of uninterrupted coughing, followed by another thirty seconds in which he tried to get back his breath, coughed a few more times and took a few more sips from his drink, Arthur, wiping the tears in his eyes, finally seemed to calm down enough to look back at Galahad… and his expression was both shocked and deadly serious.
— Are you alright, sire?
— Are you telling me, Galahad, that this is the Holy Grail?
Galahad was looking directly at what he held in both hands : A small and beautiful chalice, exquisitely carved in pure gold.
There was great power in it. Arthur could tell.
— It is, sire. It is the treasure that was given to me by a man who called himself the King of the Grail, and lived in a deep, dark forest, somewhere in the heart of Britain. I could not go back there if I wanted to, for I know not how I ventured there in the first place.
— But… But, Galahad… How…?
Arthur was clearly deeply shocked. The knight raised his head to meet his king’s eyes.
— Please listen to my tale, my liege.
— I… Sure. Go ahead, sir knight.
It was customary for knights returning from quests to tell their stories. And as much as Arthur wanted to bombard Galahad with questions, starting with how the hell this was possible, he’d probably get his answers listening to his story. Plus… It would give him time to think.
— As you know, sire, I was assigned to patrolling the north of the country a few months ago. While traveling there country to fulfill my duties, I traveled to remote villages, very far from the roads. It was there, sire, that I eventually heard rumors of a terrifying dark knight, who only appeared on nights of full moon, and scared the local populace. I waited for it, and surely, as the locals told me, the man appeared. On the top of a hill, with the full moon on his back , there he was, riding a black horse and clad in an ebony, somewhat sickening armor… Still, I approached him, asked him who he was, but he immediately started cursing my name, even though I hadn’t named myself, and then he started cursing your good name, sire!
Galahad looked aggravated as he continued his tale.
— I could not remain calm. I challenged him on the spot, and he immediately raised his sword and charged at me. I immediately understood that he was an extremely skilled fighter. I take pride in my skill with the sword, sire, but the man was gifted. Still, I am the knight of the Round Table, and I can always feel the light of our holy mission within me. It was tough, but I defeated him.
He hesitated, and looked down.
— But there was some dark magic in play, sire. I killed the fiend, sire, I struck him down. I’m sure I did… But he rose again, and again, and again. And when he gave a shriek… Suddenly, there were two of him. Same armor, same blade. And then there were more. With the same dark armor, dark sword, dark horse… So I jumped on my horse and fled, but not before one of them had managed to stab me in the shoulder, right under the plates of my armor.
Galahad winced and put a his right hand over his left shoulder as he was relating said these words, then he looked back at his king. Arthur could almost feel the anguish his knight felt as he told his tale just by looking as his eyes, his eyes so pure and blue, his eyes that were as the sky… But there was another, private anguish the king was feeling. How could this be?
— So I fled sire, I fled for many days, perhaps even many weeks. Each time I was sure I had finally escaped from them, I heard the hooves of the horses coming for me. Again, and again, and again, and again… The whole time, my shoulder kept hurting more and more, more and more, but I still had to hold the reins and keep going… So I kept going deeper into the forest. Deeper, and deeper, and deeper, and deeper… Until I was finally unable to tell the difference between night and day. That’s how deep I was, sire…
Arthur nodded wordlessly, as the knight kept telling his story.
— Suddenly, I hit something, perhaps a tree, and fell out of my horse. I was only holding the reins with a single arm at that point, sire, the other one was hurting too much for me to be even able to move it. As I was lying on the ground, I understood, sire, that my strength would not be enough to come back here, to come back to you. I cried, and I cursed destiny, and I begged the gods to give me a chance…
He hesitated again.
— Sire… That’s when it happened. Suddenly, the castle appeared.
Arthur raised an eyebrow.
— What do you mean, “appeared”? You mean you first saw it at that moment?
— No sire. One moment, there was nothing. The next, it was there.
— A castle doesn’t appear out thin air, Galahad!
— And yet that’s what it did, sire! I’m sorry, but I can’t think of any other way of telling it. I was exhausted and feverish, yes, but I was in the dark woods, I’m sure I was, and there was no light to be seen… Except suddenly, I realized I was seeing one, like the light of a faraway candle. Then there was more than one candle, then a multitude… And slowly, like appearing out of a dream, first half transparent, then completely there, a castle had appeared. I saw it perfectly sire. A castle, beautiful, entirely white, illuminated by a pale, full moon.
— I thought you were so deep in the woods you couldn’t see anything, much less the moon!
— That’s right sire! Yet… Here it was, the bright moon, guardian of the heavens, shining its protective light upon me and the castle. And it gave enough light that I was able to see the drawbridge being slowly lowered, and a bearded rider, a crown on his head, riding a white horse, coming towards me…
Galahad paused for a second, then continued his story, embarrassment in his voice.
— And… That’s where I must have fainted, my liege, for I do not remember what happened next. I… think I may have been delirious for some time, so I really don’t remember much about what happened next. I recall feeling very hot and very cold at the same time, and someone putting a cold towel over my forehead… But I truly don’t know how many days I spent getting my strength back. I do not even remember who nursed me back to health…
— So that’s why we didn’t get news from you for so long…
Arthur stroke his beard as he spoke. He was forcing himself to listen to the knight’s story, to understand what had happened. But his eyes kept darting towards the Grail.
— The next thing I remember clearly is that I woke up one evening, lying in a clean bed, my shoulder heavily bandaged, feeling… quite refreshed, honestly, sire. No one was around. The pieces of my armor and my clothes were sitting on a round table next to the bed. I got up, but I was quite disturbed to see I was totally unable to move my shoulder… So it is with some difficulty that I got dressed and went out in the corridor, looking for someone who could tell me where I was, and to thank for saving my life. I walked around for some time, finding no one, until I finally arrived in a dining hall, where I found a single man was eating, sitting in the edge of a long rectangular table with space for at least twenty people. I was sure he was the rider who had found me in the forest.
Galahad looked at Arthur a bit sheepishly as he chose his next words.
— He… kind of reminded me a lot of you, to tell you the truth, sire. Even though he seemed like a very old and tired man, even though his beard was white and his face terribly wrinkled, even though his eyes looked very sad as he watched me, he had some kind of… royal presence, I’d said, that I had only felt when near to you.
— I can’t tell if I’m supposed to be flattered or upset that you think someone else matches my royal self, especially as you describe this man as very old!
Arthur was trying to jest, but his heart wasn’t in it and Galahad barely seemed to hear him. He continued his story.
— When he saw me, he smiled, and called me by my name. “Sir Galahad. Come, sit near me, and eat”. He told me that exactly, sire. I’m sure I didn’t give him my name, I couldn’t have, but he still knew it. There was a plate of food laid right next to him, food that was still steaming with heat. So I sat near him, the two of us alone around that big table. I tried to ask him who he was and where we were, but he told me he would answer my questions in due time, and wanted me to tell him about my adventures, my life as a knight. So I did as I was asked, to repay him for his kindness. I talked about my time as a squire, being finally knighted by you, the fight against the Black Hag, the battle of Raeding, my part in the fight against the dark enchanter Elias and how I was made a Knight of the Round Table after it, the Adventure of the Twin-Headed Dragon… And finally, I told him about my quest for the Holy Grail. I’m sure there was some kind of strange magic in play, sire, because it seems to me like I talked for hours and hours while eating and eating, yet I never saw a servant, nor do I recall my plate getting empty.
Galahad paused again, took a deep breath, then went on.
— Finally, when I was done telling him about everything, telling him about the Grail, he got up… and went to an altar that was directly behind his seat. I could have sworn there was nothing there a second before… And I saw it, sire. This chalice. And I immediately understood. And sure enough, he told me that my quest was over.
Galahad was beaming at him as he said these words, and Arthur was trying to smile back, and desperately hoping his face was doing what he was trying to will it to do.
— I tried to get up, to go to him, but I could not, sire! He came to me with the chalice in his hand, and put it in the table in front of me. I looked at it, and I was sure of it my king, it was what we had been looking for all these years! But I could not reach for it!
Galahad was opening and closing his right hand, as if to demonstrate his powerlessness.
— He sat back sire, and told me I didn’t have to worry, that it was mine, that my quest was truly over. But… He looked so sad as he was telling me that… And then he told me that the only thing I needed to do to be allowed to take the Grail with me was to deliver a message to you, sire.
— A message?
Arthur was sure of it, he definitely wasn’t smiling anymore.
— Yes, sire. He told me to say to you these exact words : “This Holy Grail, King Arthur, is both the price and the reward the gods have for you. It is everything you know it to be. Rejoice, for the salvation you wished for is now yours. I am the Grail King and I am your destiny!”
Arthur snatched the Grail from Galahad’s hands as he finished his sentence.
— Sire? said Galahad in a surprised voice.
He does not realize, thought Arthur, whose face had now become white as a sheet, that he just spoke in that old king’s raspy voice!
— Galahad, you just…
— Oh! Yes, sorry my king, this is yours, of course! said Galahad, straightening his posture, lowering his eyes and once again putting his right hand against his heart.
— No, I mean…
But what did he mean? What could he possibly say to his young champion? The one who had gone so far for him, and had brought him back the Holy Grail?
That blasted Holy Grail!
There was an uncomfortable silence, and Arthur, suddenly afraid of what the thing might do to him, put the Grail to the ground almost as quickly as he had grabbed it.
— Anyway, sire! said Galahad, trying to break away from the awkwardness. After that… Things are a bit blurry in my mind. I’m sure that castle, and the Grail King, were magic beings. I remember him sitting down again, and talking to me. Talking to me about a lot of things, things that seemed important at the time, that were important to him, because I remember tears in his eyes, I remember him taking my hand into his… I think he apologized to me? I don’t know, I don’t remember it clearly, but I think he did, even though I can’t fathom why, has he had just given me the most incredible gift of all. But now, his words, even the details of his face seem to me as far away as the fading memories of a dream…
Galahad put his hand over his youthful face, his trouble plain as day.
— I don’t know when I fell asleep, but at some point I slept. I must have slept. When I woke up, I was no longer in that castle, nor was there any king near me… I wasn’t even in the dark woods, sire! I was sleeping near the road. For a second, fear took hold of me, for I thought I had dreamed the whole thing… But then I realized I had the Grail cradled in my hands… My soul filled with joy, and I returned as fast as I could to deliver this to you.
His face lit up again.
— So, sire, here we are! I must say, I’m humbled to be the one who was able to finally deliver this to you! If we get the word out fast enough, we can have celebrations through all Britain for both the end of the quest for the Holy Grail and your sixtieth anniversary at the same time! It’ll be a celebration like Britain has never known in all its history! All in your honor, it will be—
The king uttered the word quietly, but something in his tone cut the enthusiastic Galahad right in the middle of his sentence.
— Sit, sir Galahad. We must talk. Now that you have told me your tale, and delivered this chalice to me, I am the one who, in turn, must tell you my story. Will you listen?
Galahad looked both surprised and confused, both by his king words and his tone, which was dark and… somehow, sounded old.
— I… of course, sire!
— Then sit down. Please. This may take a while.
Galahad did as he was told and switched to a more comfortable position, though he fell ill at ease doing so. Behind him, the wind blew, and the sun was finishing its daily job. Soon, it would be dusk.
— First of all Galahad, I must know. Did you come straight to me with news of this? Did you tell anyone else about the Grail?
— No, sire.
— Good. Listen to me very well, Galahad. It must stay that way. No one can know what you have found.
Galahad’s answer had been a high-pitched, strangled shriek. Arthur was not surprised.
— But my king! Surely you jest! It’s the Grail sire! The Holy Grail! Its divine power shall bring salvation to our people and it shall light our path! Surely, you can not mean to keep this a secret!
— But I do, Galahad. This is vitally important. I am about to tell you one of Britain’s greatest secrets, and I need you to listen. And most of all, lad…
Arthur raised the palm of his hand towards the knight.
— Most of all, I need you to understand.
Arthur was doing everything he could to make his voice sound calm and even.
— Listen to me, now. As you know, Britain was once a divided country. Before I came to power, the land was split, and anarchy and chaos reigned here. My father, king Uther, was, I’ve heard, not a great ruler, but at least he had this country united. This changed however when our treacherous Saxon enemies cowardly assassinated him. From there… Well, I’m sure you’ve heard the stories. the Picts in the North, the Saxon tribes based in Wessex, Sussex, Essex… All these forces were routinely raiding our lands and pillaging our villages, and no one was safe from them. This is the reason I was sent in secret to be raised in Rome, so I would not fall in their hands. Finally, I came back…
— And united the country, pushing the invaders away. I know all that sire, but what does this have to do with everything?
— I’m getting there, Galahad. Listen. Please.
Arthur spoke slowly, deliberately.
— So. “Uniting the country”, yes… That was not an easy task. Even after I pulled Excalibur from the stone, proving to all that I was the rightful king, and even with Merlin at my side… The lords of Britain, divided by years and years of infighting, were not all fast to swear fealty to me. You’re young, and you were born after these battles, but you do know I was once known as “The Boy King”, yes?
— Of course, sire! I grew up with the tales of your heroics when you were still known as the Boy King!
— Yes, yes. Because now, it is part of history, and taught in school to children as a story to show them that anyone can achieve greatness… But you need to understand, Galahad, that at the time, it was just another way to insult me and suggest I was unfit to rule. “Boy King” is the one that sounded the best, but I was also called a bastard king, a traitor king who would surrender the country to the Romans. Some even suggested that I was just a tool in some nefarious plan Merlin had to conquer Britain for himself.
Arthur could see as he was speaking that Galahad’s eyes were going wide. Of course. The boy had only lived in the age of chivalrous knights and glorious heroics. He could not understand.
— I always had faith that things would get better at that time, I was young and optimistic ! And, eventually, sure, some lords agreed to rally me… But so many of them were still not willing to fall inline. However, the tide changed when my worst opponent, Leodegrance of Cameliard, offered me peace if I made his daughter Guenever my queen, and made him chief of my armies. I saw there an opportunity to finally put an end to our internal squabbling ; and sure enough, after that they all fell in line, and Britain was united.
This time, Galahad could not stay silent.
— What? Sire! No! I mean… I was taught… Everyone in Britain is taught about your gallant courtship to Queen Guenever, and how your love and the guidance of the holy sword is what finally brought Britain to unite against the Saxons!
— Yes. Yes, of course, Arthur sighed. Let’s say we… Tweaked the story a little bit, you see? Look Galahad, I married Guenever to please Leodegrance and unite the country, and she was a wonderful woman and a wonderful queen, and after a while I came to love her and she came to love me. Does the order in which these things happened really matter?
He could see on Galahad’s upset face that the young knight thought the answer to that question was a resounding “yes!”, but he kept going.
— These were hard times, Galahad. Different times. And I learned something of them, something very important: The value of having a common purpose. The value of unity. Specifically, the strength, and power, of Britain’s military might, once it was finally united.
Arthur’s eyes blazed as he recalled his days of battle.
— You need to understand, Galahad, that once Britain was united, everything changed. The campaign we led to oust Cerdic of Wessex from Britain was over in a simple matter of weeks, after that. Weeks, Galahad! An enemy that had plagued the Britons for more than two decades, decimated in less than one month! The other Saxon leaders were defeated just as easily. One of them even ran away with his troops, back to the continent, before we could even attack him! Then we finally made peace with the Picts, in the North, and Britain was at peace, all united under the kingdom of Logres.
Arthur looked around for the bottle of wine he had brought with him, found it, and poured himself some. He would need it for what followed.
— By the time I was twenty five, the kingdom was at peace. We had Camelot built, and I rewarded the most heroic of my knights and chiefs of war with a seat at a round table where they could freely and privately, without needing to fear that I would use my royal authority to silence them. All exchanged ideas and opinions on how to improve this country, and keep it at peace. Of course, some of them were more proud, more boastful than the others, and rumors of these private meetings soon got out. So I made if official, and the brotherhood of the Knights of the Round Table was created.
— With its ultimate goal being the quest for the Holy Grail! exclaimed Galahad.
— You’re not listening to me, sir Galahad. Or you’re listening but not making the effort to understand. As I was saying, the Round Table was, at first, only a place where politics were discussed. As the governing body of this country became known as the great Knights of the Round Table, some of its members took more and more importance. Your father, for example, sir Lancelot of the Lake, had distinguished himself in the war, and had… Many opinions about how to keep Britain united. So did many others, including the many chieftains who still required asked of me to call them “king”. King Leodegrance of Cameliard. King Lot of Lothian. King Colgrevance of Caledonia. So many kings in the same room, and none who seemed to remember that they had pledged their fealty to me, their “High” King.
Realizing that his past annoyance had seeped into his voice, Arthur took a breath before continuing.
— There was more and more infighting at the Round Table. It got worse, more bitter, more aggravating every time we missed. Some knights stormed out. Some knights insulted others, and there was one very scary time when swords were unsheathed around the Round Table. At the time, my master spy, sir Palagor of Girflet, even reported to me that a conspiracy was brewing, with some high-ranking officials wondering a bit too loudly if it would be so bad if someone were to topple me.
Arthur drank a big mouthful of wine as he was saying that, looking bitter.
— But… Things got better, right, my king? I mean, the kingdom is still united! Britain is still one! And you’re the High King! You’re loved, and celebrated by all!
— Yes. Because as things were taking a turn for the worse, as I was sleeping with a dagger under my pillow fearing that some knight would attempt a coup, something unexpected happened: The Francs attacked Brittany. That changed everything. Suddenly, the country, the nobles, the knights and the kings all had a reason to rally behind me once again. I was again a chief of war. I was the indomitable leader, wielding the holy sword, the proof that I was chosen by the gods. The nation was one again. We sailed, went to Francia, crushed the Francs and conquered back Brittany. To this day, the memory of the surrender of their king Claudas and the celebrations that followed remains one of the best of my life….
The ruler of Logres was patting his own head now, his expression dreamy.
— But we were now a threat to the Roman Empire. Too powerful. Too close. We had to go to war with them, too. They were once a great empire, you know, and I had partly been raised there, so it saddened me to see how decadent they had become. The battles we fought were hard battles, far from home, but it was all for peace, all so that no one would attack us again. When we took Rome, I knew that it was finally over. We were safe. Britain was safe. I was happy, Galahad. Truly happy. There was a joy, a fullness in my soul, an understanding that everything I had worked for had all been for this moment. The belief that a beautiful new era of peace, long lasting peace, had finally been ushered.
Arthur’s smile was wide, his eyes looking at the sky. As he started his next sentence however, a shadow passed on them, and he refocused on Galahad.
— I was thirty four, when we finally won this war… I guess this was around the time you were born. We had been away from here for far too long, so we went home. We left Rome, we crossed Francia, and reached the shores of the sea. However… Something was wrong. I could feel it, the whole way I could feel it, something amiss, something very wrong. I could feel it in the air, I could feel it in the eyes of some knights, I could feel it everywhere… But I mistook it for eagerness to be back, for a longing to be home again. That is why I made it my duty to see as many men as possible get on boats and sail back across the English Sea before I myself crossed it. It is for that reason that almost no one knows what happened the night before I and the very last knights finally returned to Britain, the night sir Maleagant came to me in my tent.
Galahad raised an eyebrow.
— Who, sire?
— It’s no wonder you don’t know him, Arthur sighed, but he was a knight of the Round Table, long before your time. Brave. Heroic. Noble. And… Ambitious. That night, Maleagant came to see me in my tent, like he had come many nights before that. He was always asking me the same thing… See, I had decided that all of our forces, except the peacekeeping troops required to manage our new territories, would be coming home. I wanted us to be done with the war, with the killing. I thought we had finally earned peace. Maleagant, however, kept pestering me to keep more troops on the continent. He wanted to lead a scouting force to prepare an invasion of the east part of the continent. We knew very little of it, except that barbarians were living there, and that there had been some small skirmishes between them and the remains of the Roman Empire, remains that we had just crushed.
— Arthur clenched his fist.
But there was no doubt in my mind, Galahad. All of our soldiers were to return home and enjoy peace. If there were threats to be dealt with, we’d deal with them later! We had won, god damn it!
His eyes blazed, and his voice was filled with bitterness and anger. Even after all these years.
— Sir Maleagant would not hear it. On that fateful night, when he came, he was not alone. He had brought two more knights with him, to show me that he had support for his idea. I remember well being very annoyed by his persistence, and I ordered them to leave my tent, not long after they had entered.
Arthur’s eyes narrowed.
— That’s when he told me the peace had already made me grow too soft. Then he tried to kill me.
— He did what?
— You heard me just fine, sir Galahad.
— But he was a knight of the Round Table!
— Calm down, lad. Want to see some proof? Here, look!
He grabbed his tunic and raised it above his belly, displaying a wide scar next to his ribs to the shocked Galahad.
— I’ll spare you the details, Galahad, but I managed to fend them off.
— I… Sire! Please lower your clothes! You have nothing to prove to me!
Arthur did not lower his hand.
— As you can see, I still carry a vivid, occasionally painful memento of that night. But well, despite this… inconvenience, I still managed to fend my attackers off with my dagger and get out of my tent. And there was chaos there. Part of the knights, my faithful knights, had apparently been in cahoots with Maleagant.
Arthur’s expression stiffened, as he stared into Galahad’s eyes.
— Can you imagine that, sir Galahad. Brothers killing brothers. Friends murdering friends. Britons assassinating Britons. We were all supposed to be part of the same country, we were all supposed to be on the same side. Yet so much blood was shed.
Galahad was trying to hide his astonishment by putting his hand in front of his mouth, to no avail.
— Finally, I unsheathed Excalibur, and cried for my knights to come and aid me. Its holy light shined through the night. And soon enough, the traitors were subdued.
— I was never told about that, sire…
— That’s because no one was told. Everyone who survived that night was sworn to secrecy, and I know for a fact that they have upheld their vows.
He finally lowered his hand, and his tunic covered again the ugly scar on his stomach. When he next spoke, his words felt very solemn.
— This was the day, Galahad, that I realized just how much I had failed as a king. I had almost lost my life to one of my knights. My subjects had just tried to kill each other. No more. Never again. As a king, I would make it my duty to prevent any more killing of Britons by Britons. I would, once again, unite this country.
— And… you made it, sire! The kingdom has been at peace for as long as I’ve been alive! Growing up and being a knight in Logres has been my honor, privilege and happiness!
Arthur gave him a small, tired smile.
— Thank you Galahad… That you would say this brings me joy, and it means that the choices I made were the right ones. Pay attention now, for this is where my tale is going to meet yours.
He hesitated, seemingly looking for his words.
— See, I loved my people, of course, but up until that point I had never truly understood my people. As a king, I need to protect the peace, that peace that we fought for, that peace that we earned at the price of so many years of fight and sacrifice. I had especially never truly understood the nobility. It may have been because I was raised as a soldier in Rome, and did not live here during my youth. But I finally understood. I understood what the people who held power in Britain needed. So as soon as I got back to Camelot, I called Merlin, and had him work on a spell for me.
Arthur hesitated again, then seemed to make up his mind.
— Galahad. Thank you for your hard work. I’m really sorry I have to tell you this. But the Holy Grail isn’t real.
Galahad was dumbfounded. His face went forward and his eyes widened, then went from Arthur to the chalice that was on the ground between the two of them.
— What are you talking about sire? It is real! It’s just here! Look! I’m sure you can feel its power! I’m not well-versed with magic and I can feel it! I mean—
— I’m so, so sorry, Galahad, said Arthur softly.
Galahad stopped talking, looking at his king. Looking at his face. An expression of fright came to his face, and he snatched the Grail from the ground, almost violently, and stared at it, turning it between his hands.
— Galahad, listen to me—
— What do you mean it’s not real?
Anger. Fright. Confusion. Arthur had expected them, of course, but it still pained him to see the knight hurt like that.
— What I realized… no. What I understood, after returning from Francia, after my kingdom had almost become divided until war, was that the Britons… No, that the Britain nobles needed something to unite behind. So I gave it to them.
— No. No! You can’t mean…
— Why do you think, Galahad, that the Knights of the Round Table go on so many adventures? Meeting ogres and hags, vengeful spirits and demons, witches and black knights? Slaying dragons, raiding castles held by evil lords, and rescuing so many damsels in distress?
Galahad didn’t answer. His mouth was half opened, his eyes wide, and slowly starting to fill up with tears.
— It’s because, continued Arthur, I wished for it to be so. Because Merlin prepared a very special spell for me. The Enchantment of Britain, it is called, has caused for this land to be imbued with magic. It’s given to the war-craving nobles of this nation purpose enough to be united, and go on quests for honor and glory instead of spending their time fighting each other to get more territory and coin. It gave us peace and prosperity!
— And… and the Holy Grail? asked Galahad in a shaky, broken voice
— The Holy Grail is the crux of it all. It’s meant to be the final quest, the unattainable goal that all must fight for but none can reach. It’s meant to be a symbol, of what it means to reach for greatness. The salvation and light to the people is not something that finding the Grail is meant to bring, it is something that the search for the Grail accomplishes. It is a perfect ideal for Britain to strive for. It is something for us to unite behind.
He motioned his hand in front of him on each of the words of his last sentence, as wanting to convey the weight of his words to Galahad.
— Except… Except you found it.You accomplished the impossible, sir Galahad… And I suppose I must commend you for it.
But there was no hint of joy, or even of pride towards his knight in Arthur’s voice. Galahad had never heard him talk that way. He seemed like another man.
— I think I can even understand how and why it happened. You said that this Grail is both the price and the reward for my efforts?
He gave Galahad a wry smile.
— The gods have a twisted sense of humor! I create and elaborate a lie, using my enchanter’s magic to pretend the gods gave me a new quest, and then they find a way for you to fulfill it! When the only thing they had ever given me was a shiny sword and a lifetime of fights and struggle!
Arthur sniggered, his hand over his eyes, in a hollow and self-deprecating laughter.
He’s laughing at the gods! thought Galahad. The noble king Arthur, the Chosen One, the Boy King, the wielder of the holy sword, was scornfully laughing at the gods!
The sun was setting, the shadows of the landscape were lengthening… And so were the ones on Arthur’s face. Galahad felt sick.
— Don’t give me that look, now, boy. This is what it takes to keep this kingdom together. This is the peace I’ve obtained. You must understand.
His voice was strong. Powerful. Royal. He was not talking anymore to Galahad as a friendly mentor does, but dictating his order as a powerful monarch does. Except…
— No, sire.
Arthur frowned. He did not look friendly at all, but the upset Galahad kept going.
— No, sire! No! This is not what it should take! What have I been fighting for all this time? Does my father know? Do the other knights know?
Arthur kept silent, his face tight.
— They don’t, do they? What are we fighting for? What have all the knights of the Round Table been fighting for? We’ve been risking our lives for you! For Britain! For a better tomorrow!
— Lower your voice, sir Galahad. You’ve been fighting, yes, and look! Britain is safe. The Round Table inspires the people, and they are happy. Everyone gets to wish for a better tomorrow while enjoying a good today.
— But that’s just a facade! yelled Galahad, who was feeling an anger he did not know he possessed welling up inside of him. All these years! All of us! I… What is the Round Table to you, sire, then? We’re supposed to be a sacred brotherhood! What are we there for?
— I asked you to lower your voice, Galahad. The knights of the Round Table are my friends! My family! But they are also the nobility, the caste that will end up trampling all over what I’ve build if not kept in check!
— Kept in check? Kept in check? We are not your puppets! We do not have strings for you to play with! Neither us, nor the people!
— The people are happy in my kingdom!
— Because they don’t know they’re being ruled by a lying king!
— You will not talk of me that way, and you will lower your voice, boy! howled Arthur. I am Arthur Pendragon! I am your king! I have sacrificied it all! I will have your respect!
An heavy silence settled between the two of them. Galahad and Arthur were glaring at each other. Suddenly, Galahad reached for the Grail, grabbed it, and got on his feet.
— Stop it, Galahad, said Arthur, standing up. What do you think you’re going to do with this?
— I’m going back to the castle, king Arthur. I’m going back there, and I will call out any knights who are there, and tell them I have found the Holy Grail. Then we will call a meeting of the knights of the Round Table, and we’ll celebrate. It will give us reason to celebrate. It will give us salvation. And then, we will able to move on!
— You will do no such thing!
Galahad sniggered… Then realized what he was doing, and his laughter cut abruptly.
— I have found the Grail, king Arthur! It is real! Your farce, the farce that has engulfed this country for years, is over! There is no going back!
— There is.
Arthur took a step forward.
— I am your king, sir Galahad. I am Arthur Pendragon. I command you now, to give this chalice back to me. I will hide it. You will keep this for yourself until your dying days.
— No. No! Can’t you see king Arthur! This has lasted long enough!
— This is for all of our sake.
— It’s only for your sake!
As Arthur said his name in a voice that was a mix of gentleness and sadness, a voice that had sounded so ruthless a second ago but which once again was filled of the warmth and love the king felt for him, Galahad understood. He understood the king’s weaknesses, the king’s doubts, the king’s anguish, the king’s mistakes.
He understood the choices his king had to make.
But he still knew what needed to be done.
— No, sire. No, my king. This must stop.
— I see, murmured the king, in a deeply sad voice.
He looked in the eyes of Galahad and saw the tears that flowed from them. He could feel his own, trailing down his cheeks. He could feel an all-encompassing despair taking him.
Then the holy light of Excalibur illuminated the clearing.
And the sun finally set.
— Very well, thank you very much for your tale, sir Percival! said Bors in a merry voice. This ends, my friends, this very special meeting of the Round Table! I hope you’ll join me, my friends, in a round of applause, to wish to our liege, the good and wise king Arthur, an happy birthday!
He got up and raised his glass. All the other knights did the same.
— May your days be long and filled with light, sire!
A big cheer erupted in the room as the knights noisily applauded and yelled.
With an embarrassed smile, Arthur raised his hands until silence returned to the room.
— Thank you, sir Bors! And thank you all! Let us proceed, my brave Knights of the Round Table, to the dining hall, where we should have a feast waiting for us! Tonight, we celebrate!
The knights gleefully acclaimed their king, then started to exit the room.
— King Arthur, may I have a minute of your time before we go down?
Speaking in hushed tones to Arthur was his loyal ally, Lancelot of the Lake.
— Of course, sir Lancelot! What can I do for you?
— Sire, I just want to say I am so sorry that my son didn’t return to Camelot for this meeting of the Round Table, and on your sixtieth birthday! I want to apologize on his behalf. I promise you I will lecture him on the importance of etiquette, so please do not resent him for his absence.
— You don’t need to apologize, my friend! I understand very well the impatience of youth! And so should you, you know? We were both once guilty of the very same trappings.
The straight-laced Lancelot, was scratching in forehead in embarrassment.
— I understand he came to see you a few days ago? Did he perhaps offer you an explanation?
— He did, yes, but I’m afraid he didn’t explain to me properly where he was going. He told me his months of wondering had led him on the trail to the Grail, but I’m afraid he didn’t get into specifics. Don’t worry, sir Lancelot. He’s a brave young man chasing glory, I’m sure we’ll hear from him soon enough!
Arthur smiled warmly.
— If that is all, I’d suggest we both go, sir Lancelot, before the other knights start drinking without us!
— Ah, just another thing, sire. There is a young man I’d like you to meet! He’s a promising knight, who apparently had a run-in with my son a few weeks ago! He’s come to Camelot to serve you, and caught my attention earlier today.
He turned towards the open door.
— Come on in, lad!
A young man entered the room. He was wearing an ebony black armor and helmet, covering him completely, and knelt in front of the two men. He removed his helmet, revealing black hair, and raised his head, meeting the king’s eyes. Arthur’s blood curled as he saw the dark light in the young man’s piercing gaze.
— It is an honor to meet you, king Arthur. My name is Mordred.
And he smiled, a wry smile that announced the end of days.
There was no pain. Not anymore.
The world faded out, then in again. Then out again.
Who knows how long this lasted.
He had been wounded. Badly.
There had been so many corpses around. Friends. Foes. Britons.
He remembered all of them.
He regretted it all.
Camlann had been a bloodbath.
At some point, someone had come to him.
Bedivere? Yes, it must have been Bedivere.
He had ordered him to throw away the sword. Give it back to the Lady of the Lake. That had been the pact. That had been the promise.
When it had been done, he had felt… Like crushed by darkness. The holy light had guided him for so long, and it was gone.
He had not, however, like he had hoped, felt any release. Fate was apparently not done with him.
How long had it been since then?
At some point, he had heard the sound of water.
A word. Avalon.
Time, stretching and unwinding. Blurred faces, memories and regrets.
The image of a lad. A naive, idealistic knight, with blue eyes and hair like the sun.
A different type of holy light.
The sound of water, again. Land. Riding. Woods. A white castle.
Suddenly, he came to. He was in the stables. Next to him, his white steed was ready. On his head, the crown was shining. Behind him, in the depths of the dining hall, the goblet was waiting to be taken.
But not yet. First, he would go out, and save the lad’s life. He would wait for him to get better. Then he would dine with him. He would give it the object destiny had brought him here to take.
And he would apologize.
Even if nothing could be changed.
Even if it didn’t matter anymore.
Even if the lad would forget it all, and rush to his death believing he had found glory.
Arthur Pendragon, the Grail King, would apologize to his holy knight.