by Andrew Lee-Hart
Onward he rode, / the trees dead about him / For I have slain the one true king / And I am cursed and forlorn.
Lancelot by an unknown poet, (my translation)
After the battle
Lancelot rode through the forest, his body sore from blows and hunger, whilst his memory was full of the sights of Hell; soldiers lying dead in their armour or crying in pain, the horses, slain in their hundreds, covered in flies and feasted upon by crows, and the grass stained dark red with blood. Worst of all, his beloved king, Arthur, whom he had betrayed, staggering away with a sword through his guts and then collapsing dead under an apple tree. And pressing down upon him, so could barely breath, was the knowledge that it was all his doing.
After the Battle of Camlann, almost half a year ago now, he had ridden away from Camelot, leaving his squire and his armour behind, he was wounded but this bothered him not as he had been wounded many times before, his body a mass of white scars, scars that Guinevere loved to kiss and trace with her forefinger. And where was she, Camelots Queen? Mourning her husband and the death of all that is heroic and chivalrous. Did she hate him he wondered, the last sight of her had been those brown eyes looking at him with horror and fear, before she turned away to run after her Lord who had caught them by the lake, naked and in each others arms.
After being caught Guinevere had hidden herself away in the depth of the castle, whilst Arthur had sunk into despair, his ager turning inwards rather than towards Lancelot who deserved it. The ever-watchful Mordred seized his chance and marched to attack the weak kingdom and its impotent king. At Camlann the two armies fought from first light until well into the evening when all the main protagonists were either dead, or like Lancelot incapable of striking another blow, Lancelot who had gone where the slaughter was thickest in the hope that he would die, but God would not even grant him that.
Lancelot had been riding through this forest for almost a day, a dark-haunted place with no sound, not even the cries of birds or the howling of the many wild creatures that hunted in these parts. The world truly smelt different since the battle, a smell of blood and damp which was everywhere; an era was over, an era of bravery, of rescuing the persecuted and fighting the wicked, a time when goodness was possible, and one could strive for perfection. But when the temptation to do evil, Guinevere seen emerging from a lake with breasts so much larger than he had expected, he had barely even bothered with token resistance, but taken her and not cared who he hurt in so doing.
He heard the faintest of noises, a footfall, which woke him from his reverie and he realised that there were three men cautiously coming towards him, all armed with swords, one who had ventured closer and grabbed his horses bridle, Lancelot kicked him hard and the man fell, and then he leapt off his horse, sword in hand. The three men hesitated which gave him the chance he needed to stab the nearest of them in the stomach, who fell with a scream, the other two advanced but he knew how to fight surely and swiftly, so that soon all three were lying on the ground before him, wounded but none dead.
Who are you? he asked.
Just poor men trying to earn a living. A young man spoke, blonde and tough but clearly without food, he winced and held his thigh where Lancelot had stabbed him, how else can we earn a living in these times? Our village was destroyed a few days ago, we tried to fight but they were too much for us, they took some of our young women and the rest either were killed or like us managed to escape.
But who are they? He asked.
They shout the name of Mordred, but we dont know who that is. They take and murder, they are not the first, but in the past we have managed to fight them off, but not this time.
Mordred is dead Lancelot told them, but his name is a symbol and people still use it.
The young man nodded, we fled to the forest, and have tried to stay alive; there are few animals to kill so we waylay passers-by and steal from them, but you are the first we have seen for days.
Launcelot did his best to bandage their wounds and they built a fire and ate some food that he had in his saddle bags.
Why has this happened?, the young man asked even the wild animals have disappeared.
He shrugged, Arthur is dead, now we need to fight for ourselves.
All these kings, it is us the poor who get hurt, not the rich and powerful. The young man paused a moment and chewed some tough meat. I blame the Jews. He continued, Arthur should have rid them from his kingdom.
Who? Launcelot asked.
The killers of Christ, they are driven out of every land now they have settled here to practice their strange rites and to kill our children.
The four of them continued to eat and then they slept around the fire, Lancelot not fully asleep in case they tried to attack him again. At daybreak he left them, asleep and vulnerable curled up together; ready victims for whoever found them first, that is if they survived from the wounds he had inflicted upon them. They did not wake as he mounted his horse and rode away.
What kind of world have I brought about? he asked himself. Leagues away wolves howled; hungry and desperate.
He came out of the woods and a moor stretched onwards before him, bleak and cold; in the distance he saw a bear, upright against the skyline and he gripped his sword just in case it headed towards him, but it went back onto four legs and lumbered away towards the West. Ahead of him the moor seemed endless and barren, leaving him feeling exposed as he rode onwards, the only figure on the landscape.
Launcelot rode through villages that looked half-made and with inhabitants who were poor and desperate; everywhere he went he heard the same story of random attacks by violent men, of plagues of insects that destroyed crops and of rivers and lakes turned bitter and undrinkable. He wondered if England had always been like this, if he had just not been aware living in luxury in Camelot where danger and hardship were chosen not forced upon you. Could the country have changed so swiftly in a matter of months? Could the death of Arthur have really rent England asunder? The sky looked grey and heavy with clouds, with rarely a sight of sun, and there was rain, not a cleansing rain but drizzle that smelt of smoke and was sticky, as if there were poison in it.
He was running out of food now; his saddlebags were virtually empty, and he had not come across any wild game to replenish them with, whilst crops lay dead in the fields, and trees gave forth grey and withered fruit. His stomach felt sore with lack of sustenance and his mouth fetid and disgusting from the water he was forced to drink.
He came across a village on a hill, appearing to be built in the shell of a ruined castle; a group of children came out and stared at him as he dismounted and walked towards them. There were wooden huts in a circle and they looked in better condition than those he had come across previously. An older man came out of a hut, perhaps an elder of the town.
Who are you? he asked. His accent was not one Lancelot had come across before and he barely understood it. Behind the elder were men and women from the town who stared at the stranger, and soon the whole town joined them.
A poor knight. I have not eaten for several days. I have silver and other items to pay with.
They took him to a large hall and gave him a bowl of vegetable stew. The Elder, who said his name was Lucas, sat at his side.
Where are you from? he asked the Knight as he ate.
The South, I have just been wandering, trying to find peace.
The man laughed bitterly, I doubt you will find that. We too are looking to move on, find somewhere more fertile. Our animals have died; either of fever or carried off by wolves. A year or two ago we would have given you a magnificent welcome but now all we can offer you is this. And the man gestured with contempt at what was left in the bowl, which in truth had been tasty, certainly more toothsome than anything else he had eaten since he was at Court.
He was given a bed in a small hut, again Lucas apologised for the poverty of what he was being offered, but it proved to be comfortable, certainly more so than the earth, where he been used to taking his rest. As he started to drift off to sleep the door of the hut opened and a young woman wearing just a shift which she was undoing as she entered, walked in and crossed over to his bed. She had long straight hair and her breasts glowed faintly in the moonlight. It had been a long time since he had lain in the arms of a woman, and after Guinevere he had thought it would not happen again, but he was too tired to resist and what followed was like a beautiful dream.
Afterwards he started to doze and only faintly heard her leaving him. He turned to settle but then his horse whimpered and grabbing his sword, which fortuitously he had left under his bed, Launcelot strode naked out into the night. The whole village was packed and ready to leave and they were around his horse, feeling the saddle bags.
Away he shouted, and as Lucas, the elder came at him with a short knife, he decapitated him with one stroke of his sword. He had kept his sword sharp and true and it hissed as he swung it. The other villagers stood off, presented with this naked man covered in scars and swinging a fearsome sword. He leapt onto his horse and swiftly rode away carrying on towards the North, none of the villagers daring to follow him.
Days later he rode through a meadow, which was green and fresh, and through it there flowed a stream which he drank from and bathed in; for the first time he had come across water that was fresh and pure, and did not taste of death, it was cold, and above his head the sky seemed to clear a little and he could see occasional patches of blue behind the grey. Once dressed and his horse having eaten his full, he followed the stream leading his horse to rest it. There was almost complete silence, only the slightest of ripples from the lake and the noise of the horse as he strode along beside his master.
He came to a small white house which abutted onto the river, he knocked on the door, but nobody answered, however as it was clearly lived-in he sat outside and waited for whoever lived there to return, eventually he fell asleep in the brown grass, his face warmed by the sunshine. As he slept he dreamed of Guinevere, she was dressed in all her finery; an emerald cloak and on her head the silver crown, she was walking away from him down a long path, but every so often she turned to look at him, with eyes that said, follow me. He tried reach her, urging his horse on feverishly, but however fast he rode she grew more and more distant. He shouted her name, but even the sound refused to travel and soon she was a green speck in the distance. He called her name again and then awoke.
The door of the house was open, and he could smell cooking; a tall, red-haired woman was stirring something in a pot.
You are awake at last she smiled at him. I had a dream that someone like you might appear, although I have no idea why.
They dined together, cooked flesh for the first time since he could remember, and he ate until he could not eat anymore. The woman looked at him with pity, she was dressed in rags but was striking in her beauty.
Where you live, it doesnt seem affected by the blight of elsewhere.
She shrugged, I am a wise woman, or a witch as the locals call me, I know what say, what spells to cast. But there is so much darkness coming from all sides, so that soon even this place will be overrun.
He told her of Guinevere and of the dream that he had.
Did you not think of going after her?
She is the Queen, or was, my betrayal of Arthur was such a wicked thing, this is not a romance and what I did was past everything.
Do you know where she is now? she asked.
I believe that she is in a nunnery, begging God for forgiveness.
Or for you to come to her rescue.
But the world has fallen apart because of my actions.
The world is always falling apart. Arthur was at fault, Mordred, your companions, do not take everything on to you.
She leant over and kissed him hard, and for a moment he felt forgiven and at peace. He slept alone, and when he awoke most refreshed, she had left the hut but there was food for him on the table for breakfast and provisions for the journey ahead.
Perhaps she was right Lancelot thought, he set off heading to the South, at last he had a purpose to his wanderings.
Search for a Queen
For much of his journey he travelled along by the sea entranced by the waves and the sense of freedom they gave him. He had heard that Guinevere was in Bangor and so headed towards Wales, it was just a rumour, a voice in the wind, but it was all he had, and it was somewhere to go to, if she wasnt there he could try elsewhere.
As he was riding he overtook a man wearing a large hat who was also on horseback, he seemed peaceable and the two men rode in step.
Who are you? Lancelot asked.
Abraham and he bowed slightly, I am a Rabbi, but a Rabbi without a congregation.
He looked young with barely a beard, but if you gazed into his eyes there was something ancient in there, ancient and strong, and he seemed finely built, as if he could fight if called upon to do so.
Where did your congregation go?
The Rabbi smiled, I was sent over from Germany where I had been studying, but when I arrived in Lincoln, where I was due to teach, there were no Jews, the local people blamed them for the poor weather, so they drove them out, those that they didnt kill.
What are you doing now?
I will look, somebody will need me. I used to live here in England, but it has changed so much even just two years.
For the better?
For better and for worse. Before persecution of Jews was by the King and his courtiers, now it is by the discontented. I am not sure which is worse. But at least the weather was better before, and crops grew in the fields.
The two men continued on into Wales, the sea, which lay on the right of them, looked dark and dangerous, sometimes a strange head would emerge from the waves, some creature from the depths, or was it just a trick of light on the sea? They saw birds overhead, but they were all heading away from land towards the sea and to other countries and dominions and one damp morning, as Launcelot arose he looked up and there in the distance he saw something large and stately slowly flying away.
A dragon he murmured almost to himself, if they are leaving then the kingdom is doomed.
That Friday evening the two men ate together, they had done all their work before the sun fell and so were able to rest for the sabbath. Abraham talked of Moses and the children of Israel in the desert, and then quoted from Jeremiah and the Psalms. They had made camp in a grove of trees, peaceful and warm, the two men rested and talked of their pasts, not setting off again until Sunday morning. Launcelot had been baptised, but with this man of a strange faith he felt closer to God than he had ever done before, and as they journeyed he asked him more about his beliefs and his practices.
They came across a castle just outside the large town of Pendrach.
I have stayed here in happier days he told Abraham but I do not want them to know my name or my history. When so many are displaced we will not stand out, and it will be good to escape this rain.
They arrived at the castle as the day was coming to its end. It was the middle of the summer, but although the sun was warm, the sky was an everlasting grey, and the land smelt damp with the continual rain. The two men were let into the castle and were given beds in a dormitory and an evening meal in the refectory where other travellers and servants were given food.
As they ate their bread and lentils some men walked up to the high table and started to eat, Lancelot recognised My Lord Dafydd, who looked at least twenty years older than he had last time Lancelot had seen him despite it being less than two summers past, his wife, the beautiful Lady Myfanwy was not there, and Lancelot hoped that she was abroad and safe, and not dead. Lancelot and his companion were hidden away at the back of the hall and thus could not see the high table well, so it was some moments before he realised who the tall, distinguished looking man was who had come in with Lord Dafydd, this man he knew as well as anybody, someone who he had shared adventure and friendship, Gawain, still looking noble but troubled and grey, at least he had survived the battle. For a moment he thought of Gawain and remembered his humour and his kindness to all he met, as well as his bravery which was always lightly worn.
Launcelot did not want to look at his old friend, but irresistibly his eyes were drawn towards the high table and he neglected the Rabbi at his side who, realising that his companion was distracted, soon lapsed into silence. Gawain was facing the throng of soldiers and travellers, and he seemed to look them over, this continual watchfulness was a good habit to have particularly now when any man could be desperate, and all rules of chivalry and hospitality were at an end. For a moment the knight looked over at Lancelot, and seemed to start, the two mens eyes met, and they stared at each other, and then Gawain turned and said something to his host before striding out of the room.
Lancelot was expecting to be dragged out of the castle or thrown into the dungeon, but he and the Rabbi slept peacefully and left the next morning without hindrance. They made camp that night and Lancelot unpacked his saddle bags; fresh food had been put in them and a flagon of ale, and there at the bottom of the saddle bag was a gold ring that Lancelot recognised from Gawains hand, something he was never without. Launcelot wept as he looked at the gifts which Gawain had left for him whilst Abraham, tactfully built a fire whilst whistling a melody that he had had in his head all that day.
As they headed towards Bangor they saw three more dragons at different times during the day, heading out over the sea, perhaps to Ireland or beyond.
You should be happy Abraham said, you spent your time slaying dragons, rescuing damsels from their fiery breath.
Oh, that was exaggerated, and they are noble creatures who hurt no-one. Dragons still belong here, and it troubles me greatly that they are leaving the country.
They saw a fourth dragon just as they entered the town of Bangor, it flew directly above their heads, by the looks of it, it was an ancient creature, perhaps it was alive when the first people landed on this island, and now it was time to go and find sanctuary elsewhere. Fire blew from his mouth, and the two men, despite being so far below him, could smell something dark and primeval as the creature made its way through the sky.
Lancelot remembered Bangor when it had been thriving and full of people from the villages round about, there were still people but less of them, and they walked with heads bowed and there was little talk. Lancelot and Abraham were stared at as they rode through the high street and they were both glad when they were out the other side. The nunnery was further along and involved climbing what was known as Mynydd Bangor (Bangors mountain), they walked their horses up the steep hill, down below them they could see the town, looking less threatening from above and there were the Menai Straits and on the other side the black Island of Anglesey.
It was getting dark as they reached the gates for the nunnery, Lancelot knocked loudly on the gate with the handle of his sword, the sound echoed and then there was silence.
Abraham said Let me try, and he rapped more gently and the large door was immediately opened by a female servant.
Can we speak to the head sister please? asked Abraham. The servant looked askance, she was dark and looked tough, but she shut the door and went back inside. The two men looked at each other as they waited. After a few moments a nun, grey-haired and gaunt came out to see them.
I have come to talk to one of your nuns, Guinevere Lancelot told her
I will see if she will receive you. Abraham remained outside with the horses whilst Lancelot headed into the nunnery.
The room was clearly for visitors, there were two chairs and a torch which spluttered, but at least gave light and a little heat. He sat and thought what he needed to say, his heart trembled at the thought of seeing Guinevere again. Quietly she entered the room, she looked even more beautiful in a habit than she had ever done as Queen, her long black hair was covered but her face looked pale, her eyes brown, holy and calm, and Launcelot felt daunted for the first time since setting off to find her.
I wondered if you would try to find me. She spoke quietly, her accent a strange mixture that he had never been able to quite place.
It took me awhile. I still love you my lady, I see no purchase in spending our time mourning the past.
Why what have you got to offer me? A castle? Knights to restore order to this benighted island? Or perhaps you have the Holy Grail, for all men to worship? She paused, perhaps regretting her sarcasm, and when she spoke again her tone was gentler, I can do some good here; we help the towns people and it is a place of safety if they are attacked.
He argued for awhile, but she was adamant. Whilst he had known that she would need persuading he had thought that he would eventually prevail.
We have both done wrong, we cannot have a happy ending, but instead we must strive in our different ways to make the world right again, to undo the wrong that we have done.
He looked full of woe.
But for how long must we carry on with this penance?
For as long as we both live, there is no end to the trouble we have caused, and there should be no end to our striving to make things better.
But I love you. He told her, his eyes filled with tears.
There are more important things than love, the poor have no time for such frivolous emotions they are too busy trying to survive. You must go now she told him, it has been good to see you my Lord, but this must be the last time. You need to find your destiny, you have much to offer, but not with me, not ever with me.
She turned and left the room and that was the last that he saw of her. Abraham was still waiting for him at the nunnery door, and the two men slept outside before setting off before the sun rose the following morning.
Lancelot and the Rabbi stayed together for the moment and travelled across the country to Nottingham where Abraham had heard there was a group of Jews living. They arrived within a fortnight, it was a magnificent city seemingly less affected by the troubles than elsewhere, much of Nottingham overlooked the River Trent which flowed out into the distance, through fields and villages. They rode through the city gate and Abraham found a small group of Jewish families, enough to form a Minyan and he settled.
Are you staying here? Abraham asked his friend.
No. My destiny lies elsewhere, I am glad you have found what you are looking for, but I must keep on travelling.
Launcelot stayed for a week and then left the city with supplies and a new horse.
The Knight who refused to die
In a small Southern Italian village there lived a warrior who never grew old; he still looked the same as when he had ridden into the village many years ago on a white horse with a sword by his side. He was originally from England but had travelled many miles throughout Europe and perhaps even further but he now felt compelled to settle down and live the rest of his life in this small obscure place.
In those days the village was ruled by a cruel and rapacious baron who took whatever he wanted and laid everything to waste. The English knight came to his castle one evening with his sword in his hand and when he left the following morning, the baron and his best soldiers lay dead and the servants had fled. The Knight then ordered the castle to be burnt down and declared that there would be no more barons or kings and that if anybody tried to hurt the village, be it human or daemon, he would protect them, and he kept his word, although as news of the brave and ruthless Knight spread, few cared to test him.
The Knight moved into a small house overlooking the village which had been empty for many years, and there he settled. Many women came to him, but he refused them all, just allowing the elderly woman called Gina, who many thought was a witch, to clean and cook for him, and when she died her daughter took over her duties, and eventually her daughter in turn. He planted crops around his cottage and he trained the young men how to fight and to be chivalrous. Only on Friday night, when the sun set would he stop work and then he prayed and sang songs in a strange tongue until the sun went down on Saturday night. and that was his day of rest.
Sometimes at night he would look out over the sea as if he were searching for something, and the young men who followed him about, would sit with him and respect his silence, a respect due to such a good and holy man, and then he would sigh and tell them of his past, of the good king Arthur and his beautiful Queen, and of dragons and brave knights.
What happened to them all? asked Amadeo, the youngest and most attentive of his followers.
They died many years ago, many in battle some in old age in a nunnery or a monastery. Even my friend the Rabbi will be underground, mourned by many.
How could you have known them all, you still seem young and are so healthy.
Because God has not willed it. Every morning when I arise from my bed I pray for release, to join my comrades, and for forgiveness, but I am still alive, serving my penance.
The young men all left him sitting quietly on the cliff edge, all except Amadeo, whose father was said to be the Priest and who sang like a nightingale.
I will pray with you he said.
Thank you the Knight responded, and the two sat together, huddled together for warmth, and both prayed in their different ways, using prayers they had been taught by holy men who loved God. The sea looked black but calm, and in the distance they could see fishing boats, and there was the moon looking larger than in England, and brighter. Launcelot thought about his country and hoped that peace had come to it and decency, and wondered if he and Arthur were remembered, and how. He had heard that the blight was slowly lifting, and that the country was becoming civilised again, although it would never be what it once was.
And then Amadeo started to sing, quietly at first so that one could hardly hear him, it was as if the sound came from the sea below and the skies above, but then the words came out true and clear, as he sang an ancient song from the Italian south about a woman who falls in love with a merchant who on his way back from a distant land drowned at sea, and from then on, every night she prayed for him to return to her. And then one night he did return fresh from his grave covered in seaweed and smelling of salt and he took his love with him back to the ocean where they could swim forever.
Amadeo stopped singing and looked down at the knight by his side; his eyes were closed and his face shone golden in the dark. Amadeo kissed his forehead, which was cold, and then he hurried towards the village to call his father, weeping as he ran, for the great knight was dead and everything was ordinary again.
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