A short mood-piece inspired by Arthurian legend.
SEEKER OF THE GRAIL.
Bors’ attention had fallen from Merlin’s voice, and onto a new sound: or, rather, the sound that had drawn him into the grove in the first place. A gentle, melodic hum. Bors focused all his attention on trying to root the sound out, tuning himself out from the witch’s words and into this strange melody. He scanned across the grove, looking for where it might be coming from. His eyes drew from the far end of the grove across, briefly crossing Merlin’s expressionless face — but then, glimpsed in the the movement of Merlin’s lips, partly hidden in the shade of his beard of wires and crystal filament, he could see it. In the split-second between one word and the next, he could hear it.
The witch was somehow humming the song, even as he spoke.
A dull thock resonated out from Merlin’s crystallised skull as his quartz eye tumbled in its socket. The milky surface of Merlin’s eye-stone was almost bare, criss-crossed with tiny veins of gold and orange — but even though there was no pupil, nothing that suggested the faculty of sight at all, Bors got the distinct impression that somehow, Merlin had fixed him in his gaze.
THE QUESTION MUST BE GIVEN.
Morgan sank her fingertips into the blackened grail, the keen edges of her flensing-talons piercing and dicing the tangle of poison ivy, slicing the violet leaves that wept nerve-killing tears, cutting up the glossy bark chips that bled milky-white venom. She cupped her hand and lifted a pulverised plant-mash to her mouth, and drew in the earthy clump along her tongue that tingled to the touch of bitter roots and burning stems and numbing trichomes. It rolled into her mouth, and she chewed, hard, decisively, bursting the fleshy berries between her teeth, tearing up the leaves into tatters. She sucked dry the spit-lathered ball and drank deep the deliriant juices. For a few minutes, she did nothing but chew the concoction, feeling out the strands of pulp and flecks of leaf-stem as she broke it down — and, she hoped, broke down the wall between her and the Gates of Annwn.
The vast moonlit fields around Loudon Hill swam in the howling wind, flailing as though invisible armies warred across them. But now she could hear something below the wind: at first, distant, ambiguous, only discernible when the wind crested into an eddy of temporary stillness — but then, unmistakable.
Someone out in the hills was screaming. She could only make out angry and vicious barks, like someone screaming at someone in a fury: then, more like someone in pain, an unrestrained howl of singular anguish. But then in the space of a breath it seemed to flow into a lament, a dolorous wail that bore out a sobbing rhythm: a melody whose notes were written in agonies, cries, roars and moans.
The Gates of Annwn were open to her.
She drew up one of her knees, rising slowly lest the nauseating gravity of the poison churning inside her pull her uncompromisingly back to the earth. Already her calf-muscles were tensing and cramping uncontrollably — the fingers of her left hand twitched with every heartbeat, stretching out without her instruction as though reaching for something, a harrowing sense of cold solidity pressing into her fingertips as though a dead hand was pressed against her own. She rose to her feet, swaying as the screeching wind buffetted against her.
This moment, here, at the threshold, was hers. What would really happen if she just stayed here, unmovingly, and did nothing? She had flung open the doors to the underworld — who was to say she couldn’t hold the stars in place, dig her fingertips into the wind and pull it into perfect stillness? Everything would be frozen at this moment in time. The end would never have to come. She could turn her back to Annwn, and tear off down Loudon Hill. Annwn would hunt her down, of course. But she would run until her heart burst and her lungs fell apart. With enough luck, she could outrun the hell-hounds, weave through the fields to avoid the frenzied twitching compound-eyes of the constellations furiously seeking her out — she could run all the way back to the castle and to safety. Bloody feet and broken bones would be a smaller price to pay than the tithe of Annwn.
She took three breaths to make her decision: forward into the underworld, or back across the hills to home. Although the anguished gale screamed around her, she stood still and stole her first moment from fate. The hellish air, and the surge of the poison, stoked the burn of all-too-familiar sentiments. Unrelenting anger. Crushing agony. Palpitations of dread. By the second breath, she felt the muscles in her body relaxing into the comforting suffocation of self-pity.
But then — surprising even her — a moment of peace. And in that peace, a twinge of hope. As she drew in her third breath, a brightness coursed through every nerve in her body in an ecstatic and manic flash of correctness, rightness, infallibility. She took this final breath in a world of absolute clarity, perfect agency, and knowledge that she could do anything, and that anything she did would be right. In spite of everything that had come before, as much as it broke her, she could, here, in this moment, only ever do the right thing. Morgan almost floated as she reached out to grasp the sublime sense of purpose and embrace it fully and forever —
— but the sickening spin of the poison surged across the front of her skull as her vision swam and a crisp coldness prickled the sole of her left foot. She steadied her head, regained control over her vision, and looked down at the steadying step she’d instinctively slammed into the grass. The first step across the threshold to the underworld, and one that couldn’t be retread. Morgan refused to follow her three stolen breaths with a sigh or a sob. Instead, she barked out a pissed-off growl before chewing into the mashed ball of plants once more, and began her journey down Loudon Hill and into the screaming fields of Annwn.
THE ANSWER MUST BE ASKED.
They said Uther Pendragon could assume the guise of a beast. Fiercely joined in battle, his enemies would claim to see cruel claws whip out from him, see him masticating gore in jaws too large and too sharp to be human. But that was Uther, Arthur thought.
He drew his gaze up from the tiny prison cell, and stared up through the hole in the rafters, far, far above him. Outside, the orange and purple clouds heralded a storm — or perhaps that was smoke. What was happening out in the castle town? He’d been hearing shouts and loud crashes that might be his court coming to rescue him — but then again, maybe it was just the everyday clatter of life in Lothian. There was no way of telling from in here.
Arthur curled his fingertips, and drew the nails across the surface of his arms — not enough to cut, not enough to hurt. Just enough to peel away a little of himself. He watched as his flesh gave slightly under the scrape of his nails, rolled like hanging fabric traced by the touch of the wind. He could feel the tension of his knucklebones, almost fancied that he felt them twitch in place. And, imagined from the right angle, he could see how his nails could be talons.
He drew them away from his arms and to his face, closing his eyes and feeling the hard, ungiving tips of his claws against his cheeks. This time, sharpened by his mind behind closed eyelids, he felt himself cut into the skin. Blood trickled down into his beard — so sensitive now that he could feel each hair bending under its flow.
As Arthur drew his talons up, new nicks and scratches worked their way into the tapestry of scars already woven into him. Another trickle of blood ran across his face, this time running into the groove around his closed eyes and along his nose — perhaps the cold air had numbed it, but he could barely feel it. His curled talons worked their way through his hair, which felt soft, and dry — like the finest fabric, like the feathered collar of a king’s cloak. His fingertips were colder now, and harder too, and he pressed deep down into the flesh of his crown, hidden below his hair. Against his face he could feel the beating of wings, sensitive to the tip of each feather as it stroked against his skin, sensitive too to the curve and angle of the wing as it twisted in the air, like it was his wing, flexing it like a long-forgotten muscle, playing the tendons like strings beneath his fingers, the air whipping around him, the tipped edges of his talons buried deep into the flesh of his carcass… stuck. Stuck inside himself.
He opened his eyes and saw only the burnt-in image of the whites of his own eyes looking back at himself — the perfect inverse of the dark behind his eyelids — and he screamed, but if the scream had any weight it was borne away on the croaking calls of some enormous bird in front of him, or on him — the burning white discs remained fixed in place, the talons remained fixed in place, and in one last piteous squak he stretched out his fingers, and, with all the ease of a last breath, he let go of himself. He took to the air on his black and blood-flecked wings, tensing and flexing them with perfect ease, a maneuver practised a million times before, bearing his small black-feathered body up into the rafters of the dingy cell, up through the broken planks, and out into the night sky over Lothian.
THE ANSWER IS A QUESTION.
Perceval felt the presence long before he saw it at the far edge of the trail. The air, though seemingly clear, was dense with something harsh and rancid. Each breath felt like a compromise, something foul and unwelcome had been carried into the body on the promise of a moment’s relief from the suffocating torpor that weighed invisibly upon everything around him — like breathing in the smoke of a burning building. But he carried on: at the end of the trail, he glimpsed what the abbot had warned him of.
From a distance, certainly, it could be called a cross. That it was anything else became apparent only slowly, like the transit of the moon almost imperceptibly making its arc across the night sky. But as Perceval drew closer, he could see the cross’ arms and trunk were not perpendicular; they were slanted, somehow. Or curved. The ambiguous shape only became moreso as he got closer: now it seemed gnarled and twisted, now broken and splintered, now inside-out and spiral-like. Following its edges with his eyes, an incongruity offended his eye with its blatancy: the trees around the cross seemed to bend and warp with every step he took.
Within a yard of the cross, the wood had somehow twisted into the shape of an arch: and through it, inside it, visions of spiralling turrets spinning like the insides of some stone machine, towers bearing great castellated wheels that crashed together with a thundering boom, before plummeting rapidly into a wave of tessellated bricks, out of which broke free columns like great stone fingers rising up only to curl and twist in on themselves to form staircase-like spirals that weaved in between each other with the churning, deafening roar of stone-on-stone.
The entire display made Perceval’s stomach flip, like looking at the ground from atop a tall parapet. With a hand pressed against his mouth, anticipating at least a dry heave, he approached the arch, and, without hesitation, stepped through into the crashing, booming dimensionality of the twisting, unwinding chapel.
WHO DOES THE GRAIL SERVE?
From somewhere deep in the woods, in an ashen church covered up like a shameful secret by pines too healthy and too tall, a bell that had long been silent began to chime: one fell toll for each claimed seat at the Round Table.
This piece was originally posted on Patreon in October 2019.