The Kid was proving to be difficult. He turned the spit and the smell of roasting coney filled the cave, momentarily distracting me from the driving wind and slanting rain just outside.
“I’m sorry, I can’t help you. I’m on a Grail Quest that will save everything,” he said.
I had no trouble with his dialect or accent; the old man had seen to that. I sighed, just to let the Kid see I was annoyed, although if a talking fox wasn’t going to impress him I doubted anything else would. I tried another tack.
“Merlin said you would say that.”
He perked up quickly.
“Merlin? He has returned?”
“Well, yes and no.”
How did I explain to this lad, sitting in his tattered leather and rusting mail turning a spit in a cave, that the old man had found me rummaging among the bins at the back of the McDonald’s in Tooting Broadway on a Saturday night? If I started down that road I would have to explain time, space, Tooting Broadway, Saturday and, God help me, McDonald’s. He wasn’t ready for that.
“Find the Kid,” the old man had said. “He hasn’t been tested yet, but he’s ready, and he’s just stupid enough that he doesn’t know when to quit.”
And find him I had; he hadn’t been hard to track. The smell of hero is a potent one indeed, even more so back here and now where there were actual heroic deeds to be done. Yes, I’d found the Kid. But getting him to understand the importance of why I was here was proving rather more difficult. But now that I’d seen his reaction to the mention of the wizard, I at least had somewhere to start.
“Merlin told me that you were the only man for the job,” I said. That wasn’t true, but you can never go wrong in playing to a hero’s vanity. This lad was no exception. I had him. Now it just needed the right push. “He also said it was a necessary step on your quest; it will be a test to ensure that you can endure the trials that will come later.”
He still didn’t seem to be totally convinced, so I played my ace in the hole.
“There are maidens that require saving.”
The next morning we made our way north.
“Tell me again about these maidens,” Galahad said as we crested a hill and looked over an expanse of forest that would become a motorway one day. I tried to remember what the old man had told me back in Tooting.
“Morgana wants to open the way—and she’s close to being able to do it. I taught her too well, and for too long, and she’s learned a few tricks of her own since then. If she’s not stopped, the Dark Ages will be even darker than before—and there might never again be a possibility of light to come.”
“No pressure, then?” I’d said, but I’d taken on the job quickly enough. I hadn’t played the Great Game for many a year and in truth, there just wasn’t enough excitement to be had in Tooting, not even on a Saturday night. But how to convey all this to the Kid in a way he might understand? I kept it simple.
“Morgana has them.”
That’s all I needed to say. His jaw set firm, his eyes took on that look that heroes get just before they do something violent, and he muttered under his breath.
“That bitch again.”
I knew I had him. It was now just a matter of winding him up and pointing him in the right direction. And even the direction wasn’t going to be a problem. Whatever Morgana was doing, she was doing it loud, not hiding it from anyone with a nose for such things. The whole area to the north of us hummed and buzzed with power. I hadn’t felt anything like it—my hairs stood on end and lights whirled and flashed in my eyes. The sky overhead was covered by deep cloud but I knew that up there a blue moon was coming.
And tonight would be All Hallows Eve.
The discomfort caused by Morgana’s working was manageable, although it did little for my travelling companion’s mood. He started to mutter again, about Grail Quests and the saving of the Covenant, and I was sorely pushed to keep his mind on the job at hand.
Reminding him of the maidens again finally did the trick. I should say here and now that I had no idea whether there were any maidens where we were headed, or if there were, whether Morgana meant them any harm—but I wasn’t about to tell the Kid that; a little subterfuge goes a long way with heroes.
The sky started to clear—I saw blue patches above through the dense foliage of the forest canopy—and I began to think that this might be simpler than I could have hoped for. Of course, the Game is never that simple, and I was reminded of that fact when a voice spoke from above.
“Nice day for a walk?”
I looked up—and straight at the point of an arrow aimed squarely between my eyes. Beyond that was a green-clad figure whose face was obscured by shadows from a hood pulled low over his forehead. The speaker had been the black crow sitting on the Hooded Man’s left shoulder.
I tried to keep calm.
“Does your man like the privy door open or shut?” I asked casually.
“He swings both ways,” the crow replied and cackled.
We were going to get along fine. Galahad reached for his sword but I took his wrist gently in my mouth and stopped him before he could unsheathe it.
“You don’t want to be messing with this one,” I said. “He’ll have your eye out with that thing.”
The crow cackled again.
“Bleeding heroes—give me a conflicted man any day of the week.”
“Are we the first?” I asked.
The crow did a little dance on the Hooded Man’s shoulder before replying.
“Not by a long chalk, squire. It’s like Glasgow Fair weekend in Blackpool up there.”
“How many of each?”
“More Openers than you lot. There’s a mad Irish monk with a snake you do not want to meet, a snooty cat from Gaul with another square-jawed blonde in tow, and a German wolf with a dwarf on its back that I didn’t like the look of at all. And that’s just the ones we’ve seen pass by here.”
“I could do with a hand?”
The crow cackled and flapped its feathers.
“Can’t help you there I’m afraid, squire. But I’ll tell you what I’ll do—I’ll keep an eye on the road, and let you know if there’s serious trouble at your back. Can’t say fairer than that, can I?”
I thanked him and backed away. The Hooded Man’s arrow kept pointing between my eyes until we retreated out of sight. I immediately headed off on a fresh path.
Of course the Kid was full of questions—the conversation with the crow would have sounded to him like so many barks and cackles—but I feared I had too little time to bring him up to speed. Things were obviously progressing faster than I had hoped, and judging by the myriad smells I was now picking up, the party was indeed about to begin.
“There is more to this than mere maidens in distress—isn’t there?” Galahad said later that afternoon. “Tell my, why did Merlin send you to me?”
I’d known the question was coming—I’d just been hoping I didn’t have to answer it. We’d stopped by a brook and caught a pair of trout. The Kid insisted on cooking them, although I’d have been happier with raw. The hot tang of the fish reminded me of Tooting Broadway more than I would have liked, and I was grateful for the question when it came—it would stop me being homesick.
“Space and time are just words,” I began. “There are things that exist both inside and outside of either—your Grail for example, and Arthur’s sword among others. Merlin has the ability to see all aspects of these things across all times and all places, and has a modicum of control over them gained from his many close encounters with gateways over a long span of years.”
I stopped. Galahad wasn’t following me; he had that slack-jawed look that told me I’d lost him—probably in the first sentence.
“Okay, let’s start again. Merlin’s a wizard with access to many secrets. Morgana wants the same powers he has—and more. And she’s found a way to get them. It’s our job to stop her.”
Galahad smiled. He’d understood that bit.
“And Merlin wants me to be tested?”
“Oh, you’ll be tested, right enough, of that I have no doubt. And who knows? The Grail may be even closer than you imagine.”
It was a throwaway line to keep him interested, but I saw I had reached him somewhere deep—this was a lad full of need and desire. I only hoped it didn’t consume him utterly before we got the job done.
The first attack came in the late afternoon. I’d been expecting it earlier—I smelled blood in the air twenty minutes before, and the unmistakable sweaty tang of fear. The Kid knew something was up; he had his sword out and ready before the wolf even made its presence known. The dwarf on its back shouted something crude and Germanic, and I braced myself—but it was the Kid they were after. The wolf leapt—full four feet in the air, slavering jaws open.
The Kid took one step to the side, brought the sword down, and lopped its head off, clean as a whistle. The dwarf rolled away and tried to reach his knife. I had his throat out before he could rise. He tasted of Bratwurst and ale.
Galahad kicked the headless wolf in the ribs.
“I think it’s dead,” I said.
“With Morgana, you can never be too careful.”
I saw now why the old man had sent me to him—he moved like Bruce Lee in a fight. He wasn’t much of a thinker, that’s true, but his heart was in the right place, and when it came to Closers that was what mattered most.
“Eyes open, lad,” I said. “There’ll be more where they came from.”
Indeed there were. Over the course of the next hour we put an end to three Scots witches and their cats; a large bear and a larger Russian barbarian; and a Welsh Druid and his kestrel and several small hairy things I didn’t look too closely at but which were very tasty. I was particularly impressed by the way the Kid handled a Moorish nobleman and his leopard. I didn’t even have to distract the cat—which made me happy, I can tell you. He had the beast cleaved in two and the Moor’s legs taken off at the knees before I even tensed to enter the fray. The Moor looked as surprised as I felt when he fell to the ground. We left him there to bleed and walked on.
We arrived at our destination just as the light went from the sky and a yellow moon rose far to the east. It shimmered and danced on a lake that stretched away as far as we could see in the gathering gloom. An island lay several hundred yards off from the near shore, and all the lines of power led to that central hub—the spot Morgana had chosen for her ritual.
Even from this distance I saw there was already quite a crowd gathered around a trio of tall stones that stood proud on the highest point. She’d found her gate. Now we had to stop her opening it. That was going to be easier said than done, as we discovered when we reached the shore and found no boats of any kind available.
“There’s some coracles over at the island already,” Galahad said, rather unhelpfully I thought, but I held my tongue. I was just starting to think that we might miss out on playing altogether when there was a splash to my left and a heavily accented voice spoke up.
“Need a ride, gents? Hop on, but make it snappy—it’s the busiest night for years round here.”
The broad back of a very large sturgeon broke the water.
“Who are you with?” I asked, taking care to speak before accepting the offer.
That got me a liquid laugh.
“Oh, you don’t have to worry about me, guv’nor. My Closer is sitting this one out. He’s got a wee crush on Morgana, see, and doesn’t want to upset her unduly by taking a side this time round. If you ask me he’s being a silly old bugger, but what can you do in affairs of the heart? I had that Nimue on my back once and…”
Galahad in the meantime had his game face on and stepped onto the fish’s back. He sat, cross-legged, completely focused on our destination. I jumped on behind him. I wasn’t happy being exposed out on the water like this, but at least our ride’s incessant stream of chat and gossip took my mind off the possibility of drowning.
“We’ve got all sorts out here tonight,” the sturgeon continued. “Warlocks, witches, selkies, shape-shifters and royalty from foreign parts—not that I’ve got anything agin’ foreigners you understand. They’re all very nice—in their own country. Why they have to come over here I don’t know. I remember when…”
I tuned him out. He had reminded me of London again: a home I hadn’t realized I was going to miss quite so much. Fortunately the trip was a relatively short one, and we were soon closing in on the shoreline of the island.
“If you’re around afterwards and need a ride back, just shout for Larry,” the sturgeon said as we stepped ashore. “Two ducks or three trout will get you right back where I found you. None of them foreign imports, though. Bloody tasteless, spicy muck. Coming over here and…”
And with a splash he was gone.
I finally got a close look at the set-up for the climax.
The island was a small one, and standing space was at a premium. The usual suspects stood, three and four deep, in a circle around the stones. There was so much power in the air that I heard the long-since dead, rumbling and complaining in their burial chambers beneath our feet.
Moonlight danced on the water and cast shadows—already shortened—among the stones themselves. Morgana stood alone in the center. Her smile dazzled and even at this distance I saw why some of the Openers and Closers might take a fancy to her—she was obviously one hell of a woman, if you like the biped kind of thing.
Galahad seemed immune to her charms. Whatever it was that made him a hero, he now had it switched on. He waded into the crowd, sword swinging. I was forced to run along behind, making apologies where required, fending off retaliatory spells and finishing off irate folks and critters that were bleeding but not quite dead yet.
I only caught up to the Kid as he approached the stones, and I was too late to stop him. He ran, full pelt, into the protections and was immediately thrown back six feet, causing me to side-step abruptly to avoid having him fall on me.
Morgana’s laugh was loud enough to be heard over the general hubbub and mayhem we had left in our wake. As Galahad got shakily to his feet her voice rang out, clear and high, calling on the Gatekeeper to open the way.
That would normally have been the cue for the mayhem to start—on any other given blue moon on All Hallows. Closers and Openers would vie for the prize, and a winner would emerge.
But on this night, in this place, Morgana was too strong for all of us. As the moon rose to be almost directly overhead we threw our spells in hopelessness and despair against her protections. We got precisely nowhere. Galahad, as is the wont of heroes, lost patience quickly. He stepped forward, raised his sword, and struck the protective barrier a blow that set the whole island ringing.
“Desist, in the name of the King,” he shouted.
Everyone fell silent.
Morgana laughed again, but there was little humor in it this time.
“Tell me, Galahad,” she said loud enough for all to hear. “How is the King these days? Does he still lust for me?”
“Lower your protections and I’ll tell you,” Galahad replied.
“And what about you, good knight? How goes the Grail Quest? I might undertake my own—had I not already done so.”
As she spoke she raised a hand. Something impossibly bright grew in her palm, something I could not look at too closely without feeling the need to kneel before it. I lowered my gaze.
“No,” I heard Galahad whisper above me. “It is not for you.”
Morgana laughed again.
“If not me, then who? There’s blood on your sword, good knight. Would you mingle it with the blood in this cup? Is that your way to purity?”
Galahad was struck dumb, confusion writ large in his eyes and face.
Morgana smiled, closed her fist and, as quickly as it had come, the blinding light winked out.
I remembered to breathe.
“Let us begin again,” Morgana said. “The moon is high enough. Come Gatekeeper, show me the way.”
It started small: a tear in the fabric of reality, no bigger than a sliver of fingernail, appeared in the center of the stones above Morgana’s head and hung there. As we watched it settled into a new configuration: a black, somewhat oily in appearance, droplet held quivering in mid-air by the magic forces surrounding it.
Morgana began a soft chant. The tall stones started to throb, like a heartbeat. The black egg pulsed in time. And now it was more than obvious—it was most definitely growing. It calved, and calved again.
Four eggs hung in a tight group in the center of the stones, pulsing in time with the throb of Morgana’s power. Colors danced and flowed across the sheer black surfaces; blues and greens and shimmering silvers on the eggs that were all too familiar—in the 21st Century we would call them mini universes, pockets of matter and chaos with the potential to be anything they could be molded into. Back here, in this place and time, they had another name—the Gate.
In the blink of an eye there were eight.
I was vaguely aware of Galahad screaming, but I was past caring, lost in contemplation of the beauty before me.
Sixteen now, all perfect, all dancing.
Morgana’s chanting grew louder still.
Thirty-two now, and they had started to fill the stones with dancing auroras of shimmering lights that pulsed and capered in time with the throb of magic and the screams of the crowd, everything careening along in a big happy dance.
Sixty-four, each a shimmering pearl of black light.
The colors filled the island, spilled out through the stones, crept onto the shore, danced in my eyes, in my head, all though my body. I gave myself to it, willingly. And I would have gone into the dance if I hadn’t felt a flicker of memory.
“Put the Kid to the test,” Merlin had said. “He won’t fail. He doesn’t know how.”
I strained to turn my head towards Galahad.
“Do you still seek the Grail, lad?” I managed to say.
A hundred and twenty-eight now, and already calving into two hundred and fifty-six.
Galahad had tears in his eyes as he looked at me.
“It is not for me,” he said.
“Why, because a bitch says so? Pull the other one, it’s got bells on. Do you see what she’s doing? Do you see? She wants it all—not just the kingdom, but the land, the moon, the stars, the whole firmament. Don’t let her take it. Be what you are meant to be. Save the day—it’s what you do, isn’t it?”
His grip on his sword tightened.
Morgana’s protective circle enfolded what I guessed to be a thousand and twenty-four eggs.
“What’s it to be—death or glory?” I asked.
“Why not both?” Galahad replied, and smiled. He stepped forward, raised his sword, and beat on the protections: once, twice, and on the third the spell fell apart before him. Every inch the hero now, he strode to where Morgana stood.
Morgana wailed and raised her hand. Light grew to a brilliant blazing star in her palm.
“We can do it together,” she said, holding her hand out to the Kid. “We can have the stars.”
His reply was immediate. He brought his sword round over his head and took Morgana’s hand off at the wrist.
Several things happened at once. The myriad of bubbles popped, burst and disappeared as if they had never been there at all. Morgana screamed—a wail that in itself was enough to set the tall stones throbbing and quaking. Swirling clouds seemed to come from nowhere to obscure the moon. Everything went as dark as a pit of hell, and a thunderous blast rocked the island, driving me down into a darkness where I dreamed of vast empty spaces filled with oily, glistening bubbles. They popped and spawned yet more bubbles, then even more, until I swam in a swirling sea of colors.
I came back to what passes for reality in these parts slowly. It was early morning, a thin mist hanging over the perfectly calm lake. Galahad sat at my side in the middle of an otherwise deserted island. Blood had spattered on the tall stones, and a trail of it led away towards the shore, but there was no sign of Morgana. The Kid poked at a severed hand with the tip of his sword, as if expecting it to blaze into light.
“Was I really so close to it?” he asked in a whisper.
“Does it matter?” I answered. “You saved us all.”
“But at what cost?”
“A couple of hours of your time,” I replied. “And as I said before, space and time are just words.” I paused to see if Merlin was about to whisk me back to Tooting, but it seems my burger eating days are over, for now. “The Grail is only one of the wonders to be found in the tracks and pathways of the Great Game. What say we play it together for a while?”
“Will I find what I seek?”
“Only if you look in all the right places,” I replied, which was just cryptic enough to keep him quiet for a while. I looked out over the expanse of water to the mainland.
“Now, have you seen any ducks about?”
William Meikle is a Scottish writer, now living in Canada, with eighteen novels published in the genre press and over 300 short story credits in thirteen countries. His work has appeared in a number of professional anthologies and magazines with recent sales to NATURE Futures, Penumbra and Buzzy Mag among others. He lives in Newfoundland with whales, bald eagles and icebergs for company. When he’s not writing he dreams of fortune and glory.
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Story illustration by Peter Szmer.