Authors: Robert Doherty
Tags: #Science Fiction, #Thriller, #Fantasy, #Contemporary, #Adventure
M any people must have died.” Donnchadh was lying next to Gwalcmai, his arm around her, near the stern of the boat. The sail flapped in the light breeze, propelling the ship to the northwest.
“Yes.” Gwalcmai said no more and they were quiet for a while, both looking up at the stars.
“Do you think—” Donnchadh began, but Gwalcmai gently put a hand over her mouth.
“Shhh,” he whispered. “This is what we came here to do. This is going to be a very long war. Very long. And it’s just begun.”
The king was dying, and with him the promise of a new age. That was clear to the few surviving knights who huddled around his bloodied body in the middle of the dismal swamp in which they had been fighting Mordred’s forces. They had all known much battle over the past years and they knew a fatal wound when they saw it. They all also knew that no one other than Arthur was capable of leading England out of the darkness it had known for as long as any could remember. The brief hope of peace and prosperity for the land was leaking into the swamp with the king’s blood.
Percival stood astride Arthur’s body, bloody sword gripped in hand, glaring wildly about. Percival was the most faithful of those who had sat at the Round Table, and he had sworn to give his life for his king. Both the oath and his sword were useless now. They needed help of another kind altogether.
“Where is Merlin?” he cried out.
If anyone could save the king, it would be the sorcerer, but none had seen him today. Indeed, searching for the sorcerer—and the wondrous Grail he was rumored to have— was the reason the king’s army was here. As it was also the reason the usurper Mordred’s forces were here. The battle had begun this morning and the fighting had been brutal and fierce throughout the grim day.
It was a dark day, hung with dank clouds that rumbled with thunder, muting the moans and screams of the wounded. Shortly after the battle had been joined, a mist had begun to creep through the swamp that encompassed the battlefield. Arthur’s men could still hear the sporadic sound of metal on metal all around as the battle sputtered on.
They were safe for the moment, although none knew how the battle was going. Immediately after the king was wounded, they had pulled Arthur back from the front line, through the knee-deep swamp, to this small, dry rise. The growth in the swamp, combined with the mist, was too thick to see more than twenty feet in any direction. For all they knew, their side was losing, although Gawain had struck Mordred a grievous blow before going down.
A cloaked figure loomed out the mist.
“Hold, witch,” Percival ordered, lifting his weary sword arm.
The woman grew as still as the dead trees around them. She pulled back the hood of her long black cloak, revealing a pale face, hollowed by fatigue. Her hair was dark and cropped short, shot with a streak of gray that ran from above her right eye straight back. She held her hands up in a gesture of peace, but Percival did not lower the sword.
“Let me help him,” the woman said.
“Morgana.” Percival said the name as a curse. “You are not to be trusted.”
Morgana looked about. “Where is Sir Gawain?”
“Mordred slew him when he tried to rescue the king.”
Morgana took a step back as if the words were a blow to her chest. “Where does he lie?”
Percival nodded toward the sound of battle. “Out there, somewhere. Among the others. Many have died today because of you and Merlin.”
“You don’t know what you’re talking about,” Morgana said as she moved toward the king.
“He will die if you do not let me help him,” Morgana said.
Percival glanced down. Arthur’s eyes were open and he nodded ever so slightly. Percival yielded to the command, stepping back.
Morgana strode up onto the hillock and knelt next to the stricken king. Her hands went to the rips in his armor, where blood trickled forth. She ripped strips from the bottom of her cloak and stuffed them in the holes, a crude but relatively effective stopgap measure.
“Why do you help me?” Arthur whispered in a voice only she could hear.
“I want you to live until your knights take you to Avalon. There you will give the sword to the Watcher who is there now. Restore the balance.”
Arthur weakly shook his head. “I cannot do that.”
“If you don’t, I will let you die here and take the sword myself. You came here to restore the truce. Let the Watchers take the sword back. They will restore the balance for you.”
“Who are you?” Arthur demanded. “You have worked both sides of this conflict, betraying me and also betraying Mordred. Whom do you serve?”
Arthur said nothing for several seconds, digesting the implications of that answer. “You’re a Watcher?”
“I’m more than a Watcher,” Morgana replied. “Give the sword to the Watcher of Avalon.”
Arthur’s eyelids fluttered, his mind on the edge of unconsciousness. “Who are you?” he asked again weakly.
Morgana didn’t answer and the eyes slid shut. She shoved the last piece of cloth into the final wound, staunching the seepage of blood. “This will help,” she said. She looked up at Percival. “Take him to Avalon.”
Percival’s eyes widened. “The island is said to be haunted.”
“Take him there,” Morgana said. “It is your only hope for him.” She turned in the direction that Gawain had been said to lie.
“Where do you go?” Percival demanded.
“To make sure Mordred is finished.”
As soon as Morgana was gone into the dark mist, Percival issued orders for four other knights to lift the stricken king. As they did so, Percival took the beautiful sword that had lain across the king’s chest. Excalibur. The thing that had started all this just a few years earlier. Despite battle, its edges were unmarked and keen. The pommel was unadorned, unlike many other great swords, but there was no doubting the sense of power and strength emanating from the weapon. Percival wrapped it in his cloak and held it tight as they moved off to the north, heading toward the legendary island of Avalon.
Morgana felt the pull of duty warring with the draw of love as she moved toward the diminishing sound of the fighting. If what Percival said was true—and there was no reason to disbelieve him, as Percival was the noblest and most honest of the knights who had sat at the Round Table—then there was no rush to get to Gawain. Still, her eyes darted about in the mist, looking for his body as she walked toward the clash of metal and men locked in mortal combat.
A figure staggered out of the mist. A knight, his hands to his visor, blood spewing through the metal gap. He had taken a blow through the visor slit, and was now wandering blindly,moaning in pain. He would shortly be food for carrion. Soon she passed other wounded men limping and crawling their way back the way they had come. None she passed were unmarked, a testament to the ferocity of the fighting. Here and there she recognized a knight. Once, to her left, she saw a handful of peasants ripping armor off a prone figure, vultures stripping the dead of anything valuable.
Soon she began to find more bodies. They were grouped in clusters, indicating spots where the lines had met. Some had died arm in arm with their foes, the last embrace of combat.
Morgana paused and took a deep breath. Something was different. She cocked her head and listened. There was no longer any sound of fighting. The battle was over, though who had won, she suspected not even the survivors knew yet. She heard muffled voices somewhere ahead and set off in that direction. The land began to rise and the swamp gave way to grassland. She passed a few tents and knew she was entering Mordred’s camp. He had set up on the west side of the swamp, Arthur’s army on the east. And somewhere in that swamp, among the dead trees and rotting vegetation, was Merlin’s lair, which both armies had been seeking in their quest to find the Grail.
Morgana spotted several standing knights, blue sashes tied around their upper right arms, indicating they were part of Mordred’s army. Encased inside armor suits, many made by the same metalsmiths who worked for pay, not loyalty, it was hard in combat to tell friend and foe apart, so each army had taken to wearing their leader’s colors: Mordred’s blue and Arthur’s royal red. She noted that two of them had eagle plumes on the top of their helmets indicating they were part of Mordred’s elite guard—Guides. She would have to watch those two in particular. The knights were hovering over a prone figure in a once-shining suit of armor. Etched into themetal on the chest was an intricate design of flying dragons that no armorer in England was capable of doing.
Morgana knew that armor well. She walked into the camp as if she belonged. Without a word the knights gave way, allowing her to approach the usurper.
“Move back,” she ordered.
They did as she commanded, except for the two Guides, who could not move away from the man they were programmed to defend. They had no free will, their minds suborned by the machinery of the creature who lay at their feet.
Morgana knelt next to Mordred. The Guides had swords raised, ready to strike her down if she made any threatening move. Like Arthur, Mordred had serious wounds. She lifted his visor and stared into dark eyes that glittered with malice.
He nodded. “Morgana.”
“Where is the Grail?”
His eyes shifted toward his tent, a place she also knew. “It is mine. You don’t know what it is.”
“I do know what it is,” Morgana said.
“You know legends and myth.”
“I know the reality.”
Despite his pain, a frown creased Mordred’s face. “How could that be?”
Morgana did not reply.
“Without the stones—the urim and thummin,” Mordred continued, “the Grail is worthless.”
“I think not,” Morgana said. “Or else why would you be here?”
To that Mordred had no answer.
“Morgana is not my real name.”
Mordred frowned once more.
She leaned closer, until her face was just above his. “Myreal name is Donnchadh. I was born on a world far from here. A world where those whom you serve ruled just like they rule here. But we—humans—defeated them. I came here to help these humans defeat you and those you serve also.” She glared at him. “Mordred, better known as Aspasia’s Shadow.”
With that, she slid the dagger she had hidden up the sleeve of her cloak into the opening of his visor, jerking the blade across his neck. A spout of arterial blood covered her arm, but she was already moving, swinging the blade around to block the blow from one of the Guides, while her other hand searched for something around Mordred’s neck. Her fingers, wet with blood, could not grasp it, then she was forced to stand and defend herself against one of the Guides as the other futilely tried to stem the loss of blood from its master.
Morgana had been trained by experts in the martial arts. She stepped inside the Guide’s next thrust and slammed the point of her dagger into his armpit, where there was only leather, no armor. The blade went deep and she levered up on the handle, ripping through muscle until the tip punctured its heart. The Guide collapsed at her feet.
She stepped toward Mordred’s body to finish the job and take the small metal figure, the
which hung around Mordred’s neck, but the second Guide was on his feet, weapon ready, shouting for help. The other knights, humans who had been fooled into following what they thought was a man, came rushing in.
Morgana knew there was no hope of getting to the body and retrieving the
. Not with Gawain dead. If she was killed here, it would be over. She had to find her lover’s body. But first she had to get the Grail. She darted past one of the cumbersome knights, into Mordred’s tent. An object covered by a white cloth sat on a rough field table. As soon as she grabbed it she knew it was the Grail. Tucking it under one arm, she slashed at the back of the tent with her dagger evenas knights poured in the front. Slipping through the opening she had created, she ran off into the swamp, easily outdistancing the knights in their cumbersome armor.
The rays of the setting sun tried to penetrate the mist covering the swamp, creating an ethereal glow that illuminated Morgana as she walked, her cloak muddy and torn from her long afternoon of wandering. She held the Grail, still covered with the white cloth, in one hand, her dagger at the ready in the other.
The place smelled of decay and death. She had already stumbled across hundreds of bodies, but not Gawain’s. She’d also discovered wounded from both sides. Unable to help them, she’d shown them the mercy of the blade. Anything was better than dying slowly in this forsaken place.
She heard splashing to her left front and turned in that direction. Someone—more than one—was moving. As she got closer to the sound she could discern three figures dressed in long black cloaks slowly making their way through the swamp.
“Merlin,” Morgana called out.
The figures froze, and one, the man in the lead, turned to her. “Walking among the dead, Morgana?”
“The dead you are responsible for,” Morgana said as she came closer to the wizard. He had a long white beard and his face was lined with worry.