One Knight & Two Faces: An Ominous Arthurian Adventure
Enjoy the excerpt below from One Knight & Two Faces: An Ominous Arthurian Adventure
As told by Aelfric the Entertainer.
Settle into your cushions (or benches, if you’re able)—rest your elbows upon the oaken table. Curl your fists ‘round tankards and horns, and ready yourselves for a fine feast of lore. . . Tonight—in this very hall—you’ve the privilege and pleasure to be entertained by Aelfric, bard beyond measure! In front of flickering firelight, with ale on your lips, I will your good cheer and merriment eclipse. A legend, it is, that I have to share, of Mordred and Gawain, who’d better beware! ‘Tis a nightmare tale full of terror and rage, monsters and betrayal, the worst of the age, and I tell it better than most anyone else—better than Mordred, than even Malory himself. And I’ll tell it with style—with themes and allusions, symbols, and footnotes to limit confusion. I’ll begin on a summer day in north Wales, the isle of Anglesey, four men in bright mail, shore to their rear, pine-woods ahead, upon a high hill—needles green, trunks red. Sand blows in their eyes, carried by the sea breeze, up through the moaning, creaking red trees. Now, lend me an ear, listen up, if you please. . .
Mordred shifted uncomfortably in his saddle. The twisting, turning ascent of this ridge, in the intense heat of the descending midsummer sun, was difficult. Ahead of him, Gringolet, Gawain’s white charger, let out a determined snort as it weaved around a tall red-barked trunk, spindled with broken limbs. The trunk’s long bar of shadow passed along the horse’s flank, orange needles shifted under its broad hooves, and a pinecone trundled down the incline.
Following in single file, Mordred turned the same corner, switching back to lessen the angle of the climb. The boredom of this journey was nearly as painful to him as the chaffing on his thighs. As always, Gawain rode ahead, his face implacable. Behind, two men at arms, purple-clad in the Orkney house colors, led a packhorse burdened with a cumbersome load of kindling and firewood.
"Brother,” Mordred began, turning to Gawain, “I’ve been studying your uncle, my father. 1 Everyone says that he’s a good man and a strong king, but I’m not sure.”
Gawain slowed. “About which? His goodness or his strength?”
“His strength, obviously,” Mordred replied. “But to my way of thinking, the two are linked.”
“Correct,” Gawain smiled, his tone becoming insufferably instructional. “King Arthur’s goodness—his virtue—makes him strong.
It binds his followers to him and brings upon him and his kingdom the blessings of God. As my squire and as Arthur’s son, you can only hope to emulate his attributes as you mature.”
“Perhaps,” Mordred responded, “but the more I observe him—and others, too—the more it seems to me that strength and weakness are fatally connected. For example, father’s virtue, his best attribute, is also his greatest weakness. It blinds him to others’ flaws, their plots, their lies. It makes him susceptible. It begs to be abused.”
Gawain shook his head. “If virtue were a flaw, my youthful squire, then God would be at the mercy of the devil. Yet,” he gestured around himself, “it is plainly not so. The benevolent sun still shines on all.”
Mordred sighed. “The religious defense is always impenetrable,” then mumbled under his breath: “an impervious armor of studied ignorance.” He raised his voice again to conversational levels, “I still think he’s susceptible. I’ve seen skeptics and they don’t believe anyone without proof. Seems to me that’s safer than blind faith—the foolish belief in the virtue of strangers—at least in this life it is, if not the afterlife.”
“Liars,” Gawain observed grimly, “never believe anyone else, and so no one believes in them.”
“Trust me,” Mordred continued, “my father will be trapped by virtue one day, by faith in the wrong person, belief in a lie, or through trust misplaced. I see it coming, clear as the sun will set.” He gestured behind them, where the gray ocean could still (barely) be discerned through the trees.
“Strength is weakness,” Gawain scoffed, “is a typical teenage paradox. I very much enjoyed that kind of thing as a youth, and thought myself learned when I invented them.”
“Don’t believe me.” Mordred retorted, annoyed at Gawain’s gentle mocking. “As you will, but you’re susceptible, too. Your greatest assets, loyalty and courtesy, may be your undoing.”
“I would leave this world smiling if I should be so lucky as to die in defense of them. They are worth the sacrifice.”
“Observe,” Mordred said, emphatic. “Father sent you here to negotiate with Lord Gruffudd to bring Gwynedd under his banner. You loyally obey. Your orders instruct you to do whatever it takes. You get here and, Lo! Gruffudd’s only daughter has been captured. ‘A great opportunity to prove the value of Arthur’s knights,’ you think, so you offer assistance, both because of your loyalty and your vow of courtesy to save women from all danger. The choice was inescapable. Was it ever a choice at all?”
“No, certainly not. We must do what’s right.” Gawain stopped his horse and turned to face Mordred. “We have a responsibility to set an example for others. That is the essence of what it means to be a knight of the Round Table. We embody our king’s ideals.”
Mordred made a face and sighed. “Don’t you see? This could all be a ploy, a plot to destroy you… and me, for that matter. The son of a king is a prime target. And yet, you glibly ride into it, self-assured in your righteous nobility—that and the power of your sword-arm. It makes you ridiculously predictable, brother.”
“It makes me right,” Gawain responded, “which is the only way I want to be.” He clucked to his horse, resuming their movement.
Mordred sighed, frustrated. “Are you sure we’re still on the creature’s trail?” He changed the subject. “Do you suppose that this Margaret is even alive?”
“I am certain of both,” Gawain turned his pale blue eyes to scan ahead. His blonde shoulder-length hair brushed against the purple cloth of the felted cape on his shoulder. “Edgar is an excellent yeoman, a proper forester. He says the trail is as plain as day, and we haven’t yet seen blood, bones, nor any evidence of feeding.” He pulled his horse ahead, weaving between two outcrops of jagged slate.
As they crested the hill, Mordred spurred his roan gelding, drawing even with (though at a lower height than) his elder stepbrother for a second time. “But I’ve never heard of a gwyll venturing this far, nor of one keeping a prisoner. Certainly, they do take food with them—by that, of course, I mean kill a man and flee with all or some of the corpse, but this one has stolen a lord’s daughter and is leading us on a chase. It’s odd. Makes me uneasy.”
“Indeed,” Gawain replied, “yet even if she weren’t alive, we would have no choice but to continue—we cannot return to Aberfraw empty handed and tell Lord Gruffudd that Arthur’s knight has failed. But, my young squire, perhaps we can use this situation to benefit your education. Tell me what you know of the gwillion.”
Mordred sighed, sick of this sort of mental exercise that Gawain preferred. It always required him to put on a tedious display to prove his knowledge, and no matter how thorough, Gawain always found some asinine detail to render his responses lacking. “Gwillion, he began, “are magical beings with certain inherent characteristics.
First, they are usually green or gray and between six and eight feet in height. Second, their spindly, overlong arms and legs possess unnatural strength. Third, their black nails, given the time, are hard enough to work through my chainmail shirt. . .” he stopped. “Do we have to do this?”
Gawain’s mouth curled into an involuntary, good-natured smile, then he forced it back to a line. “Mordred, when I agreed to accept you as my squire, I made a vow to see to your instruction. For a knight of the Round Table, that vow encompasses a number of disciplines, from chivalry, to manners, diplomacy, leadership, fighting, riding, geography, heraldry, modern languages. . . and, most certainly, monsters. Now, you left out the three most important elements—”
“I suppose I should thank you for accepting me,” Mordred interrupted, somewhat bitterly. “Everyone else, my father included, seems to view me as an abomination, to be avoided. To embrace my birthright and become a great knight, or king, seems to me to be problematic at best.”
“One rung at a time, little brother,” Gawain chided. “Your ambition” here he glanced sideways at his protégé, a conspiratorial smile in his eyes, “is perhaps your best attribute. It is a strength that pushes you to learn fast, work hard, and improve, but patience, too, is a knightly virtue, necessary to sustained success. You are yet a squire. No knight looks up to a squire, no matter who his father or mother may be.” He cleared his throat, consciously avoiding the topic of Mordred’s incestuous birth. Someday, he told himself, he would explain that Arthur’s aversion to Mordred had more to do with Arthur than Mordred. The boy was a painful reminder of the king’s flaws. He was ashamed of himself, not of his son. Sometimes, though, it’s as hard for a proud man to admit that as it is for a youth to see past his own self-absorption.
Gawain continued, “Now, as I was saying, three essentials of gwillion: One, you must remember that gwyll flesh heals at an alarming rate—dead gwillion will revivify given time, and severed limbs will conjoin, or even regrow into a new gwyll. Two, though they lack physical eyes (having instead only hollow sockets) gwillion can perceive perfectly in darkness. Merlin speculates that they see not what we see—the world as it is—but rather they ‘see’ with a satanic vision that seeks out heat and fire. They see, he says the network of hot blood boiling through our veins. How this can be, I cannot say, but their world is a hellscape. Third—”
“Third, gwillion flesh burns like a torch when kindled, probably because the flames are dragging them back to perdition,” Mordred finished in a singsong. “I know, brother.”
They descended the hill into the pine forest, leaving the blazing sun behind them and riding into shadow. The coolness of the change was a physical relief. Mordred continued, “Here’s something you may not, though: I was talking with Aunt Morgana, and she said that all gwillion are really just one gwyll—that’s why they’re all female. Apparently, the first was conjured long ago by a rogue druid, right here, she said, on Anglesey. The gwyll was the druid’s minion, and when he was hunted and killed by the first king of Gwynedd, they chopped up the gwyll and scattered it to the four winds. Each bit—each thigh, forearm, and finger—then grew into a separate gwyll, and thus the race was born. 2”
“I wish you wouldn’t speak to our aunt so much. She’s deceitful and scheming. Believe me, to her you are but a pawn in some grandiose strategy.” He rubbed his close-cropped beard. “Tell me, did you get all this nonsense about strength and weakness from her?”
“Certainly not,” Mordred replied, offended. “I am quite capable of having my own ideas.”
A red squirrel with comically tufted ears chittered down at them from
a treetop. A horse could be heard, whinnying, ahead.
“Ah,” Gawain nodded, changing the subject, “Edgar reports.”
Sure enough, the smallish yeoman appeared, trotting through the tall columns of pine. The wood was thick with trees, living and dead, but despite this, the understory gave the impression of airy openness. There was little undergrowth and the green branches of the pines began a dozen or more feet in the air, providing a roof of living needles and a carpet of dead ones, the space between pillared by myriad reddish-gray trunks.
Edgar, the forester, trotted closer, his tanned skin nearly indiscernible from his leather garments. A quiver of goose-fletched arrows jostled on one flank of his horse, and a round metal shield on the other. Across his back was slung a yew-wood bow, and a carved hunting horn thumped against his ribs. He pulled up a few paces from Gawain and his morose brown eyes came to rest on his lord’s face.
“Over that rise,” he gestured behind him, “the gwyll-sign begins. Bones of deer and sheep, scarred trees, the acid stench of its foul piss. Even the forest is dying. We’re entering the thing’s lair, certain.”
“How long until we catch it?” Gawain asked.
Edgar turned his weathered face to the yellowing sky. “Nightfall, I’d guess.”
“Not an ideal time for a gwyll-fight, sir,” a deep voice warned. Gawain’s two purple-clad men at arms caught up, halting a pace or two behind their leader.
“Indeed, not, Brom,” Gawain responded, nodding at the younger and burlier of the two, “but we daren’t wait for daylight to transact our business.” Privately, he admitted to himself, he agreed with Brom. It would certainly be better to take the gwyll during daylight, but given the captive Margaret, he wasn’t in a position to delay. Regretfully, he acknowledged the likelihood of losing one or more of his men tonight.
For his part, Brom only nodded in terse agreement.
“We all know the plan?” Gawain asked. “Edgar, find it for us. Alert us with your horn. We’ll be right behind. Brom, you and I will face it in combat. You keep it at bay with a boar-spear and I’ll use my axe to dismember it.”
Brom nodded again.
Gawain then considered the older man at arms, a kindly faced, thin-bearded fellow of forty. He was well past his prime, Gawain thought, but a loyal man, tactful and observant. He seemed an ideal choice for a diplomatic trip to Anglesey. Now he’d be endangered, too. No time for that, though. “Erving, you and Mordred kindle a fire with the wood on the packhorse, then feed the flames and keep them burning. You’ve the pitchfork?”
“Yes, sir,” Erving responded, “It’s tied to the brush on the pony.”
“Good. Once the fire is lit, skewer any dismembered gwyll parts—careful. They’ll be squirming; the hands will still claw at you—and cook them in the flame.”
He turned to Edgar, “While we fight, rescue the girl. She’s young, just twelve years. She’ll be terrified.”
“Anything else,” Gawain asked.
“One thing, sir,” Edgar ventured. “Not sure if it matters, but I should report it. Twice now I’ve seen a strange beast, a white deer, in the woods. It examined me. . .” he hesitated. “Not like a deer, but like a man. I think, well,” he hesitated. “I think it may be following us.”
Gawain shot Mordred a look. “Thoughts?”
“A druid, maybe?” Mordred offered. “This isle was their sanctuary in ages past. It would explain why the gwyll is acting abnormally, if it’s under a spell and following orders. Edgar, was it a stag or doe?”
Edgar looked to Gawain before answering. Gawain noted the man’s reluctance to make eye contact with Mordred or treat him with respect—something he’d have to remedy, but now wasn’t the time.
“Well?” Gawain asked.
“Hard to say—it was so strange, lacking all markings and distinctions. No antlers, though. A doe, I suppose.”
Mordred rubbed his nose, thoughtful. “Odd. Druids are male.”
Gawain sighed. Indeed, he thought, it was strange, and, yet, as much as he hated to proceed on a dangerous mission with uncertainties multiplying around him, he saw little choice but to move forward. “It may just be a white deer,” he concluded. “We don’t have time to worry about it now or alter the plan. Edgar, if you see it again, shoot it. Now let’s get to business. Don your helms, check your straps and buckles. Ready your weapons. We’ve got a gwyll to kill.”
The gathering broke up. Edgar trotted off in front, Gawain followed, tall in the saddle on Gringolet; his polished helm and white steed were lights in the gathering shadow. Mordred trailed him, tightening the straps of his shoulder plates, the only armor he wore over his chainmail shirt. Behind them rode Brom and Erving, spears in hand and leading the heavily laden packhorse. They rode into the dell and up the next hill, cresting it and disappearing from view.
Shadowing them, out of sight and silent on the carpet of soft brown needles, trotted a white doe. Behind it, out past the forest, the cliff, and the ribbed, sandy beach, the orange sun sank into the churning indigo waters of the Irish Sea.
1 For those of you new to Arthurian romance, a few details might help: Mordred and Gawain are both central figures. First, Gawain is the son of King Lot of Orkney and Lady Morgause. Morgause is the half-sister of King Arthur, sharing the same mother, but different fathers (the story is long and complex—I’ll spare you). Gawain has three brothers, Agravain, Gaheris, and Gareth, all of whom are Knights of the Round Table. Gawain is eldest and most prominent, having at least some role in every major Arthurian tale. He is King Arthur’s nephew, and one of the king’s most trusted knights. Mordred is also a son of Morgause. Mordred’s father, however, is King Arthur, so he and Gawain are half-brothers. His story is… well… unfortunate. Here’s the gist: due to the magical machinations of a witch named Morgan le Fay (who is, in fact, Morgause’s sister), Arthur was deceived into impregnating his half-sister (yes, I know). This means Mordred is also Gawain’s first cousin. The family relationships get more complex from there (not quite on Oedipus’ level, but you take my meaning). I could go into more detail, but this should suffice for the present. BACK TO TEXT
2 Because some of you may not possess an accurate knowledge of Welsh folklore, a clarification: gwyll (pluralized gwyllion) is a Welsh word that most directly translates into “darkness” or “gloom.” The gwyll itself is immortalized in Welsh stories—most frequently as a “boogieman” to scare children—but has interestingly taken many shapes over the ages. Like the Norse “trolls,” which can vary in tales from lumbering, ogre-esque giants of questionable intelligence, to hideous green-skinned bog-dwelling terrors, even to ugly dwarfish children of mischievous intent, gwyllion have had many manifestations: fey elven women, hideous hags, monstrous midnight stalkers, or shadows that inhabit the body and bring nightmares. Invariably, though they are female beings of faerie, associated with mountains, woods, darkness, and nightfall.
If you enjoyed this excerpt from One Knight & Two Faces, consider purchasing Scott's first novel, Three Days & Two Knights: An Amusing Arthurian Adventure on Kindle or in Paperback.
"Sir Alanbart avoids action, recoils from romance, and shuns self-sacrifice; yet
when he finds himself drawn into a harebrained attempt to rescue King Arthur, he becomes a victim of all three, and then poor Alanbart must fight hard to stay true to his cowardly and indolent nature."
Three Days and Two Knights is a genre crossover that blends fantasy-adventure, comedy, and romance, in a historical literary setting.
“Few tales tell of heroes and dragons, knights and giants, magic, miracles, romance, a banshee, and the undead . . .” So begins Aelfric the Entertainer, the tale’s invasive, witty, and often philosophical narrator. Set on the moors of Scotland in the waning months of Arthur’s rule, Three Days and Two Knights tells how Sir Alanbart, an impoverished and spineless knight; Heather and indomitable and irresistible serving maid; Scott, a pagan swordsman of questionable intelligence and sexuality; and Sir Gawain, the legendary romantic hero, form an unlikely alliance to free King Arthur from prison. The catch? They have just three days before the blue moon rises, at which time the red wizard Rabordath will use Arthur’s blood to conjure a dragon that will end a kingdom and set all of Britain aflame.
Three Days and Two Knights features characters, settings, artifacts, and events drawn from medieval myth and history, and will appeal to anyone who loves the middle ages, knights, monsters, magic, or King Arthur, especially those who grew up with The Hobbit, Percy Jackson, and Cressida’s Cowell’s How to Train Your Dragon series."