With the Hugo awards coming up, I thought I'd throw my hat in the ring for "Best Novelette" with one of my more popular stories from my 2015 Anthology "The Dark and Splendid Diary of Danielle Simpson", the Arthurian Pastiche "A Less Holy Grail." I have provided the story for free to read in this post. If you're nominating for the Hugos this year, please place it under your consideration. -Jim
A Less Holy Grail, by James Wylder
Sir Claudin dismounted, and patted his horse on the neck. It was a chilly morning, and his breath rolled out of his mouth, sinking slightly towards the ground and the cave in front of him as though to say, “Really Claudin, this isn't the best way to spend your mornings.” But this is what quests did to a man, and finding the Holy Grail was just one of those things Knights did. It didn't hurt that Camelot needed it pretty desperately, but he might have been looking for it regardless. He couldn't shake the sense that his feet would have slipped over the side of his bed and he'd be walking here no matter what he'd set out to do this morning. The crag overlooking these rough rocks and this cave would have called him here, and opened up from the side of the hills. He'd have walked away from his horse without turning his head, and stepped into the shadows. With an actual reason, he still did all of this.
His feet both crunched on things, and splashed in thin puddles. As he stepped forward, the feeling around his feet began to subside and he had the sadly satiable urge to turn back. He shoved it out of his mind, and pressed on; the walls of the cave seemed to close in on him slightly, then push out, like he was in the body of a living creature rather than a hole in some rock. As he pressed downward, the light grew dimmer till he was walking in total darkness. He was a part of the creature now, it had enveloped him.
Finally, he saw a faint glow coming from around a bend, and he rushed forward, careening and stumbling till he ran shoulder first into the rock wall and gazed at what lay beyond. There was a stone chimney, and smoke was rising up into it from a fire. On the fire roasted a chunk of pig or boar, and next to the fire on a tree log stool sat a corpse. It was awful erect for a corpse, its back straight and its head seeming to be focused on the fire. It must have been stuffed or something in order to stay tha- ashfuklawdyf it moved!
Its head turned, slowly, stilted, like a puppet. Its skin was bleached white, and too taught on its bones. One of its eye sockets was gouged out, and the other held an eye so pale blue it looked as though it had never seen the sun. The lips were so pulled back and withered, it basically just had teeth. As such, when its jaw moved, and words came out. It sounded a little funny.
“Hello friend. Come sit by the fire. I’m roasting a boar. Or maybe it’s a wild pig, honestly I never knew what the difference was.” He carefully moved towards the figure, and sat down at another log stool next to the fire.
“Good, I knew you’d be coming. These things always happen. People come at their correct time, and I am ready for them. Its nice to know some things still work the way they’re supposed to in this world. I don’t.” Claudin nodded at the corpse, who leaned in and turned the spit the pig/boar was roasting on. “Good, looks about ready to eat. Do you want to eat boy?” Claudin was silent.
“They say you should never take food from faeries or strange beings in the forest. They’re right you know, mostly. I can’t say they are about me in that regard however, I’m a rather boring anomaly. You should try some, I even went and picked some seasonings.” The thing ripped off a piece of the roast with its hand, cleanly, and set it on a wooden plate, which it handed to Claudin. “Eat! Eat. You’ve got to keep your strength up. You don’t want to end up like me.” Claudin knew he should eat it, so he did. It watched him till he was finished. It then handed him a stoneware cup of mulled mead, which was in a pot also over the flame he hadn’t noticed, and began to sip it.
“What is your name?”
“And what do you seek to come into my cave?”
“I seek the holy Grail.”
“Okay. Which one?”
Claudin stopped, and tried not to spit out his drink, but he let out a small trickle despite it.
“What do you mean which one? There’s only one holy Grail!” The corpse sighed.
“Look kid, how much do you know about Judaism?”
Claudin mulled it over for a moment and stalled with an elongated sip of his mulled mead.
“A bit, I mean not very much.”
“You wouldn’t, clearly.” The corpse rolled its eye. “Tell me kid, what is the holy grail.”
“The cup Jesus drank from at the last supper.”
“Okay which cup?”
“What do you mean which cup! Its one of the most sacred relics in all of Christendom!” Claudin stood up, slightly angry, but honestly more for effect.
“In the Jewish Passover ceremony there are four cups of wine. Four, not one. Now, Jesus didn’t drink from all four from the biblical accounts, but he did drink at least two or three. So which one do you want?”
“I really don’t know. No one ever told me that before.”
“Well, they wouldn’t would they? It complicates the whole quest thing now doesn’t it?” Claudin nodded, and decided he may as well ask.
“I… Heard a rumor the Grail—one of the Grails, was in this cave.”
The corpse nodded. “You aren’t wrong, you’re drinking from it.” He didn’t nearly spit out the wine this time. “You mean.” The corpse nodded. “Yessir, that is indeed one of the four cups. Specifically, the one Jesus for sure didn’t drink from. I know this because anybody can drink from it and nothing happens. It’s a great party trick if you like being bored at parties.” Claudin looked down at the simple cup, Jesus had once held that cup, touched it, or if not him the apostles. Men had fought wars over less. It was worthless, and yet it completely wasn’t. The oddness of its struck him like a boar- or maybe a wild pig.
“Wanna know how I got the dumb thing? I mean, its an okay story. Not that I get to tell it often.”
“Its not du-“ Claudin took a breath. “Yeah tell me sure.”
This wasn’t going how he imagined it would ne. The corpse nodded.
“My name is Thrynwulf. A long time ago, the Roman Empire invaded my homeland, and as part of their bounty took me as a slave. It was a horrid thing, but I took some comfort in knowing my sister had been spared that fate, as she had escaped into the wilds with my friend Eskelling. They had a lot of children and lived long lives, but they don’t matter to this tale.
The Roman who took me found I was good at cooking, and decided he didn’t want to sell me but keep me for his personal chef. I didn’t know anything about Roman food, and I’m not a fast learner, but when doing something is life or death you throw your life into it. I got quite good at what he wanted out of me, and he decided to take me to the Holy Land where he had been given the boring job of oppressing the Jews. He wasn’t too happy about this—he wanted to fight a big war not run the day-to-day tasks of showing a religious and ethnic group who was boss. In my free time I learned to read, and speak the local languages. It was important for my job as a chef. Not speaking it was essentially also a death sentence and reading helped me get the best ingredients and read recipes. I could even write letters requesting things! It was quite a valuable skill for me to have. I leaned the languages of the Jews, and the Greeks, and the Romans. This made me many friends, and allowed me to move between different groups in Jerusalem easily. It was this way I came across the Grail.
At this time I still worshiped the gods of my homeland, and some of the Roman ones since they were clearly powerful as they’d taken down my people. The Jews confused me though, as they only had one god. It wasn’t even that they just worshiped one but acknowledged the others—just one! This might be hard for you to understand, but it was a radical and confusing concept, not just for me but for the occupying force. We didn’t quite understand how it worked, or why this one God was apparently their go to God for everything. I mean, what if it didn’t know how to deal with some problem? There was no other god to pass the problem on off to! It just seemed sort of silly to us. With the Hebrew people causing such a ruckus, my owner was often too busy to come home and eat, and was often gone for weeks at a time. Roman slaves were allowed to buy their own freedom, something I learned fairly quickly, so I began to look for other people to cook for, for money.
I was tenacious about it-- willing to work for anyone, anytime. Anyways, I got this job cooking a passover meal for some families. I tried to be discrete about it so no one could insinuate anything, like I was collaborating with them on mischief against Rome, but I still managed to get quite a good Kosher meal cooked up in secret and serve it. I'd been efficient, and the food was not only good, but I finished early. That was when the trouble started, all because the cook next door wasn't quite as prepared as me. He had this band of people, you can guess who, celebrating passover, but he hadn't brought good ingredients with him, and he didn't know how to modify the recipe to make it taste like anything but dirt.
So the innkeeper next door, or maybe just the guy that owned the house, its hard to remember to be honest, he came over and was like “Big problem—the guy I’ve got making the flat-bread? Terrible!” So I’m done early, so I nip over there and start making flat-bread worthy of a king, which is lucky because Jesus was about to eat it that night. Not that I knew that, or even knew which particular Messiah claimant he was at that point. They all kind of rolled together after a while. So I do such a good job, and the supper is a big success, but it turns out not too long after-wards that the Messiah guy gets himself killed and the innkeeper gets rid of the cups as a sort of cleansing. I know that Joseph guy, you know, from Aramathea, he got one. I don't really know who got the others but I got this one.. Anyways I did eventually buy my freedom, and now I’m here in this cave and cannot die, so you know, that’s life.”
The knight slowly nodded. Thrynwulf looked like a tree in a dark wood, his bony feet nestling into the dirt. His undeath made him shuddersome despite his casualness, his very breath wrong and against the concept of air. “So uh, am I immortal to now?”
Thrynwulf looked at him highly puzzled, “What? No! Like I said that cup has no magical properties, it’s a…. “less holy grail” so to speak. I’m immortal cause I won a cooking contest against three witches who weren’t particularly keen on making the bet work out like I’d imagined. I’d kind of hoped for a more lively complexion.” He grinned like a skull. Claudin looked away.
“Well uh… Any idea where the other Grails are?” Thrynwulf shrugged, “No idea. I haven’t seen em since Jerusalem, but I’ve heard a lot about them. Nothing you haven’t obviously.”
Claudin wanted to storm out, but he also didn’t want to piss off the immortal guy, so he slowly stood up. “Well then, I guess I should get going.”
“No no no, sit down son. I have something to ask of you.” He sat down on command.
“Good boy. Now then, your knights are going to be looking for the Holy Grail correct? If they find it, I need to drink from it. It’s the only thing that can cure me of this eternal undeath.”
“I can’t just steal it, and if I let you in I’m sure someone would object to a draugr like you in the castle…”
“No one needs to know. The cups look the same. You can take mine, and bring me that one. I’ll give it back after I drink from it—actually in all likelihood I’ll be super dead. How does that sound?”
Claudin bit his lip, it sounded fair…. He nodded.
“Good. Then we can commence. Meet me on the far side of the tallest hill to the east of Camelot by the tree in one month.”
* * * *
Galahad rode hard towards Camelot, the grail in his bag, but the sun was setting, and looked as though it would be dark soon. His horse was clearly tired, so he made the decision to find a place to camp out. Slowing to a trot, he searched the area, and found a stone circle, the kinds the druids made. In the center was a fire, formerly used for rituals, but right now being used by a knight to boil some vegetables in a pot.
“Percival!” The knight looked up, he was older than Galahad remembered him, but the quest for the grail had been a long one. He dismounted, tied up his horse, and pulled off his saddle bag.
“You'll never guess what I have sir Percival!” He just chuckled, “I've got something pretty great myself you know...”
Galahad reached into his bag, and pulled out a simple cup, but one that you could tell just by looking at it held much more importance into it than its clay would indicate. Percival looked at it stunned at bewildered. Galahad had been expecting some awe, but he grin fell when Percival reached into a bag and pulled out an identical cup. “Oh.” Galahad said. He couldn't really think of what else to say. “How can there be two Grails? I find this hard to fathom.” Percival just shrugged, “I'm certain mine is real though-”
“I'm certain mine is real.”
“Well then this is a quandary.” Percival perked up, his ears almost twitching like a dog. “Do you hear that?” Galahad shook is head, he hadn't but God hadn't gifted him with the same ears Percival had. Percival pointed and Galahad looked at the darkening horizon where a horse and rider were galloping towards them. “Who on earth could that be?”
“Its Gawain.” Percival said, as he went back to stirring the pot.
“He'll certainly know what's going on, and if he doesn't I'm certain no one but Merlin will know, either way we can relax about this-- be lackadaisical even.”
“It means... Relaxed, so I guess I was repeating myself.” Galahad nodded as Gawain approached. He looked exhausted, but his form was perfect. His armor was dented, but no where did it look patched, like he had used it perfectly to block blows without ever getting hit too hard by a stray one. His short black hair shifted like the grass in the wind as his horse heaved across the ground. Sweat dripped through his stubble. God, he was beautiful. Galahad knew no better knight. He slowed his horse, and slid off in a seamless motion, patting the horse as he walked towards them. He didn't bother tying it up.
Gawain walked over to the pot and looked into it, and gave a sort of shrug, sitting down in total silence. Galahad looked at Percival, who just kept stirring.
“So Gawain.... How went your quest?” Gawain looked up at Galahad, and screwed his lips off to the left.
“Well, Arthur will be pleased. I got the Holy Grail.”
Galahad and Percival pulled their own Grails out.
“Ah.” Gawain sighed and rubbed his temples, “I was thinking this would all be simple.”
Percival looked up again and pointed at the horizon, yet again, where a new figure was riding towards them in the quickening shadows.
“I wonder who th-”
“Its Claudin.” Percival said before Galahad could finish. Gawain just smirked. Percival served the soup as Claudin rode up.
“Claudin, you'll never guess what's happened.” He dismounted and gave a disgruntled sigh, “You found three Holy Grails that are totally identical?”
Galahad laughed, “Well then, I'm guessing you have one to?” He nodded, and sat by the fire. “I take it you want to know why? Good I have a story to tell you.”
They listened, and when he was done, a long silence prevailed. It was Gawain who spoke first.
“Well... We can't very well let the draugr sip from the cup can we?”
“I don't see why not, wouldn't it cure his undeath?” Galahad added. Gawain gave a gentle nod, but looked displeased. “I don't trust draugr. They don't have the same priorities as the living, they usually want to keep their grave goods close to them at all times. That this Thrynwulf character gave Claudin his Grail.... I don't trust it.”
“Then what should we do?” Gawain just shrugged, “Nothing. It will wait for you, you won't come. Camelot can certainly handle one draugr if it comes to it.”
Claudin nodded, and they went back to their dinner, but things didn't seem right.
The feast was spectacular when they returned. Word had somehow spread about their arrival, and children threw dried flower petals from the roofs and parapets as they rode into town, Grails aloft. Arthur, the priests, and Merlin all inspected the cups and found them genuine, and each of them drank a draft from them. Time passed, the Grails were safe. A month went by and Camelot never lost its glow of joy.
* * * * *
Thrynwulf shoved the doors open, his arms seeming to push out farther than any arm should from his body. His teeth shone in the moonlight, the hollow of his eye socket seeming to sink in deeper to a violet void in a phantasmagorical action of deep secrets. He stepped into the hall, swaying slightly, the hood of his cloak casting just enough shadow to frame him demonic. He raised a skeletal hand, thinly cloaked in skin and sinew.
“Sir Claudin, where is my draft?”
Camelot rose as one to face the draugr, its height growing by at least a foot, its arms stretching so long they could hit the ground, its jaw unhinging and growing wide enough to bite the head off a horse, its head leading over its body, its legs seeming to not only stretch like its arms, but grew thick like tree trunks.
“You think you can deny me my death? I shall be a calamity on you-” it smashed the food and drink from a table with its long arms sending people scattering, “you feast in decadence while I live! I shall have my draft!”
Arthur rose, and being unarmed at dinner, grabbed the ax from behind him on the wall, just as he had during the “Green Knight” incident. “You insidious creature, what reason do you have for breaking into my hall at dinner? You have no right!”
It screeched like a dying owl, “I HAVE EVERY RIGHT! Your knight, Sir Claudin, promised me a drink from your Grails in exchange for the one I had.” Arthur looked at Claudin.
“Sir Claudin, is this true?” Claudin lowered his head.
“It is, my King.” Arthur pursed his lips.
“My King,” Gawain whispered, “You've seen very well what draugrs can do...” Arthur shuddered at the mere thought, when he and Gawain had ventured into that cavern with ten men, and come back alone... “... I am a King of my word, and my knight's honor is my own. I honor the word of Sir Claudin. Come gentle draugr, drink with us.” The creature's form began to turn to normal, and it stepped forward, pulling its hood down, a horrid smile on its face. “Why thank you Arthur Pendragon, son of Uther, King of Albion. I would be most honored.”
Arthur lowered the ax, and sent a page to call for Merlin, who came in with the four Grails on a tray, a bottle of wine, and some sort of glowing slab with a thin wire coming out from it leading into his ears. He seemed to be humming something, and there was a faint melody coming from his ears.
“Merlin meet... Merlin?”
“What? Oh, sorry. I was listening to some Jay-Z.” He said pulling two small buds out of his ears. “I mean, er, I was... Doing magic. Stuff. Magic stuff yeah. Anyways, yeah, I take it you're Thrynwulf?”
The Draugr extended a hand, which Merlin shook, “Good to meet you. I had the priests bless the wine, so it should be all consubstantiated now. Thrynwulf sighed, a deep contented sigh, and picked up the first cup, which he drunk. Nothing happened. He frowned, and drank the next cup. Nothing happened again. He reached for the third, and downed it. Still nothing. With great hesitancy, he reached for the last cup, he picked it up, turned it in the light from the candles, and drank from it slowly and sweetly. Nothing happened. He dropped the cup, his one eye wide, and Merlin caught it expertly.
“This cannot be happening... I should be dead.”
“Yeah, thought that might happen.” Merlin said nonchalantly. “I think you can only die from drinking a draft from a Grail made by the witches who cursed you. Sorry bro.”
“But... No!” His body began contorting, turning spastic and shifting wildly.
“Buuuuuut, hey chill man, look, I know where the witches are. If any of our knights are brave enough to go with you, this should be easy enough to solve. Thrynwulf looked up, “There is still a way I can reach death?” Merlin nodded, “Yeah, just uh, let me pull something up on my.... Magic soothsaying stone or whatever....” He began tapping on the glowing rock. “Ugh, Apple Maps is even worse in ancient history.... Right here we go. They've opened a Haberdashery in Kent. So, if you can go to Kent, you can get cured. “
“Cure a curse at the house of some Haberdashing Kent Witches? That's... Well no more odd than a lot of things we've done.” Gawain sighed. “I'm in. I don't like you, draugr, but I back my friend's promise to you.”
Thrynwulf bowed its head, “I am honored.”
“I'm in to,” Galahad chimed in.
“I can't very well get out of this, I'm in.” Claudin added.
“Yeah.” Percival said.
“Then we have a company-- you shall go to Kent and cure Thrynwulf of his undeath. May God go with all of you.” Arthur said, making a sign of blessing with his hands.
“Yeah, good luck and stuff.” Merlin added.
“Lets not wait then.” Gawain said, wiping his mouth. “We leave at dawn.”
* * * * *
The five riders departed at first light, awakening nearly in unison, donning their riding armor and packing their bags in total silence. They could feel destiny oozing from their actions, could feel that the universe was pushing them where they needed to go, like the hand of god was at the small of their backs, pushing them onward. They ate in silence to, and yawning took to the backs of their mounts with necessity. Thrynwulf was waiting for him, his eyes lidless of sleep, his belly in no need of pleasantries. They rode. Hooves tore up clumps of grass, and kicked up dirt. The sun rose slowly behind then, framing them in its light, as though its rays were the very hands at their backs.
They stopped rarely, for food or to water the horses, and of course to sleep. All were terse affairs, but fate was following, and fate was not so silent. It was on their second day of travel that they found the adventure wouldn't be such a straight shot. The signal for this was a fairly obvious one, as someone came running in front of their horses waving their hands with manic fervor. Halting their band, Gawain rode forward slowly, taking his helmet off. The road blocker was a young woman, a splatter of blood across the left side of her face.
“You have to help, you have to help, you have to help.” She said loudly, but with a monotone that screamed to the extent of her shock. Gawain dismounted, and setting down his helmet approached her slowly. “You're safe now. I am Sir Gawain, and this is Sir Claudin, Sir Percival, and Sir Galahad, as well as our companion Thrynwulf. We're sworn to aid you.”
She fell to her knees weeping as though a dam inside her had finally collapsed and the waters allowed to flow free, clutching Gawain's legs. He lent down and gently held her, whispering to her. The other knights and Thrynwulf dismounted and waited patiently for her to be able to speak.
“What happened to you, miss?”
She took a breath, “My village was slaughtered by a Warlord named Sir Anduril.” Gawain's face twitched with held in anger as she spoke, “Our parish held a relic from the holy land, a cloth with the image of the Christ on it. Anduril heard of it, and decided to take it... We wouldn't give it up, and his men slaughtered us instead. They came through on horses and just... Just started bashing heads in, burning, stabbing, there was so much blood.... Blood.... It....” She began shuddering, and Gawain patiently held her till she was ready to continue, “They... I hid... I played dead after they killed my brothers, I could feel Francis' blood on me as it came out of him, warm and.... And I hid. I waited till they finished, and was the only one left. I... I need your help.”
“And I will gladly give it...”
“I will gladly do everything I can to bring you solace, Cydwyn.”
Gawain looked at his comrades, “I am sorry, but I cannot delay seeking justice for this. You can ride on but-”
“Gawain, we're all with you, and you Cydwyn.” Percival cut in. Thrynwulf's voice, for once sounded reassuring in the depths of its darkness, “I swear to you, girl, I shall not rest either till your justice is found.” They had been drawn here together, and fate had shown its hand.
The town was worse than Cydwyn had made it out. The bodies had been mutilated and violated, and it made Galahad sick off the side of his horse to see it. Anduril's men had gloried in this, like children finger-painting in crimson, stringing up bits of people like ornaments. The Christian Church and Pagan Temple on either end of the village had both been burned, but had first had statues taken out from them and set in the town square, robed in human skin, draped in necklaces of entrails. The statues had been further defiled by making bloody and obscene mockeries using other detached body parts. It was the most horrifying thing any of them had ever seen, except for Gawain. Claduin, Galahad, and Cydwyn began the process of assembling the remains for burial, and cleaning the statues from the church and temple, while Percival and Thrynwulf began the process of digging graves. All of them wept, save for Gawain, whose face grew as immovable as a cliff face. He walked through the village, and took notes. When he finished, he aided the others in their tasks. When the last grave had been covered up, and Galahad and Claudin had finished doing the Christian and Pagan rites over them, Gawain found them some unruined food from one of the empty houses, which they ate solemnly for dinner.
“Thrynwulf,” he said in the silence, “are you serious that you will follow us to the conclusion of this journey?” Thrynwulf looked up, surprised. Cydwyn looked terrified of him.
“You may not like me, Knight of the Round, but while I have the body of a monster, I've the soul of a Christian.”
“That doesn't always mean good.” Claudin noted, “Anduril calls himself a Christian.”
Thrynwulf nodded, “No it does not, but I have lived a long time, and I want nothing more than a world without the things I've seen.” He stretched his arm out, and it elongated slightly, so that his open palm seemed to be under the moon. “The Roman's killed many people I knew, and the life of a slave was a terrible one. I've seen men torture people for fun while I held their wine goblet. I've lived too long, and seen too much. I want to end this life, and move onto the next one as soon as I can, but to leave this world without doing what I could to right the wrongs in this one is wrong to me.”
“You know if you are cut apart you'll live on forever as a specter, unable to leave this world, without a form to inhabit in it. We'll be facing huge dangers.”
“I am prepared for that.”
“Why are you with them?” Cydwen asked. She'd been very quiet, and no one was willing to push her on that.
“Have you seen my kind before?”
“You didn't recognize the sights here, Thrynwulf? The signs of draugr feeding on the living?” Gawain asked. Thrynwulf narrowed its eye.
“I lead a solitary life.”
“I have seen these draugr before. Anduril was a knight who went with Arthur and I to clean a tomb of them out long ago, when we were young men, maybe even younger than Galahad or Claudin here.”
Galahad and Claudin looked at each other, and Gawain looked up at the moon.
“Anduril betrayed us, he had made a deal with the draugr. They would support him as a warlord, and he would let them feed. The men we brought with us were slaughtered, and Arthur and I barely made it out with our heads on our necks. When we returned, they had fled, highly unusual for draugr, but Sir Anduril was a keen leader. We never saw him again, but we've heard rumors of his actions since. He has many draugr under his command, and the most vile and cutthroat of men. They'll move on quickly, so this will be our one chance to get them while their trail from this village can still be tracked. We have no time to find more men, and their numbers will be far more than ours. We'll likely be killed.”
Gawain got up and walked to the statues, now free of organs, but still stained with blood. “Arthur has been a good king, he united all people's of this land without judgment, Christians and Pagans, even the Jews and Moors, all are welcome in his realm. The only draugr I had seen before today were monsters, and I rushed to think of you on their terms Thrynwulf, but if you stand with us, then you are one of us.”
Thrynwulf simply bowed his head, and extended his hands.
“If you are going to your deaths, I will go to mine as well.” Cydwyn said.
“Out of the question-- you have survived this, you deserve the chance to flee to safety and live.” Claudin said.
She shook her head, “You've all gotten to make grand judgments today, for good or ill, and you've been kind to me. But look around you, look at where I used to live. I used to sing at festivals with those bodies you buried. I hugged them, ate with them, danced with them, dreamed of marriage with more than one of them... I can't simply leave you to finish this without me. I can't.”
Claudin began to protest, but Galahad cut him off. “Do you really think she doesn't know what risk this means for her Claudin? We will need every hand we can get in this.” He turned to her, “Have you worn armor before?” She shook her head. “We'll see if we can find you something light that fits in the town armory.”
“I can ride a horse, and hunt with a bow.”
“Good. No sword training I take it?””
“Then we'll stick with a bow. There's no time to give you skill in something you don't have.”
Gawain looked proudly at Galahad, and Galahad felt his heart rise in his chest.
“The draugr will need to rest tonight to absorb their feast, and they likely won't move in the daylight. We'll sleep tonight, and find their hiding place tomorrow when its light. If we can catch them when they're asleep, we may stand a chance. Till then, get some rest.” Gawain got up, already going to get ready for sleep.
Cydwyn straightened her skirts, and looked at Galahad, “Shall we dress me like a boy then in mail and pants?”
“Not like a boy,” Galahad replied, “like a warrior.”
* * * * *
Anduril's men were drunk on wine, his draugr dunk on blood. He sat on his makeshift throne in the cave, watching two of his men wrestle. They weren't holding back, and the violence seemed gratuitous in a way, not that Anduril really cared. Men were easy to replace. They'd sacked a village, leaving no survivors, and he had it on good word that most of Arthur's knights were still on their foolhardy quests for the Holy Grail. Why would it even be in Britain? He still couldn't really wrap his head around that one, but then again he'd never been one for reading. He had nothing to worry about. Why did he feel off then? There something about this that didn't feel right, he couldn't be developing a conscience could he? He laughed at the thought, spewing wine out in a big splatter. The two wrestlers looked over smiling, thinking they'd pleased him, their grins almost invisible through the blood in their teeth and bruises on their faces. No, it couldn't be a conscience. He'd have noticed that. Closing his eyes he pushed himself back to the sacking of the village. He went through the killing in his mind, savoring the replay of every cut and every kill. There was nothing wrong-- he'd executed the killing bloody darn well, no pun intended. In fact he'd-- no wait. He saw himself smashing the side of a man's head with his ax, and cleaving clean through to his shoulder. There was a perfect spray of blood, and the woman behind him was splattered with it.
Then that woman fell to the ground without a wound on her, and quietly, inch by inch, crawled under the bed. He hadn't noticed, he'd been too caught up in the bloodlust.
But so what? He'd left one survivor? That really wasn't much in the long scheme of things. If anything, one survivor might do him good. People would hear about him, and it would sow terror in them. It might be the best thing to happen to him in eons. Anduril leaned back and drank his wine. He needed to stop being silly. There wasn't anything to be worried about at all. Fate couldn't pull on him, fate was nothing to him. He pushed away the hand tugging at him, and drunk till he forgot.
* * * * *
It had been a normal morning for Cydwyn. She'd seen her brothers, and kissed Cy on the cheek so he woke up. She went out and started the chores for that day, mainly involving beginning to tan the hide of a deer she'd shot. She'd seen Eogrer going off to the field's, and waved and smiled, which he did back.
She could remember the way her heart fluttered. She could remember how it felt and how he fell when he was hit with the arrow. She fled into the house, and hid while her brothers finished dying. She hid while the town was killed. She hid while she heard the sick sounds of the desecration of her friend's bodies. She hid. She wondered when she had even taken a breath. She wondered what the point of all those earlier days had been-- why had she grown up at all? Why had she been allowed to know these people for even a minute, let alone her whole life? Had she done something wrong, was she being punished? She couldn't think of any reason she would be. When there was silence, she waited house till she was sure the silence was total, and creeped out, to see the town had become hell. She wandered through, and the dreams she'd had in her life seemed like something a fool would have come up with. How ridiculous, how utterly silly of her. The world had no use for her happiness. She wandered out of the village, and felt all the hope wash out of her. There was no one to help her, she was alone and... there were figures coming towards her. She could tell they weren't the same ones, even from the far distance there was a nobleness about them, an aura of decency she couldn't explain. She felt a long hand reach for her, and she took it.
* * * * *
It was later than they would have liked when they found the cave, they still had light but it wouldn't be too long till the light was done. There were three guards outside the cave, and Gawain set his troupe on a strict plan to take them out quickly.
Thrynwulf approached, lazily, lilting from side to side.
“Hey, stop, who are you?”, a guard said, with a slur under his breath, brandishing his polearm.
“I got separated after the raid. I spent too long feeding, I'm glad I caught you before you left, Anduril wouldn't have been pleased.”
The man squinted, “I don't recognize you?”
“Really, after all this time, all draugr look the same to you? I should cut your throat.”
“No uh, that won't be necessary, come on in....” He moved his weapon aside, and Thrynwulf strode past. In one quick motion he turned, and tore the guard's throat out in total silence, an arrow went through another guard's neck, and Claudin muffled his mouth as Percival slit the final guard's throat.
“Three down,” whispered Gawain, “No going back now.”
“I know.” Cydwyn said. She'd hoped in a way that killing the guard wouldn't make her feel better, but the truth was, it had. The entire cave began to fill her with a monumental sense of dread, as though stepping in they'd move from this world into a dark world she'd already seen.
“Lets do this.”
They grouped up, and slowly moved inside, taking every step cautiously. It felt like a portal to all of them, and after they moved through a spot of total darkness into the main hall, the torch light made them feel like it was somewhere else. Dozens of men were asleep sprawled on the floor while a handful of draugr, the same ones Gawain had met all those years ago, slept neatly on a sort of natural dais at the end of the room where Anduril was seated, cup hanging out of his hand, snoring peacefully. Gawain gestured them in and whispered, “We lucked out. They're asleep. We need to kill them while they're sleeping-- don't give me that look Galahad this may not be honorable, but this is the only chance we have to take out three dozen men with six of us. We can't let these people keep doing this-- they'll do what they did again and again.” Galahad nodded, he remembered the village. There were other villages like that one, and there would be more. He didn't like the idea of killing people in their sleep, but Gawain was right, justice and safety outweighed his code of honor here.
It was messy work. Unheroic work. They moved through silently, systematicly. First: a hand over the mouth; second: a single cut across the throat. They did it perfectly, no one slipped up, or hesitated. By the time they'd reached the dais, it felt more like they'd been killing chickens for a feast then men. “But I was killing men, defenseless men, monstrous men who would kill children and babies without a second thought. Children and babies I'd seen the corpses of. There was no choice here. But I need to keep my hesitation to cross these lines-- I need to doubt if it is the right choice in order to make sure it is,” Galahad thought.
The dais was a new problem though, “So, same thing?” Claudin panted. Gawain shook his head, and whispered back, “You can't kill a draugr silently. We'll take out Anduril, and try to take out as many of the draugr as we can at one time.... we'll have to time it perfectly.”
“Let me kill him.” Cydwyn whispered. Gawain held her gaze.
“Gawain, do you really think...”
“He is yours.”
She went up to him, and held her knife an inch from his throat. She'd slit many throats now today, there was a lot of blood on her. She'd never killed a man before today either. She could do this, she could finish it.
She thought of her brothers, she thought of Eogrer. She thought of what kind of person she had been that morning. So much was lost.
She lowered the knife, Gawain didn't smile, but he looked proud. He turned then, with a solemn deference, to their own draugr.
“Thrynwulf, do it.”
His hand shot out, faster than it should ever have been able to, his arm stretching farther than arms should go, and clutched Anduril's mouth.
“Turn your heads away.” Gawain muttered.
They did. And there was a fleshy tearing sound, and the sound of chewing. When they looked back, Anduril had a hole in his chest where his heart was. Cydwyn gulped. It was done. He was dead. She felt like there should be some resolution, some feeling inside her that things were resolved, but it didn't come. Still silently, they each went to a draugr, and on Percival's count beheaded them in unison. The draugr each lit up, glowing gray mist spilling from their bodies, blue light from their eyes. They screamed, an infernal inhuman screech that made all but Thrynwulf stagger back. The rest of the draugr rose. Percival lunged in first, drawing his sword across a draugr as it tried to rake him with long claws that suddenly grew from its fingers. Galahad found himself in a tangle of extending limbs that he kept cutting away like weeds, Claudin at his back, each fighting to make hits on their bodies or head through the maelstrom. Gawain smashed a draugr's head straight into the wall, shattering it with sheer force before turning to stab one under its jaw. Thrynwulf fought a pair, all three of them wrangling with long thickening limbs, bashing and fighting and gnashing, all while Cydwyn fired arrows into the fray. It was over fairly quickly, the draugr bursting into light and smoke before their soul-emptied corpses dropped once again to the floor.
“Well, that's done.” Gawain panted, leaning on his sword like a cane. Galahad sat down on the dais, and looked out at the bloody room.
“I feel like we had to do this, I don't know why, but it seems like we had to.”
“If we hadn't, a lot more people would die.” Galahad nodded.
“Its more than that. I think all of this has been set out in a way, like a chess board we're playing though.”
“You mean like someone else is masterminding this?” Claudin asked.
“No, not at all, just... This is something bigger than us. Bigger than what any one of us might want, or need, I suppose.”
Percival went over to Anduril's corpse, and searched it, pulling out a folded piece of cloth.
“Is this the relic, Cydwyn?” She nodded, and he carefully unfolded it. There was a stain on it, that vaguely but not entirely looked like a face. He sighed, his eyes filling with disappointment.
“What is it?” Cydwyn asked, her voice quivering.
“No, its clearly something you can't just say its nothing I saw how you looked at it.”
“Are you sure you want to know?”
“Its not a real relic. This cloth is basically new, and I've learned enough from Merlin to know this kind of cloth wasn't made at the time of Christ.... It just has a stain that makes it look like a face. Merlin called that 'pareidolia', when you see a face on something that isn't there...”
Cydwyn cocked her head to the side, she staggered a little, “So they sacked our town to.... To get nothing? They killed everyone for nothing?” Percival nodded with a deep slowness.
“I need to come with you.” They all turned towards Cydwyn.
“I won't slow you down or anything. But I have no where else to go. Nothing makes sense to me anymore. I don't know why anything is happening. Please, just don’t leave me alone.”
“I don't really think that's a good idea...” Claudin began, but Gawain rolled his eyes with such force he just sort of stopped.
“I'd love to have you along” Galahad noted.
“You're a fit bowman, as it turns out, sure.” Gawain said. Percival just grinned.
“Then we are a band of six, I am glad to have you as well.” Thrynwulf added.
“So, what exactly were you doing before you found me anyways?”
* * * * *
The six riders kept on their course, till something else came in their way. As they crested a hill they were met with a brilliant display of lights and bonfires. People danced around them, throwing their heads this way and that, stomping their feet. “There isn't a festival today, unless I lost track of the days?” Claudin muttered, starting to try to work it through on his fingers.
“No, there isn't, not in any faith I know of.” Gawain said.
“That only leaves one thing.” Percival said quietly. They all turned.
The sound of drumming increased from below. The lights shimmered in a way lights shouldn't, and they slowly began to trot towards it.
“We shouldn't go do down there.” Thrynwulf said.
“We aren't going down there.” Cydwyn said, as she went down there.
“Are you under a spell?” The draugr queried.
The five living riders began their descent towards the faerie festival, their eyes glassy. Thrynwulf cursed loudly and repeatedly. No one noticed. He galloped away, and tied his horse up on a tree. If he was to get them out of there, he'd need to be on his feet, and silent. He crept in towards the tents and bonfires, and found the horses of his companions tied to trees that glowed white like bones with light.
It suddenly struck him that this meant the grails were in their saddle bags. He could take them, leave. Get rid of these weak breathing people and get things done with. He hesitated, his bones stretching on reflex as his hand moved towards the saddle bag. He stopped, and pulled his arm back. No, no he wouldn't abandon them. He sighed an empty breath, and felt a surge as he realized he had passed a test. His eye turned far in its socket, beyond how far a living eye could turn, and looked towards the festival. He could already see the five of them being led into separate tents-- they'd change them into faerie clothes and get them to drink their wine and eat their food. If they stayed with them through the night, they'd be trapped. Ugh, mortals.
He took off his cloak, and stripped down to the most flexible clothing he had. He bared his feet, and let his dead toes sink into the grass. He took a flask of wine from one of their bags, and making the smallest cut he could, put a drop of his own blood into it. That should be enough. Other than the flask he took only a knife. Lying on his belly, he began to crawl, his limbs bending out of place till he looked like a spider. The Faeries had them dancing around the bonfires by the time he got there, they were dressed in bone-white robes, with teeth for buttons and fasteners. He watched for a moment as they danced in spirals together, the faeries' movements looking abnormal, like they were skipping steps in moving their limbs between one place and the next.
Thrynwulf would usually have went for Gawain first, the wisest and bravest, but that wouldn't work here. He went for Galahad. The young knight was dancing around a bonfire, drinking wine from a cup that looked like it was both grown from flowers and carved from bone. The faerie next to him smiled sweetly as they danced. This would be tricky. Thrynwulf stretched his arm out through the grass, snaking it towards them, there was a small “snap” every time his arm turned around a rock or branch, but no one minded it. Finally, his hand reached the bonfire. He took a breath, even though he didn't need it, and reached into the fire, grabbing a branch. His arm shot back like a rubber band-- and the branch flew out between the dancers, the faeries leaping away, covering their faces from the sparks. Thrynwulf grabbed Galahad's leg, and pulled him back with all the quickness he could. His arm was sore, and his hand burnt, but he couldn't let that stop him now. He rolled on top of Galahad, and opened the wine flask in his mouth, even as Galahad kept up an unearthly laughter. As the wine and blood touched his lips, his eyes went darker, and the laughter stopped.
“I'm going to die someday.” He whimpered.
“Yes, and I'm sorry about that, but its the only way to get you back quickly. Now if you wouldn't mind, your friends are all in danger.”
Galahad sat up, “They're ensnaring us.”
“Yes, and you need to get some of this wine into all of their cups. I'll get your escape ready.” Galahad nodded, grabbed the flask, put on his best fake smile, and walked back to the bonfire. “Galahad, where did you go?” the Fae asked. “Nowhere, I just got scared.”
“I thought you were a brave knight!”
“Well nobody's perfect.”
Thrynwulf crawled away, looking back to see Galahad slapping Claudin on the back as he dripped some of the flask into his cup. The draugr crept into the tents, and took their weapons and armor, putting them into a pile behind one of the tents, and making a circle around it in the dirt. Finally, and casually, he did the same trick with his arm to grab a chunk of flaming wood, and chucked it through the air towards the biggest Faerie tent. The Fae kept dancing for longer than you would think till they realized the tent was burning, and they ran screaming towards it, their faces becoming less and less human as they did so. Galahad had everyone gathered together, most of them looking fairly dazed, and had them running out of the place towards their horses. Thrynwulf got up, and walked into the middle of the camp, the faeries turning to face him. “You need to leave this place.” The Faeries hissed at him.
“This isn't your place draugr.”
“You belong in the otherworld, go back there.”
“You belong with the dead.”
“And I'm trying to join them, now leave.”
“Tell us why we should?”
“Your wine has been poisoned with my blood, and death. If you don't go back before dawn, you'll be mortal.” Their eyes widened in unison, which Thrynwulf had never seen before. It was like watching the sky crack open like an egg.
They screeched, and squawked, and fled through the night and past our world. Thrynwulf sighed, this journey couldn't just be simple, it had to be a quest. He looked up at the moon again, and reached his hand towards it once again, yes, of course it was a quest. One couldn't escape that.
* * * * *
The bridge. In quests, one often reaches one, and it often has a guardian. The bridge our heroes found was no different, and there in front of it was a guardian, puffing on a clay pipe. He had a black cloth wrapped around his eyes, and a thick hooded cloak wrapped around him. In his hand was a rope that seemed to feed under the bridge somehow. They had ridden without stopping since they fled the Faerie camp, and the sun and the dew were fresh upon the ground. Claudin's head was filled with a dull ache, partially from the Faerie wine, partially from the lack of sleep. The cool morning air was ready to wake him, and he breathed it in deep as he slapped his cheek a bit to bring a sting of consciousness to his affairs. Cydwyn was yawning on the horse next to him, and Percival was muttering something about breakfast. Thyrnwulf probably didn't need to sleep and had quietly and gently kept one or two of them from falling out of the saddle as they dozed in and out. Galahad swayed slightly in his tiredness, and Gawain was already dismounting to walk towards the bridge's guardian.
“Are you the keeper of this bridge?”
The man nodded.
“Will you allow us to pass?”
“Its good that you ask.” The man said gruffly, “Not everyone does.”
“Does that mean we may pass?” The man shook his head.
“No, not that simple. I have a question for all of you, however many there are. My hearing isn't as good as people expect it to be.”
“There are six of us.” Percival coughed out.
“Six. Well then. One at a time, what is your unobtainium?”
Gawain looked puzzled, “Our.... Our what?” He looked at the rest of the group, most of them just shrugged, Cydwyn yawned again.
“Unobtainium- what is the thing you need to solve your problem? Simple enough. Tell me, and after you tell me, each of you can pass.”
“I can do this easily.” Thrynwulf rode forward slowly, “I seek a drought from the three witches beyond this bridge.”
“What? Helga, Hunna, and Hamma?”
Thrynwulf sighed, “Yes, those three.”
The old man leaned his head down, and bit his pipe. “Well, alright then, but you might be disappointed.”
“I can't really be more disappointed with them than I already am.”
“Fair enough.” He shrugged. “Go forth.” Thrynwulf rode across the bridge. He waited on the other side, skeletal, his eye shining.
“Who is next?
Gawain, who was still standing in front of him, coughed. “Uh, I'll go.”
“What is your unobtainium?”
“To seek the Holy Gra- Sorry that's not it anymore, I mean, we have it, four of it. Um, I... peace in the realm would be nice.”
The old man shrugged, “Yeah fair enough. Next.”
“I'm Galahad, Knight of the Round Table.” He said, his horse clomping up.
“Ah, Lancelot's boy. I know of you. And your unobtainium?”
“I wish to be holy and pure in a way my father never could be.”
The old man stroked his beard, “A noble goal, and a hard one to reach. I certainly wish you luck. Cross!” He did so, and took his place on the other side.”
“And what of you, next person?”
“I'm Percival. Knight, and such.” He said as he rode up, “I just want to get done with this quest and go home. I'm tired, and I've had enough of trail food. Maybe my unobtanium is a good meal. Honestly I'm too sleepy to think about it much.”
The old man chuckled, “I'm not going to be picky about this, go ahead and go on over. Fair enough my boy, fair enough.”
Claudin rode up next, “I'll just cut to the chase-- I want people to remember me for me and not for the bad things my father did. Lump me in with Galahad, but its the truth.”
“Quick and easy, lemon peasy!”
“Oh just cross.” He did so.
“That leaves just one of you doesn't it? Who is it?”
“My name is Cydwyn.”
“A lady! Goodness.” He pulled down his hood and gave a small bow in slightly the wrong direction. “No, not a lady. Just a woman. I'm just Cydwyn, nobody special.”
“You're traveling with four knights and a man cursed with immortality, that's hardly no one who travels like that!” He shook his pipe at her as he talked.
“Oh, I'm sure they wouldn't mind leaving me behind, I can't even really answer your question. You said unobtainium is something you need to complete something, or achieve something, or maybe make you or something whole.... Something like that.”
“Yes, something like that.”
“I have no idea what would make me whole, or what I need. I have very little, maybe nothing.”
“Well that is a problem. You see this rope here in my hand? Do you know what this does? One tug and it pulls a peg out holding that bridge to the cliff face. The bridge is strong, it could hold a whole cavalcade of horses and riders-- but this one peg keeps it all in place. If I don't want someone to cross, I just pull the peg out. I've done it before. Sent people hurtling to their deaths down below-- I could do that to you to. So why should I let you cross when you have nothing?”
Cydwyn couldn't think of a reason. There really wasn't one, she had nothing to give this blind man, nothing to barter or offer....
“Maybe what I need is on the other side of that bridge?”
“And if it isn't?”
“Well I can't do much harm over there if I'm looking for nothing now can I?” The old man smiled.
“Good girl. I've got a gift for you, its not unobtanium, its Aubrillium, or as the layman would call it, moondust.” He pulled a bag out of his cloak and held it out in front of him. She rode up, and reached down from her saddle to grab it.
“You mean, this is really from the moon? The one in the sky?”
“No other-- don't ask how I got it, long story, but its genuine I can tell you that. And if I know where you're going, it might very well be what you need. Now go, cross the bridge, finish the quest. I don't have all day.” She thanked him, and bolted across the bridge, nervous he'd change his mind. But he just kept smoking the clay pipe.
“What did you tell him?”, asked Galahad.
“Nothing, I mean, really I told him I didn't have anything.”
“Oh I guess the test was easier than it looked.”
“He was looking for honesty.” Gawain cut in, “You all said exactly the right thing. If you'd lied, you'd be dead.” Cydwyn's eyes went wide, and then she smiled. She was alive, yes, she was alive, and the quest was almost over.
* * * *
The sign outside the witch's house said “Helga, Hunna, and Hamma's Tessa's all purpose Potions and Haberdashery” with the name Hamma crossed out, and the name Tessa written in sloppily under it. The six of them rode up to the sign, stopping their horses as they took it in. The house was old, the lawn overgrown, and vines creeping up the sides. It had the look of a place that was lived in, but was too big for the occupants to care for. They all dismounted, and tied their horses up, walking up to the door of the house where they all stood for a moment of uncertainty before Galahad and Cydwyn stepped forward in accidental unison, and giving each other a smirking glance, knocked at the same time.
The girl who opened the door was probably seventeen, maybe younger as she had the lean look of someone who'd spent most of her life living off scraps. Her white smock was covered in stains of herbal droughts, and opening the door itself gave a big waft of aromatic plants. In her arms was a cat, which was looking around as though trying to find a way to get free.
“Oh, hello, uh, I wasn't expecting any customers today. Is it an emergency or something?”
They all looked at Thrynwulf, “Er, no not an emergency, however it is something I'd like to avoid putting off any longer. Where are the three witches?”
The girl fumbled with the cat as it squirmed in her arms. She begin to tickle it, and say some coochie-coo words at it, and it eventually stopped wriggling. “Sorry about the cat-- well, I'm one of the witches, Tessa.”
“Hamma's name was crossed out; did she leave to start her own coven?” Thrynwulf conjectured.
“No.... No I think you should come in.” She sighed, and gestured towards a messy table lined with benches. The six sat down, and she began to give them cups of an herbal tea she was brewing in a pot (herbs lined the room, herbs were drying on racks, herbs were in cups and basins and bottles; they grew in pots on the windowsills and hung from the ceilings. It was impossible to escape them here), and there were even plenty sitting in hats that lined the room in near equal frequency. Hats of every color and shape. There was barely any free space. “I'm sorry to tell you sir, but Hamma died last year. She slipped and fell, hit her head on the back of a chair and broke her crown. There was nothing anyone could do.” Thrynwulf looked displeased at this.
Claudin leaned in to whisper to him, “Shouldn't you be happy about that? I thought you didn't like them?” Thrynwulf ignored him.
“And you're the new maiden in the Trifecta?”
“Yessir- unfortunately I haven't been able to learn much of their art.” Thrynwulf set his steaming cup down.
“The Mother and Crone,” she looked at a puzzled Cydwyn, “Helga and Hunna, they're dying. Helga of old age, Hunna of something she picked up from eating spoiled food. I'm running most of the business these days, but I don't even know what most of the herbs here do. I'm much better at making hats, I've got plenty of ideas on that count... But you don't need a witch to make your hat.”
Everyone shook their heads, and Thrynwulf stood. “I need to see your Mother and Crone immediately. If what you say is true, I can wait no longer.” He pulled his hood down, and Tessa gasped and dropped the cat, which looked rather happy to finally be dropped and go about its business.
“Why sir- you're....”
“Dead. Yes. And I'm tired of not meeting the fullness of that moniker. Now if you would?” Tessa nodded, and took a few steps backward till she could grab a blanket that had been draped over a doorway, pulling it back. Thrynwulf stepped through, to where two very old women were lying in parallel beds, a pot boiling with herbs between them. One was holding a half sewn cap, both were asleep, their chests moving in an uneven and sickly fashion. He went over to one of the beds, and grasped the woman's hand, gently stroking it. Slowly, the lids of her eyes peeled back, and her hand grasped Thynwulf's weakly. “Thrynwulf? I never thought I'd see you again.”
“Hello Hunna.” He said peacefully.
“I wanted to tell you I'm sorry, you know, I really did. I was so rash back then, so rash and young. Did you keep track of Sven?”
He smiled, “Of course I did, and Lia. I lost track of their descendants after a few hundred years.”
“Then I'm glad you could see our children live happy lives. At least that was something.”
Claudin turned to Galahad, “He told me they cursed him for winning a cooking competition!” he whispered.
“Well there is clearly more to it than you thought.” He said back out of the corner of his mouth.
“I wanted you to know you are forgiven Hunna.”
“As are you. You may have embarrassed me and my sisters in front of the King and his court by trouncing us in that cooking competition ( “Oh, okay.” Claudin said.) but turning you into an undead monstrosity was maybe an over reaction, especially since I was bearing your second child.”
“Just a bit, yes, its too late to change all that, but you can finally give me sleep.”
She cackled, “No no no, Thrynwulf you've forgotten. I tried, I tried so hard you remember?”
“I know. But these nice knights here have all four Holy Grails, including my less-Holy one.” She sat up, barely.
“Is this true?” The knights pulled out the Grails, holding them up in the faint light.
“Good. Good... Though its still not enough. I need moon-dust, and that is nearly impossible to find.
“Aubrillium!” Cydwyn declared, and pulled out the small bag.
“Where did you get that?” Galahad asked.
“From the bridge guardian.”
“Well that's convenient.” Gawain added, “Everything falls into place.”
“Fate. The moon has come to its full.” Thrynwulf held out his hand, and Cydwyn handed him the bag.
“Yes, yes we can start let me...” She tried to get up, but as the sweat rolled down her cheek, it became clear she could not. “Mother Hunna don't strain yourself!” Tessa ran in, and maneuvered her back down.
“I'm don't know much, but I can follow instructions. We can make this potion.”
“I'll help.” Cydwyn added.
“And I to.” Claudin stepped forward, and the other three knights did the same.
“Good... Good. You, young boy go get the worm meal. Its in a jar labeled worm meal. Other young boy, go get the monkshood, its drying on the west wall on the left side of the blue table. Gruff man who could kill a bear, go start grinding horse bone in the main hall. Quiet man, go find some blue bells out back. You know what those are? Good. Young girl, go fetch a pail of water. Tessa, get some bread and wine...” They went about their tasks, and got new ones and new ones. By the time they'd finished it was night, and they were all very tired. Tessa was stirring a pot of brewing potion.
“What color is it?”
“A soupy gray.”
“Add more toadstool.”
“Its black! It turned black as night!” Hunna cackled again, which turned into coughing, “Good, good, it looks like were ready. Tessa, wake Helga up.” Tessa stumbled over to Helga, nearly tripping on the cat, and shook her gently. She felt her head. It was cold. Tessa's hands began shaking, “Mother Hunna.... Crone Helga is dead...” Hunna sighed. “I doubt I'll make it through this night myself. You can bury her later, we need to finish this while I'm still breathing. Come on girl, quick! Don't dilly-dally!” Tessa shot up and got the bread and wine. Into thee of the four cups she poured wine, and into the last the black mixture.
“Come then friends, Christian and Pagan, would you share this meal with me?” Thrynwulf organized them into a circle, and sitting at its apex, began to speak.
“Now, this is an old story, and maybe the most important one. I'm doing this from memory, so my apologies if its slightly off. Let us share together this Lord's supper. Now... How did Luke begin it? Oh yes, 'Then came the day of Unleavened Bread on which the Passover lamb had to be sacrificed. Jesus sent Peter and John, saying, “Go and make preparations for us to eat the Passover.”
“Where do you want us to prepare for it?” they asked.'”
He stopped for a moment, “And here I came into the story, funny how that works, just one night changes things forever. Sorry, I'll get on with it. 'He replied,“As you enter the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you.' You know, I met him to, I can't remember his name, I'm too old, sorry, I digress, 'Follow him to the house that he enters, and say to the owner of the house, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ He will show you a large room upstairs, all furnished. Make preparations there.”
They left and found things just as Jesus had told them. So they prepared the Passover.
When the hour came, Jesus and his apostles reclined at the table. And he said to them, “I have eagerly desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I tell you, I will not eat it again until it finds fulfillment in the kingdom of God.”
After taking the cup, he gave thanks and said, “Take this and divide it among you. For I tell you I will not drink again from the fruit of the vine until the kingdom of God comes.”' As he told the story, the three cups went around, and they drunk the wine from each of them. Thrynwulf reserved the last cup, muttering, “Some fruit of the vine.” He continued,
“'And he took bread, gave thanks and broke it, and gave it to them, saying,“This is my body broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.”' He took the bread, and broke it, and they passed it around, each of them sharing it together.
“'In the same way, after the supper he took the cup, saying,“This cup is the new covenant in my blood, which is shed for you.”' And this is the promise I've waited for, of a real eternal life....” Thrynwulf held the final Grail up, and looked at his friends.
“I owe you all, and I am sorry I cannot repay you. I am joyous to die, finally to end this long life, so to meet my God, to rot to dust and free my suffering spirit.”
Hunna reached out weakly, and he grasped her hand.
“Now then, the fruit of vine. Thy Kingdom come, thy will be done, on Earth as it is in Heaven....” Thyrnwulf lifted the cup up, and a panel on the roof blew loose letting the moonlight shine through onto the cup and its drinker. He chugged it down, and the black liquid seemed to flow through him instantly. He dropped the cup (which Cydwyn caught in a panic) and began to glow, his skin shining like Luna in the sky, his empty eye socket full of light, and then he began falling to dust, Hunna smiling faintly at him.
“What can you see?” Galahad asked, his eyes shining back the glow.
“You won't be disappointed.” Thrynwulf replied, and fell to ashes and dust.
* * * * *
Hunna was dead too when they checked, and they began the process of burying them. By the time they'd finished, the remainder were exhausted. Digging graves, and saying blessings had taken a long time. But they'd felt they shouldn't wait for some reason. Fate, maybe. Or something like it. They passed out collectively, and slept a long time there, spending the next two weeks resting and fixing the shoddy house up. “I'm very grateful for all your help,” Tessa began, “But I cannot run this whole place by myself, I don't know what I'm going to do now.”
“We cannot stay to help you.” Gawain said, “We have many people to protect throughout the Kingdom.”
“Oh I know...”
“I can stay though.” Cydwyn said, taking Tessa's hand. “I have no home, nowhere to be. I'm no witch, but I'm sure I can learn to make hats and plant herbs.”
Galahad smiled and put a hand on each of them, “You'll do well, and it has been an honor to know both of you.”
Cydwyn smiled, “You saved my life, you brought me justice. I don't think a warrior life is for me though.” Gawain laughed, “Well if bandits come by, you'll sure give them a surprise. Keep the weapons and armor, maybe you'll find them useful.” Cydwen grinned, and hugged each of them in turn.
* * * * *
When the knights rode off, carrying the Grails back to Camelot, they felt like they had done something good, but nothing that they expected. Claudin looked at the Grail he'd found as he'd rode. It was the cup Jesus hadn't drunk from, it was by default less-Holy, less special. Still, he smiled. It had brought Thrynwulf far closer to his God than he'd thought he ever would be. They rode and rode, till the moon once again came up over the horizon.
Poet, Playwright, Game Designer, Writer, Freelancer for hire.