Then Sir Bedevere took the king upon his back, and so went with him to the water side. And when they were at the water side, even fast by the bank hoved a little barge with many fair ladies in it, and among them
all was a queen, and all they had black hoods, and all they wept and shrieked when they saw King Arthur.
"Now put me in the barge." said the king.
And so he did softly; and there received him three
queens with great mourning; and so they set them down, and in one of their laps King Arthur laid his head. And that queen said,
"Ah, my dear brother, why have ye tarried so long from me?"
Sir Thomas Malory: Le Morte D'Arthur, Book xxi, Chapter 5
"Will you walk into my parlour said a spider to a fly?"
Mary Howitt: The Spider and the Fly
Oh see, my brother, how the moon glides fair above the sea,
And lights a silvered pathway there upon the rising wave.
There must we follow you and I and at its ending be
At last secure and safe within the sanctuary you crave.
For we shall be at Avalon.
Lie safe, my brother, for this urgent wind will take us there,
Beyond the strife and broken promises of yesterday.
There in the calm and quiet of that island's gentle air,
The terrors and the pains of combat soon will fall away,
When we have come to Avalon.
Be strong, my brother, let your courage keep your fears at bay.
They have no rightful place beside the honour of your name,
Nor shall their substance stand against the dawning light of day.
Beyond these dreadful moments only eminence and fame
Shall stay with you in Avalon.
Hold fast, my brother, be that Arthur still who drew the world
To Camelot and made its covenant with chivalry.
Keep still the resolution that adversities unfurled
Within your soul, and take it forward as their legacy
To be with you in Avalon.
And oh, my brother, do not falter in your confidence,
And in your heart believe that you shall ever be the king,
For it is written in your fate, and you in consequence,
Whatever state or circumstance the centuries may bring,
Shall always reign in Avalon.
Now rest, my brother, there are hours yet before we find
The shore, but every minute passing is a minute won
Towards our goal. Each further leaves your enemies behind,
And in the coming morning's light and with this journey done,
You shall find peace in Avalon.
I Throughout the night the oarsmen kept their course
To Avalon; their guide the distant cap
Of Glastonbury's tor lit fitfully
By moonlight high above the marsh ringed sea.
It drew those only to the island's shores
Who sought a place of special secrecy,
Yet never questioned their intention nor
Their need. It neither welcomed nor forbade
Their passage, was indifferent to the fears
And hopes of those the vessel brought, and they
Who came with it were neither granted aid
Nor set impediments to bar their way,
For only those who knew the passages
To follow through the marsh, beneath the gaunt
And tow'ring peak, would safely make the shore.
So passed the night, and through the marsh's secret
Ways the oarsmen kept their pace towards
The isle, and as the moonlight slid away
To rest before its next encounter with
The dark, they steered the vessel to a bay,
Where in the breaking morning light was stood
The Abbot of the island sanctuary,
Silently waiting with his followers,
Each stoled and hooded as his brothers on
The barge. Then as the last drawn stroke of oar
Righted the oaken flank against the stone,
The Queen of Northgales, summoning the priest,
Stepped to the shore.
"Lord Abbot, in the name
Of God I ask your blessing on this day
Above all others. Here Morgana has
Her brother ferried, Arthur, King of Logre,
Commending into your care and the grace
Of that most gentle Queen of Heaven for
An aid to bring God's comfort to his soul."
"Madam," the Abbot answered, "were this day
The utmost day upon this earth, I doubt
Not but that it were blessed already in
The Father's name. The battle's done. Camlann
Is even now set into history.
Soon with the grace of God there will become
A moment in this tapestry of time
When those who follow after us will have
Forgot the very place of it and thrust
Away the recollection of the day.
The strife of yesterday wrought nothing less
In focus than our inability
To live by God's commandments, and so now
The circumstances of your Lady's grief
Are also more than pain enough for me."
Then did the Abbot pass on to the barge
To come before the King who lay full dressed
In armour still, his helmet and his gauntlets
But removed. Where with great gentleness
The Queen Morgana and the Queen of Waste
Lands ministered such comfort as they could.
Seeing the noble monarch lying still,
Eyes closed and with no colour on his face
Except the ruby blood that drew down through
His silvered hair to lie upon his brow,
The Abbot spoke no word, but knelt to pray
God's mercy on his soul. Then in a tone
That told of his distress, he spoke.
I cannot answer for our heavenly Lord
Excepting as the holy scriptures teach,
But if the King comes hither to this isle
In true repentance of the mighty wrong
He has permitted to befall upon
The noblest princes of this realm and so
Beyond, he shall be shriven of his sins
In Jesu's name."
Morgana spoke, "This king,
My Lord and brother Arthur, is not dead,
Nor all his last accomplishments are done.
Is it by word of scripture he survives
These hours, or is it fate that brings him here?
Take care! To you befalls the reckoning
If sanctuary shall come to him or no,
And here no less is there entrusted to
Your holy island than a king, a man
In whom are strengths and weaknesses combined
In portions that we cannot even guess
Upon, and would not understand if so
We could. And will you now, as never have
You done before in other days, require
A sin to say that this is Arthur's wound,
Or penitence as payment that the King
"Madam," the priest replied, "you judge
Me hard. For if it would be so that I
Dispute the King's identity, or else
Ignore the blood upon his brow, I would
As easily deny the changing of
The darkness into day, or even more,
That everlasting life shall follow death,
But as a priest I look not only on
The King and on his wounds, but more upon
The man and on his soul - the manner of
His life and death."
Then spoke the Queen again,
"My Lord, the days of Arthur's life that have
Preceded this are his alone to give
Accountings for, and neither you nor I
Has yet perceived the measure of them all.
So let you not upon this moment seek
To make a judgement of this man before
Accepting that in such pronouncement shall
You show the measure of yourself. He lives
These endmost hours of life as he decreed,
And hither comes in peace. Of evidence,
No sword, no knight, no man at arms is here,
No charm or ancient magic heals his wound,
Although it is not yet beyond the reach
Of my authority to remedy
His suffering if he would so consent.
Whatever majesty describes the man
Who lies before you now has no regard
Of state or station. He whom you behold
Is such a man as seldom comes into
The lives of other men, to save or seek
Salvation as the hour commands. Therefore
Be certain how you wait upon his soul."
Well knowing of her reputation in
The ways of dark and ancient magic arts,
And how they lay in conflict with his own
Beliefs, the Abbot stood in silence for
A moment's time before replying to
The challenge of the words Morgana spoke.
"Madam, as you have comforted his wound,
So would I also succour to his soul.
Here upon earth the rightest state of man
Declares itself as it has been prepared
By man alone, and every acts creates
Its recompense in Heaven or in Hell.
I seek to make no judgement of the King,
For that is by himself already done,
But standing as ambassador before
The gates of Paradise, I speak upon
The need for every man to recognise
The outline of his true identity
Before he shall declare himself to God.
And so it shall with Arthur also be
That in these final hours of his life
He shall attend upon such circumstance."
"Yet even as we speak, the morning air
Descends unkindly here upon his wounds,
And better comfort lies within the walls
Of our retreat. So let us take him there."
And signalling his followers to bear
Their royal charge, The Abbot with the Queen
Beside him gravely led a slow procession
For the dying King.
Long hours of day and darkness drew away
In Glastonbury's halls, their silences
But gently breached by prayer. Within a room
Enclosured from the light and sounds of day,
One set apart to give a place of rest
To those who visited on pilgrimage,
A meagre place of residence, but yet
A room of simple comfort, ands a place
Of quiet refuge and of privacy,
The King lay in a troubled rest and near
To death. Even his armour now removed,
So that his only garment was a rough
Made shirt of wool, he bore a majesty
And might that marked him royal, compelling those
Who came into the chamber to a pause,
As though expecting to receive by word
Or glance the King's permission to proceed,
That singular acknowledgement of his
Approval and consent that ever was
The first of all the prized distinctions in
The gilded court of Camelot. But never
Once a word was spoken, never once
A glance exchanged. Although his eyes were wide
As if awake, they took no note of what
Was visible to others, but were fixed
Upon some awful vision in his mind.
At times, as if awake, he stirred to raise
An arm above his head as in a sign,
Or as a man might try to keep the sun
Out of his eyes, or as a knight may do
Upon the field of war to ward away
A blow. But never once his gaze averted,
Never once a sound was made. Whatever
Demons occupied his dreams were his
Alone to battle with, the conflict silent,
Private, but immense, excluding the
Realities of where he lay.
Morgana sat. At times alone, at times
Her vigil shared or briefly trusted to
One of the other queens, she noted closely
Every movement, kept herself advised
Of any word the King might speak. To those
Who saw her, now attentive, now concerned,
Now with a gentleness to bathe his wounds,
Or lay a cooling hand upon his brow,
She gave an evidence of care and love
That none could question. None who saw could doubt
Her motive was the King's survival. Oh,
But in her heart another purpose lay.
Well hidden, born of envy and a deep
Resentment of her brother's fame and power,
A treachery consumed her thoughts. She knew
From secret messengers that all abroad
The kingdom lay in waste, its monarch and
His rule destroyed, its honour lost, its laws
Denied the surety of rightful cause,
Its peace usurped, its people leaderless,
Its few remaining nobles split in their
Allegiances and prey to factious greed.
It had become a place of tyrannies
Within a time that was itself corrupt
With ills, and where alone the citadel
Of Camelot survived untouched among
The debris of the land, for none as yet
Had dared intrude upon its privacy.
None dared as yet proclaim himself its lord.
It was the dream Morgana had embraced
Throughout her sleeping nights and wakened days,
The very circumstance she had conspired
So long to bring about. Throughout the years
Of Arthur's reign she had pursued one end,
Engaged one savage purpose in her mind;
His fall from fame and power and her own
Ascent to it. The tie of kin that bound
Them counted naught against her lust for might
And sovereignty. Therefore with cunning in
Her traitorous heart, she had been quick to take
Advantage of a rift between the King
And Launcelot, a quarrel that had drawn
The King abroad, and left the kingdom in
The care of Mordred. She had with rumour fed
Her nephew's discontent, fuelled with lies
His dream to be the king, encouraged him
To seize the throne and make himself by force
The lord of Camelot and master of
The Queen. Now with a turn of fate that left
Him still and cold upon the battlefield,
And rendered king and country powerless
To act against whoever had the will
And means to dominate the day, there was
An opportunity that she could grasp
And wield to her intent. No person knew
Outside of Glastonbury's walls, if still
The King survived or not. Some claimed to have
Been witness to his fall beneath the sword
Of Mordred, others to have seen him leave
The battlefield, but none could say for sure.
There was no sign of him among the slain,
Nor any news that proved him still alive,
And none could say if he would yet return.
Morgana knew how this uncertainty
Held others back who might yet seek to take
The crown, for no one dared as yet believe
King Arthur dead. It left a slender space
Of time and chance for her to realise
Her dream. She would not, could not bring herself
To kill the King. That, when the moment came,
Would be a deed for other hands. For now,
It was her purpose to secure him there
And by her skills prolong his final hours
For long enough to learn of any plan
He may have made to hold his kingdom safe
If he had met defeat at Mordred's hand.
Such knowledge could provide her with the key
To lock the door of opportunity
Against those loyal to his name and cause.
But there was pressing urgency to act,
Days only at the most before the chance
Would be usurped and taken from her grasp,
And if the King should not recover to
Disclose his strategies or speak unwittingly
Of them while still confused within
His mind before the seventh day had passed
Beyond the battle, all the disarray
Of war would be repaired, the mourning done,
And in the absence of the rightful king,
There would be some would seek to fill the vacuum.
Those who were left with power and ambition
Would not be long content to leave the prize
Unclaimed. By then, Morgana understood,
There would be no more time to stay her drive
To seize this final chance, and nothing of
Her purpose left to keep the King alive.
To be continued