THE ANCIENT HERO
Copyright 1992, Sarah Hartwell
Based on a strange dream which I decided to turn into a short story
The mud sucked at my fawn suede boots as I picked my way across the courtyard, between the waxed tents and bivouacs which had taken up residence there. With both hands, I clutched my robe to prevent the brocaded green hem from dragging in the sticky ooze. Hence I was looking for the less muddy patches instead of looking where I was going. I walked into a pair of callused hands before I had noticed their owner. Startled at the rough hands which gripped my shoulders, I dropped my heavy green skirts into the mud I had been studiously avoiding a few seconds earlier.
"My lady," a deep voice rumbled, "I did not see you."
I smiled apologetically, "No, no, my fault. I was preoccupied."
I grabbed two handfuls of skirt, the gold-stitched hem was soaked with mud. Spatters of mud speckled other parts of the skirt, thrown up by tramping boots and hooves and rumbling wheels of carts over-burdened with nightsoil and garbage.
"You were trying to get to the village perhaps?" the man asked. His open grim was infectious in an almost swarthy face. "To see the hero?"
"How did you ..."
"Guess? Many ladies have visited the village to catch a glimpse of the hero. While us common soldiers try to catch glimpses of the ladies as they pass."
He wiped a huge, hard hand through his unruly mud-coloured hair as if in embarrassment. The good-humoured smile revealed a chipped tooth. Instead of marring his looks, it added character to his face.
Smiling. He continued, "Not that I resent being passed by so many beautiful women - I enjoy the looking. But I'm keeping you my lady and you have more important things to do with your time!"
The tall soldier turned away to retrieve the trailing reins of a roan battle-horse which dozed absently behind him. I hadn't noticed he had a horse, so engaging was his smile and honest talk.
"Stand, Jasper," he commanded the tall beast. Obediently it stood to attention, one eye rolling as though in resignation.
"My lady, excuse me ..." and suddenly I found myself seated side-saddle on the hard soldier's saddle, breathless and unsure of how I had arrived there.
"Hold tight," the soldier said with an impish grin as he led the animal across the much towards the vast archway out of the courtyard.
Perched precariously on a saddle not designed for a lady, I was high above the activity in the castle courtyard. I could see the expanse of waxed canvas in higgledy-piggledy rows. The heat from braziers rippled the damp air, filling it with smells of cooking and of mulled ale. Rough soldiers' conversation was punctuated by the squeal of children fencing with wooden swords and by the sound of dents being hammered out of armour.
Jasper plodded stoically through the hubbub, unconcerned at it all. Two dogs, fighting a running battle, spilled out under the horse's nose but he merely rolled a large expressive eye at me, as if to say 'don't worry, hold tight'.
We passed through the shadowed arch and the sounds of the camped soldiers faded. "My" soldier's boots thudded on the flagstones and Jasper's huge metal-shod hooves clattered on the hard surface.
The village was a mere quarter mile from the castle. Jasper was obviously going to carry me all the way.
"Exercise'll do him good," the soldier grinned back at me.
A bevy of well-dressed court ladies trotted by on delicate palfreys. One looked back, laughing at the mud-stained personal maid with her escort. I felt hopeless and unimportant, outshone by their silks in my mended, cast off brocade "best" dress. The soldier grinned happily.
"Bunch of empty-heads," he laughed, "Find me a wench with brains between her ears not between her legs. Begging your pardon of course."
His conversation was refreshing. I wondered what had made him choose the profession of a soldier - I could imagine him a merchant or craftsman.
"Have you seen him? The hero I mean. I've heard so much about him - that he's at least seven foot tall and that the ladies swoon at one look of him. There's a magician too - his aide. He has a sword that shoots white fire that can melt stone," I chattered merrily, trying to cover my unimportance.
"I'm told he's just a man. Good looking enough for most women, but nothing to swoon over. But then I'm a man, I wouldn't know what makes the ladies swoon. The magician? Well, what does a soldier know of mage-craft and sorcery? Does it set limbs or cure warts?" he laughed again, a clean sound.
"Nearly there," he told me as he marched us into the village square.
Thatched roofs huddled together against the spring chill, the houses had their feet in mud and chicken muck from the birds roosting in the dirty thatch. One or two taverns reared above the low reed- or rush-thatched homes, their red tiled roofs patched with hummocks of green moss. The hero had rooms in the Red Lion. Castle ladies flocked to see him, most unladylike in their frequenting of the tavern.
"He's not here!" a shrill voice called across the chickens, geese, pigs and dogs which filled the air with noise and odour.
"Not here?" whey-faced lady trilled through the lacy handkerchief held delicately to her nose.
"But we've come all this way! A third added petulantly, one who had evidently never travelled further than the distance between bedchamber and dining hall before. "He can't be not here!"
The bevy of ladies who had passed us had dismounted and were debating staying in the 'boring, shitty village' or riding back to their comfortable castle home. "My" soldier halted across the square and stroked jasper's velvet nose absent-mindedly.
"Let's wait until they've left," he murmured, "It should be quieter then."
The colourful hopefuls mounted their fine-boned horses, dripping tassels from mane, tail and tack, and passed us by.
"He's not here," the petulant one sneered at me, "Can't see why you bothered anyway."
Jasper snorted and delicately lifted his tail to deposit a steaming heap among the filth strewn across the square. He was speaking for both of us.
My soldier walked us round to the stables behind the Red Lion. They were dark and smelt comfortably of horse-sweat and straw. A hostler appeared, recognised either Jasper or the soldier and smiled in welcome, showing the few peg teeth left to him. The soldier lifted me down to the stable-yard's cobbled surface, offered me his arm and led me through the back door into the fuggy interior.
Man-sweat, sharper than the leathery horse-sweat smell, and heady ale-fumes assailed my nostrils. There was a sharp tang of vomit in the air and a sawdust spill on the wooden boards showed where someone had puked. Bargirls, young, busty and barely-covered, slopped amber beer into pewter tankards to the raucous applause of leering clients. Two ghost-pale wolfhounds lolled before a roaring fire, their blue eyes glittering and noses twitching at every new scent wafting to them. The soldier slammed the heavy door shut, enclosing us in a cocoon of warmth and noise. Customers shouted for service or slopped their ale as they drank noisily. A dog barked and one of the wolfhounds looked up, ears pricked. A stone stairway wound behind the fireplace, upwards to the private rooms. I clutched at my escort's arm as he steered me in that direction.
"I'm not that sort of girl!" I protested.
I could feel people's eyes upon me, no doubt they thought I was very much that sort of girl going upstairs with a soldier.
"Shh" he said, putting a sausage-thick finger to his lips, "Do you want to meet the hero?"
"Not if that's what you want in return," I retorted, insulted by the implicit suggestion.
He laughed his good honest laugh, eyes twinkling and cheeks ruddy beneath their tan. He shook his head mirthfully.
"I'm not after your body, my lady. If I require a bedmate they aren't hard to find."
Looking at the bulging cleavages of the bargirls I did not doubt this; their clothing advertised a youthful body and a willingness to share it with anyone who paid. The slightly thickened waist of one of them (immediately noticeable to another woman's critical eye, but probably not to a half-drunk, lust-driven man) suggested that she'd done more than her share of bed-sharing in the last few months.
The stairway was warm, heated by the fire. A hound watched us weave between tables and vanish into the alcove at the foot of the stairs. Skirts lifted in both hands, I at least looked where I was heading. I still wondered if it was wise to be headed upstairs, alone with a stranger, however honest his smile.
"This way," my escort said in lowered tones and led me the length of a red-carpeted corridor to a stout door halfway along right-hand wall of the passage.
Without knocking, he unlatched the door. The hero had either left it unlocked or I was a gullible female in deep trouble. He ushered me inside ahead of him.
A white-haired man with deeply lined, leathery features was polishing a cylindrical sword. His sky-blue cloak spilled over his seat onto the bare boarded floor. He looked upas the soldier closed - and latched - the door. When he saw me, he grimaced.
"Arcturan, you'll get us in trouble one day," he said in a heavily accented voice.
"Merliin, that's what you always say," the voice behind me rumbled. "My lady, please be seated."
He cleared discarded clothing from another chair for me and sat himself on the bed. Clothes littered the room - rough soldier's garb, silks of metallic hue, materials like silver leaf but less fragile. Dark armour and a curious helm lay on the pillow. I recognised it as the one worn by the hero who had led our forces in battle, scything his way through opponents while a mage fought at his side with a weapon of light and fire.
"You wished to meet the 'hero', my lady. Well here I am," he said, managing a theatrical bow from his seated position.
My mouth was hanging open. I closed it and gulped like one of the fish from the castle carp pools.
"You?" I whispered.
"Nothing to swoon over, I'm afraid. About six foot tall and ordinary."
The older man snorted, "Ordinary for an Arcturan. Somewhat above average height and build for this region."
"A what?" I asked the soldier.
He sighed deeply, "An Arcturan, my lady. Arcturus is the world I came from."
"Is it across the sea? I've heard there were people across the sea - and monstrous beasts," I said brightly, "and people with skin dark as tar and eyes of coal. They wear gold as though it were common iron, even their cities are clad in gold."
"Not across the sea, I'm afraid," the hero-soldier replied, toying with some trinkets left lying on the bed.
He picked up a trinket and tossed it to me. It was an animal fashioned in gold with gem-studded eyes and fangs and it was worth more than the castle's entire treasury.
"Keep it," he said negligently, "Plenty more where that came from. Merlii is swamped with the stuff, but the dark-skinned folk of whom you speak value it highly for its decorative value. I'm from a land in the sky, my world is like yours, but we've a different star for our sun."
"She won't believe you," grunted the older man, "Arcturus and Merlii. Tell her of Arthur and Merlin - that's what she wants to know."
I must have been gawping because the soldier laughed gently.
"You're Arthur?" I asked, "King Arthur who is to awaken in our time of need?"
He was pulling off his mud encrusted boots as I asked, swinging leather-clad legs onto the bed as he answered.
"Not a king such as the tales say. But with so much gold and stuff ... well, I bought a place for a while and got involved in local politics. We're not meant to get involved," his glance at the wizard was apologetic.
"And he's Merlin?" I gaped incredulously, half-expecting him to produce a rabbit from a pocket, "The Wizard?"
The Wizard himself answered. "First Technician, actually, on the free-trade ship Camelot. Silly name for a freighter. Your tales are all about turrets and fancy arches. The real Camelot," and he nodded at the soldier, "is an engineer's nightmare!" he rambled on about free-trade until Arthur told him to be quiet.
"But all the others - Lancelot, Guinevere, Gawain and Galahad? Where are they? Are they on your ship?" I asked.
"Gwynne is on board, in orbit. Lance and Gaway joined another ship after we portaled out of Avalon. Galahad never existed. Chap called Garrad tried to get himself killed on some damn-fool errand, villagers lynched him for his pains ... about ten spans from here I think. Used to be called Glastonbury," he laughed.
Merlin picked up a tiny metal box and talked to it. "Gwynne, can we have some real food please? I'm starved, even if our captain isn't."
A few moments later, a dish of sauteed meat appeared on the table he worked at. Moving it aside he waited and a dish of grain appeared out of the shimmering air, then a bowl of fruit foreign to the area and a glass flask of wine.
"You realise she doesn't understand a word we're saying?" Arthur asked Merlin.
The Wizard just shrugged, "We came from a distant land by ship and I can do magic like making food appear out of thin air. It's enough for a legend isn't it? Keeps the tale going to ensure us a warm welcome when we next drop in."
Merlin poured some wine and passed a pewter goblet to me.
"Best Alphan," he said, "grown on the slopes of Kalahi. Nothing else to touch it in all the land," he explained.
"Nothing else to touch it in most of known space," Arthur retorted. It was obviously an old argument and there was no malice in it.
I sniffed the wine. The spice smell was agreeable and I sipped it slowly so it didn't rush straight to my head and make me tipsy like the patrons downstairs.
Arthur spoke again, "I quit Earth when things got boring. Earth - that's what you used to call your world, by the way. Gwynne and I were playing at being barons or something. Lance was having a fling with Gwynne which spoilt the whole facade so we moved on. Seems like only yesterday."
"That's space travel for you," snorted Merlin, "Makes keeping track of time a nightmare. Portalling 'between' makes it even worse and you can skew history if you're not careful."
"They say you slept, that you would wake to aid us in our darkest hour. You did save us from the invaders," I reminded him.
"Slept like a log in stasis at lightspeed after we'd portalled back to standard time. As for darkest hour - I simply dropped in on the off-chance. Needed good iron for a client. We were in the vicinity and noticed good scrap stuff on those invaders - might get a few Glits for it."
Merlin scowled at his captain, "Plundering corpses," he muttered to himself.
"And off-loading some of that yellow metal they're so fond off down here," Arthur reminded him, but again it seemed like a well-worn and good-natured debate. "We missed the global wars by a millennium though, good metals there. But I was at the other end of known space, collecting grain for a customer."
"Genetically-modified stuff which is banned by his own system's government," Merlin muttered.
"Which made him willing to pay my prices," Arthur grinned.
"Err, which wars were those?" I asked, stupefied, "This is the first skirmish for ages."
"Centuries before your time, my girl ..." Arthur began.
"Not that we couldn't portal back and pick up some scrap," Merlin interrupted.
"Centuries before your time," Arthur repeated, ignoring Merlin's interruption, "All Earth was involved. The scientists made huge technological leaps in the first two and the third one caught them out. Wham!" and he banged his fist down on his knee, "Cities flattened, continents realigned. Reintroduction of feudalism. Back to square one as they used to say. Pity I missed that one, must have been a biggie, but we were in space on autopilot. The onboard computer recorded the bang - it was that loud. Must go back and take a look one day."
Arthur stopped his rambling speech and ferreted through some discarded clothing. Finding a small disc he announced it to be late and began to bundle his clothes together.
"Full payload, Mer, that's what I like. Metals for Syralli, French wine and Chinese silks. We'll have to lightspeed it to Syralli after portalling back to standard time or we lose a whole bunch of Glits. Pity the inflation rate is so unstable over the centuries. Does the little lady want to join us?" he looked over in my direction.
"I think I might," I said, drawing a laser dirk from my bodice and switching on my palm ID. "Space Police, undercover detective Lafay. My companion - Mordred if you recall - is already onboard your ship."
Arthur rolled his eyes. He'd guessed that I'd had Mordred blank out the room so that Arthur and Merlin's weapons wouldn't work.
"Arthur - or whichever of your aliases you wish to choose - you really are getting too old for free-trading. Manipulating time-portals has a dreadful effect on the body, not to mention on local history. For an Arcturan, you're a disgrace." I turned to Merlin, "And as for you, well Merliins should know better - your planet initiated the anti-piracy laws in the first place."
The Arcturan pirate smiled in resignation, "Fair enough Morgana. Just how many years have you been stuck on this rock while I was gadding about time and space?"
"Long enough on and off and it's been pretty boring. The word got sent back that you'd be here. Space Police put out the word that I'd been killed in off-planet fighting on the border and I portalled back and went undercover here long enough that you wouldn't work it out for yourself," I said.
"Sheesh," muttered Arthur, "And I though I'd got it all sewn up. You and Mordy kicked us off-planet last time we visited this place and you've spent the last couple of hours playing us for fools. Don't you ever give up Morgana?"
"No. This is my district, remember? And by the way - the gene-fixed grain never made it to your customer and he's pretty sore about being out of pocket. We have to be off-planet in five minutes. You'll lose Camelot, but the special court on Proxima may be lenient on sentences if you have enough Muscadet to pay them off."
"You know," murmured the Arcturan free-trader as he picked up his helm, "I was getting really fond of that horse ..."