For a long time I've been a big fan of the old Arthurian tales, Mallory & Gottfried and the like. So about three months ago I wrote a short story, my attempt to take an episode like you might find in Le Morte, and do it in a more modern, naturalistic style. If anyone happens to read this, I hope you enjoy.
The noble tale of the Sankgreal is well known, as our illustrious predecessors have done so much to illustrate the deeds of those worshipful knights who sought it. But to paraphrase the Evangelist, should we try to speak of every act of chivalry done by that fellowship, we should never do anything else. Thus, for all the greatness of our forefathers in this craft, one brave lord of the Round Table has had little written of his quest, though it should be spoken of as great and marvelous. To rectify this, I have brought together all I could find of the brave Sir Bedivere of the court of King Arthur, from French books, Irish songs, and the lays of the English, and have set them forth, so that the men of today may benefit from the instruction of virtuous acts...
Sir Bedivere had ridden many days in a vast and hilly forest, following an ancient and cracked road that led through that strange country. Far from his home, he wondered what dangers lurked behind the walls of beeches and other trees. Since he had left the City of Legions to continue seeking the Sankgreal, Bedivere had seen no man, nor any trace that they lived in the wooded vales or near the rocky mounts that he could see in the distance. Only the road attested to the work of human hands. And Bedivere knew that in the lonely places of the world a man might find things great and terrible.
In those lands, all he had felt was weariness. He had ridden many leagues along this road, and yet there was nothing. Days passed where he would speak to his horse just to remind himself how speech sounded in the ear, rather than in the mind. And he did not know if this road even led to the Grail. Bedivere was determined to find it, but he wanted to know if he was on the right track, and the sheer loneliness of his road made him question his decision to enter this seemingly deserted country.
This was not to deny the beauty of the land he found himself in. The gray towers of spice birches(whose wracked bark looked so similar to the stones of the road), scattered oaks, and great crops of silver maples, all were in the glory of their summer leaving. Gentle winds stirred their branches occasionally, and the branches whispered along. Along the cracked flagstones of the way the foliage provided shade from the worst of the summer sun's heat.
Between the beats of his horse's hooves on the road, Bedivere could hear a vast congeries of animal life. Songbirds made their music above him, courting among themselves. Their voices combined to form a symphony or orchestra, making nocturnes and etudes. Families of deer would watch Bedivere warily as he passed by them, before sprinting in the blink of an eye, leaving only the faint susurrus as they fled over last year's fallen leaves. Beyond the gentle slopes Bedivere could hear the splashes of minor streams as they worked their way from the mountains around him down.
It was as he was riding the road along a mountain, a little before midday on the feast of St. Irenaus, that Bedivere was suddenly struck by a feeling of exhaustion. The image of himself falling off his horse came to his mind, and so Bedivere decided to take a rest. A small distance further, and Bedivere was greeted with the sight of a small grassy clearing, sloping slowly to his left, filled with a tall silver maple. Giving thanks to God for this fortune, Bedivere led his horse off the road and dismounted. Taking a small stake from a saddlebag, he hammered it into the soil beneath the shade of the branches, and tied the reins to it.
Looking into his bags, Bedivere made a small worried sound. He had enough provisions for a few more days, but not enough to get him back to the last people he had met. He would have to keep going forward, or starve. “Not that you'll have a problem,” he spoke to his horse, “but I can't eat grass like you.” The beast let out a low whinny, and Bedivere patted its neck.
Walking to the tree, Bedivere sat down amid the roots, and leaned against the gray bark of the trunk. Before he even realized it, he was asleep.
As he slept, he dreamt of the court at Camelot. His vision was filled with bright banners flapping from the turrets of the walls, the heraldry of all the lords of Christendom hanging from every door, the sun gleaming off the armor of the Round Table. Had he left it to search for the Grail so long ago? He could not remember. He saw Sirs Lancelot, Kay, Gawain, Percival, his friends and comrades, in the height of their cheer. How they told their stories from the campaign against Lucius! He saw again Kay showing off the scar from a Roman spear that had nearly pierced his heart, and thought of his own wound at the hands of a Saracen prince. And at the center of it all was his lord, Arthur, more magnificent a king than any. Wise in his laws, strong in courage, humble to God for his blessings, he always seemed to see further than his knights, as if Merlin still advised him, though he had disappeared many years earlier.
But there they all were, and there he was with them, before they had all been given the challenge of the Sankgreal. But who, having been told it was the fate of the Round Table to seek and, if worthy, gain it, would have shirked from that charge? Bedivere had not. He did not know if he was worthy of it, but he would try. To seek it meant to leave that bright court, to venture into strange and unknown lands. It was difficult some days to remember why it was so important to seek.
But in the dream, Bedivere was back at the Round Table, back in the midst of his home.
Too quickly he woke up, and the vision dissipated like smoke. As his eyes fluttered open, he thought he saw flags being waved in the distance. Bedivere rubbed his face with both hands, and opened his eyes on the clearing again. It had only been the wind in the trees. His horse continued contemplating the taste of long grasses, and the sun had only moved a few lengths past its zenith. But something felt off.
Bedivere pushed himself to his feet, and looked around. The road remained in place, leading to some unknown destination, as well as the walls of the forest surrounding him. It was only after a few moments that Bedivere realized what was different – he couldn't hear the forest. It was eerily quiet, the only sound being the slow & scattered thumps of hooves on the earth. Bedivere swallowed, and decided not to stick around longer than he needed to. Quickly set himself on his ride, but before he set off a strong gust of wind came from the west, blowing over the mountains and valleys. With it came a distant sound.
Bedivere sat, and wondered if he had really heard something. But as he remained quiet, he heard another strain. Far, far off, he could hear the sound of voices, women weeping in lament. And in the moment Bedivere knew he had to bring what aid he could. Spurring the steed, he rode with renewed vigor down the road he had looked on before with such weariness. The horse seemed stronger as well, and with each stride he flew over the weathered roadstones. Bedivere could still hear the lament, and with each mile further it seemed clearer and closer, and now he could hear solemn chanting along with it.
The trees sped past Bedivere, and out of the corner of his eye he could see his ride disturb the forest – a small red fox fled from his sight, the birds overhead flew to more peaceful branches.
Louder, louder the cries grew. Many voices were joined in a chorus, their sorrow rising to heaven.
Bedivere found the path rising up and up along the side of a tall hill, and he passed by a crossroads. He was getting closer, and as he followed the bend of a hillside, he saw the road was lined with great white oaks, their branches splayed over the entire width of the way. And on those branches hung black banners, swaying in the wind.
Passing through that avenue, Bedivere emerged from the forest and saw a great fortress, sitting princely on a spur of the mountain. Connecting the mountain to the castle was a single bridge of marble, with blue veins swirling in the stone. It had many tall walls, and cunning turrets, and from it a huge country could be seen, forested and wild. But there were no men on the ramparts, and when Bedivere came to the gates, they were open, and only the sound of weeping could be heard.
Bedivere dismounted in the courtyard, and made his way inside to the chapel. There he saw the women mourners (though he saw one who stood apart, her face that of flint), a bishop clad in the black vestments of a funeral, and his retinue of clerks and monks, and the object of their sadness.
In the center of the room was a dead man, laid on a wooden bearer on top of a stone platform. The man had a noble face, and his folded hands rested on top of his sword. He did not seem that old to Bedivere. As the bishop finished the Requiem Mass, the man's body was carried out by four young men, not much more than boys, and the women followed the clerics, tearing their garments and crying out. Bedivere was unnoticed in their grief, and so followed a distance behind the train. The bishop led them outside the church, to a small plot of open land next to it inside the walls. Many monuments and stone crosses stood there.
There Bedivere stood, and watched as the boys laid the body into a fresh grave, as a final blessing was said. Unnumbered tears were shed, and even Bedivere had to wipe his eyes on his tabard, as he knew that someone regal had been taken from his mortal life. As the grave was filled, and the last words of peace spoken, there was a great silence. Without movement, the attentions of everyone there shifted to the young woman who had kept her silence until then.
She was dressed in mourning robes, but Bedivere could see her face, with subtle cheekbones and a Roman nose. Without a word, she took a large silver crucifix, kissed it, and laid it on the soft dirt. A few soft tears slid off her face and pattered into the dust. But with a spring, she fled from the grave and wailed in despair, leaving the crowd of mourners and clerics.
Bedivere stood there, unsure of what to do. He had come with such fire, but what aid could he give in this case? The man, though he was obviously much loved, would not be brought back by tears earnestly shed, unless the Lord showed pity. A strong arm could do nothing on its own here.
As he tried to think of what to do, the mourners dispersed, and left for their various duties in the castle. An old Gray Friar of the bishop's entourage came up to Bedivere, and saluted him. “Peace of God with you, Sir Bedivere of Camelot,” he said, his voice hoary. Bedivere started at his name.
“A-and with you, Fra...” Bedivere quickly replied. The man was Bedivere's senior by many seasons, with a face folded by wrinkles, but he walked with a solid stride, and he always had a deep contentment in his mien.
“Brother Andrew, at your service. What brings you to this castle of Macedor?” the brother asked.
Bedivere looked at where the woman had run off to, what looked like the main keep of the fortress. She must have been family – a daughter?
“I heard the mourners from far off,” he said, turning back to Andrew, “I thought to bring what aid I could, but now I wonder if I am useless here.”
The old friar had followed Bedivere's sight, and looked up into Bedivere's face. “Aid & succor can take many forms. But you must have just arrived, good sir!” The friar took Bedivere by the shoulder and led him toward a small building. “You must rest, first, and then we shall speak about the tale of this sad place.”
It was then that Bedivere realized what a state he must have looked like as he did then. He followed Andrew into the hospice, and there he took some time to clean himself up from his long travail in the wilderness. He bathed in cold water, combed his hair, and took on the fine raiment given to him by the servants. When he was ready, Andrew led him to a stone balcony that looked over the walls.
The view astounded Bedivere. Miles upon miles of forests, interspersed with large lakes and gentle hills. In the far west, a range of mountains marked the horizon, with one peak in the northwest rising as lord of its peers, its slopes golden with the rays of the setting sun. Bedivere took a few moments to let the sight sink in. This country was larger than he had imagined.
When Bedivere tore his eyes from the vision, he saw that Andrew had laid out a small dinner. “Please, accept this poor hospitality,” the friar said. Bedivere happily accepted, and tore at the bread and soup.
As Bedivere ate, Andrew told him of the castle and its sorrow. The lord he had seen being buried was Rumaret, king of Macedor. A just lord, he had died in the fullness of his life, leaving only his daughter Isabel behind. Isabel had loved her father greatly, and now sought to transform the seat of her father's power into a nunnery, so that she and other women might take the veil, and pray for the repose of his soul.
“A pious intention,” Bedivere said, “but it's difficult for me to see what brought about that cry she made if that is what she plans to do. Unless something prevents her from attaining it? Might I speak with her?”
Andrew shook his head slowly. “Isabel has ordered none to disturb her until tomorrow.”
“What happens then?” Bedivere asked.
But Andrew remained silent on that matter, and instead the two spent time speaking of Camelot. Once Bedivere began speaking, he could hardly stop his tongue. He spoke of the fairs, courts, jousts he had participated in, and melees he had triumphed in. He told Andrew all the stories he could remember, even the ones that only he might find interesting. But the friar showed no signs of boredom or discomfort, and Bedivere was not sure that even had Andrew been so discomfited, he could have stopped himself.
But soon the sun set beneath the western peaks, and Bedivere took his rest in the hospice.
In the morning of the next day, a great peal of horns was heard coming down the same road Bedivere had. At the sound, the lady Isabel led a large retinue of women out onto the bridge connecting the castle and the mountain. Bedivere followed, and stood in the back, wondering what would happen. Isabel had changed to clothes befitting her station, with a long white veil pouring down her back.
Emerging from the forest was a large party of knights, their arms shining brightly in the morning sun. Their flags flapped in the breeze, and their steeds pawed restlessly. At the head of the party was a large man, about Bedivere's age, with a thick beard and heavy brow. He was armored well. Bedivere knew his type well. A man made for warring. He rode to the edge of the bridge.
“Lady Isabel!” he cried. “I trust you have done your filial duty to the corpse of your father?”
“My father Rumaret is buried, and his grave blessed, Lord Drust,” she replied to his impudence.
Drust slapped his thigh. “Then the mourning is over! And now you must take my hand and be my wife, that I might rule this fine stronghold as well as my home of Valacin.”
Bedivere was incensed at the knight's speech. The villain sought to force Isabel to marry him! And the intention of such an armed group was clear – Drust would take her if she declined. No wonder she had been so distraught yesterday!
“Please, Lord Drust,” the bishop spoke up, “I beg you to reconsider your action. The maid Isabel desires to dedicate herself to God alone, and live a life of prayer.”
Drust laughed. “And so she may do, in my home! If she will not come, I will bring her,” he looked pointedly at the bishop, his hand resting on the hilt of his sword, “and I will find a churchman who finds this agreeable!”
Silence hung over Isabel's group. But Bedivere would not allow such a deed to happen before him. Bedivere walked to Isabel's side, gaining the attention of everyone.
“By what right do you claim Macedor's maiden?” he shouted over to Drust. Isabel looked at Bedivere, unsure of who he was.
Drust laughed again. “Right? By the right that I am her neighbor, and that she is without father, brother, nor protector. But who are you to speak? I see you wear a sword, but you are just one man.”
Bedivere ignored the threat. “I am Sir Bedivere, knight of Arthur, king of all Britain and Emperor of Rome! Peer of the Round Table! Conqueror of Prince Ebrox of Arabia, and the giant Orgoglio!” Bedivere's voice rang with authority, and the knights of Drust's party were suddenly afraid that such a champion stood before them.
Drust was shaken, and much of his arrogance had melted away. “S-so you are, sir knight. But why do you seek to place yourself into a negotiation you have no business entering?”
Bedivere replied, “As a knight of King Arthur, I have been given the leave of my lord to enforce his peace, that violence may not be done to justice.”
Bedivere turned to Isabel, and unbelting his wide-bladed sword (called Plaindre, or 'Regret' in the French tongue, for any foe would mourn being against it) knelt and presented it to her. “Please, good maid, let me be your arm in this, that I might fulfill the oath I made to God, my king Arthur, and all men living and dead, to secure and defend the rights of all ladies, religious, widows, and any maid who should ask for my aid.”
Isabel hesitated, unsure of how this blessing had come to her. But she put her hands on the scabbard, and spoke, “Sir Bedivere, will you swear to give aid to me, that I might make my vow and dedicate my life entire to God?”
Bedivere answered without pause, almost without thinking. “I swear it, on the honor of the object of my quest.” When he had spoken the words, he felt a shiver run through his body. He had invoked something dangerous, and he prayed to God that he might be found worthy of such statements.
Isabel drew Bedivere up, and he could see the hope in her face. He couldn't bear to see her despair again.
Bedivere turned to Drust, who seemed ready to burst with steam. His eyes were shaded, and he snorted like his horse.
“I seek to keep the peace, that all the subjects of our king may make their livelihoods without fear. Will you accept my arbitration?” Bedivere asked.
“Never!” Drust spat. His hand gripped his sword so tightly the leather creaked.
Bedivere kept calm. “Then will you accept the judgment of the Lord on this case? I shall fight for Isabel, and either you or your champion may face me.”
A murmur ran through both parties. Bedivere was willing to lay his life on the line.
Drust sat on his horse, contemplating Bedivere's offer. He grinned with an ugly smile. “I believe I shall take you up on your offer, Sir Bedivere. You will fight my champion, Sir Maxen.”
Isabel's party gasped.
“So be it,” Bedivere said.
Quickly the two parties began their preparations. Bedivere was attired in his arms of dark steel, with mail so cunningly wrought it moved like cloth underneath his harness. Over all his protection he wore his tabard, emblazoned with his crest – Paly tres vert and azure, a hippogriff segreant or.
Isabel also presented her late father's destrier to Bedivere to ride. The stallion was beautiful and strong, 16 hands tall. Bedivere was humbled at the generosity.
Soon enough, Bedivere was ready for his fight. Riding the destrier out of the walls, he saw what field Drust's men had created. On the bridge itself, they had set up a course for the joust, and they had cleared a small level field on the mountain should the combatants come to melee. The flags of the various knights were planted around the grounds, and a stand for Isabel's train had been constructed. The sun had passed noon an hour or two earlier, and Bedivere felt the sweat begin to bead on his forehead, even as he held his helm in hand.
Bedivere led his horse to the jousting course, and saw Sir Maxen on the other end. He could see why Isabel's people had been so afraid. The man was great in stature, with wrists as thick as Bedivere's neck. He left his helmet off as well, showing a much-scarred face, and sneered at Bedivere.
“Hail, peer of Camelot!” Maxen called out. “Though we have all awaited you, you may still withdraw from your obstinancy, and so retain your life.”
“Hail, Maxen of Valacin,” Bedivere responded. “You speak boldly, before even the first tilt.”
Maxen slapped his gauntlet against his shield. “Because my strength is mighty! Ten tall knights have I slain, even knights as venerable as you, servant of Arthur, and taken their arms and mounts for my own enrichment. Before this day is over it shall be eleven, and that fine horse you have been gifted shall be added to my fields.”
Bedivere took the helm and put it on. “God shall decide our principals' case through our contest. He shall give strength to the victor.”
“Then let us begin!” Maxen cried. At that, the heralds blew their trumpets, and spoke of the two knights to battle. All around the course, the spectators held their breaths at the expectation of a great sight.
With the first horn blow, the knights spurred their steeds toward each other. The marble resounded with the footfalls of the warhorses. Bedivere couched his lance, and with a deft eye he was able to slam the point into Maxen's tall shield. But Maxen was stout, and the lance shattered into pieces at the impact. At the other end of the course, Bedivere was given another spear, and turned to face his opponent. He had hoped that a strike like that might unhorse Maxen, but not then. Bedivere set his jaw.
At the second blow, Bedivere managed to swing the point of his spear inside Maxen's shield, and thrust the point at his chest. Again, the lance was destroyed by the force of the blow, but Maxen, although knocked back into his saddle, was still riding. At this second display of endurance, Drust's men began to feel more confident in their proxy, that even a knight of Arthur could be brought low by him. Isabel and her people lapsed into silence. Some of them had seen Maxen in contest before, and knew what was happening.
At the third tilt, Bedivere was unable to make a strike of his own when he saw the point of Maxen's lance come flying toward him. Pulling up his shield, the spear smashed into Bedivere, and the strength behind it forced it even further. Bedivere couldn't stay in the saddle, and with a lurching of his stomach he saw the cloudless sky for an instant, before slamming onto the ground.
It took Bedivere a moment to regain his bearings. He hurt, but he twisted his body, and pushed himself up to his feet. He could hear Drust and his men cheering, but as if through cotton in his ears. He looked at Maxen, and patted Plaindre's hilt. Maxen roared, and followed Bedivere to the melee field. The took up opposite sides of the field, and readied themselves. Bedivere took his sword from the scabbard, and swung it through the air.
Plaindre was a wide and long sword, dark gray, and although most beautiful in form, was little adorned, with a fine red leather grip, and a large emerald set in the middle of the crossguard. It had never failed Bedivere before, and he prayed that it would not fail now.
Maxen had a large, two-handed axe, and Bedivere did not want to feel it bite into his body, armored or not.
The fight began, and Bedivere's mind stopped. He did not think, but acted, with the strength of years of experience in his bones. And he had only one object to direct himself to – the defeat and submission of Maxen.
To the spectators, the battle began slowly, with the two circling each other, slowly getting into arm's reach. Maxen would swing, trying to keep Bedivere out, but he would dart in and make a fast swing before Maxen could react. Several times Bedivere struck Maxen thus, but without drawing blood. Growing frustrated, Maxen tried charging Bedivere, intending to grapple with him and choke the life out of his body.
Bedivere saw the knight's thought, but though he tried to get out of the way, Maxen was still able to knock him over. Maxen tried to take advantage of that, and with a great cry he brought his axe down with a swing, which Bedivere rolled away from. The blade embedded itself into the dirt, and Bedivere kicked the handle, knocking it out of Maxen's grip.
As Maxen picked the axe back up, Bedivere took to his feet again. But he looked slower than before, and his movements lacked the sheer power they had shown earlier. Maxen advanced on Bedivere, who gave ground.
At that, Maxen sprang forward, and jabbed the spike on top of his axe into Bedivere's shoulder. The point burst through the pauldron and chain, and Bedivere began bleeding, his left arm hanging uselessly from his shoulder. Drust and all his men leaned forward, hoping to catch the killing blow that they knew would come soon. Isabel prayed for Bedivere's safety.
Bedivere made a few hits against Maxen, but nothing seemed to strike through to the man himself. Maxen, knowing his victory was at hand, began to swing almost wildly, hoping merely to catch Bedivere in his arc.
After a few misses, Maxen decided he had had enough of this fool before him. Raising his axe high, he brought it down with the force to split stones, hoping to open Bedivere from head to groin. But as Maxen brought the axe down, Bedivere turned out not to be as slow as Maxen had assumed. The axe bit into the earth again, and Bedivere stood to the side. With a cry of his own, Bedivere brought Plaindre down on Maxen's right arm, cutting through his armor and slicing the forearm off. A great rush of blood erupted from Maxen's arm, and everyone watching was left astounded. Maxen cried out in pain, and Bedivere tore his helm off before pointing Plaindre at him.
“Do you yield?” Bedivere cried.
Maxen held his arms to his chest, leaving bloody trails on his breastplate. “I yield!”
Bedivere's shoulders slumped, and Isabel's people erupted into cheers. Drust's men were dumbfounded, before some of them ran to their comrade's assistance. Bedivere walked over to Isabel and Drust, and sheathed Plaindre.
Bedivere looked straight at Drust, and the lord was afraid. No man had ever beaten his champion before. As Drust looked into Bedivere's eyes he knew the man could fight again, even how he was, and would probably defeat his retainers still.
Drust stood from his chair, and swallowed hard. “In light of the judgment of God, I, Lord Drust, do hereby forswear forevermore any claim to marriage with the lady Macedor, and any claim to her realm.”
“The case is done, justice has been preserved,” Bedivere spoke. He looked over at Isabel, who had her hands over her mouth. Tears streamed down her cheeks, but these were tears of joy, not of despair.
Later that evening, after Bedivere had his shoulder wound dressed, Isabel and several other maids were consecrated to the cloistered life by the bishop in the church of Macedor castle, and at the end of the rite a great Te Deum was taken up by everyone in attendance.
Before the new nuns went into the keep, though, Isabel went to Bedivere, and stopped him from kneeling.
“I cannot thank you enough, Sir Bedivere. You gave life to my hopes when it seemed there would be no escape. Is there anything I can do to repay you? A gift?” she asked.
Bedivere smiled. “No, Sister, nothing like that.” He stopped and thought for a second. “I only ask this of you, that you pray that I might be found worthy of my quest.”
Isabel smiled, and said “Then peace with you.”
Bedivere kissed her hand. “With you as well.”
With that, the sisters began their new life of prayer.
Bedivere spent a few more days in the hospice, until his shoulder was healed well. Early in the month, he was ready to begin his search anew. He rose early, and with the help of a young squire his horses were rigged for travel. Bedivere made sure he had plenty of rations for the road ahead. He was about to leave when he heard Friar Andrew's voice.
“Why must you leave so soon?” the old man asked.
Bedivere pulled on his mount's reins to turn to him. “My quest cannot end here. I seek something great.”
“You seek the Sankgreal?” the mendicant asked.
Bedivere's eyes widened. “You know of it?” he asked quickly.
Andrew chuckled. “Only a few details. It is not an easy object to attain.”
“Yes, but the peers of the Round Table seek to gain it, that we might honor our sovereign and our God.”
Andrew was silent for a moment. “Seek the mountains to the west,” he said after some time, “I do not know the way, but I believe it might be found there.”
Bedivere's heart soared. His quest might be found. It was small, but it was enough.
“Thank you, dear friar!” Bedivere cried.
Waving him off, Andrew watched Bedivere fly over the bridge and down the road, and then disappear into the forest.
For Bedivere had only begun his trial for the Sankgreal.