Someone has swept all the dried leaves from the grey stone floors and polished the colorful wood of the massive round table until its surface gleamed like a mirror. I squeeze between two of the tall backed chairs and place my palms on the cool, smooth surface. My face looks dark and angular in the flickering firelight.
It’s been four days since I arrived at Camelot to find I was too late. It turns out the prophecy delivered to me was true, and my son has ridden with his armies into the thick of it. I pull my woolen shawl tight around my shoulders and squint at my reflection, searching my eyes to see if they’ve been altered by what I’ve done.
My mind slips into memory, not of things past, but of things which are to happen, or maybe not. The images torment me, taunt me, and I wonder if she’s the one who set this all in motion. I wish I could stop the vision, but it comes, as it has for seven days now. It comes, relentless and vivid, and I’m helpless to stop it.
My beautiful son lies bleeding near an ancient oak tree, its branches rustling in a terrifying wind. His bright sword, Excalibur, sits bloody and still across his body. His deep blue eyes, the eyes of his father, are filled with terror and fight. I see him mouth my name, Igraine. He doesn’t say mother, or beloved, but instead my name. Igraine. He knows not of my true undying love for him. He knows not of the burning ache inside, always longing to be with him, and he remembers not the embraces and kisses I smothered him with as a babe. No, he cries out the name of the woman he hopes will feel his dying and perhaps do something to stop it. A silver-clad comrade, a crossbow strapped to his back, appears from the woods running towards Arthur, screaming his name, but it’s too late. The light from his eyes fades and his lips stop saying my name.
I rode as fast as I could the day the vision first came, but I arrived too late. Camelot was empty, the staff wide-eyed and teary, but not welcoming. No, they had no love for the mother of their king, for they’ve heard the stories, and they believe the lies. I knew the moment I arrived that I would seek her out, that this would be where it happens, but it took me four days to find the courage to set it in motion. Now I must wait and I must see his dying moments replayed in my mind over and over until I can be sure it’s undone.
“My lady,” a small voice whispers behind me.
I’m startled, but I don’t allow it to show. I turn, holding my head high and my back straight. It’s a thin girl with pale skin, one of the half-dozen servants I’ve seen the last few days. Strands of dirty blonde hair escape from beneath an off-white cap, and she’s got smudges of dirt on her small freckled nose. She holds a heavily loaded tray out in front of her with both hands and bows her head.
She’s probably one of the many orphans Arthur has taken into his care. Stories about the compassionate king who pulled the sword from the stone have been told across the land. Told and retold in taverns, castles, and all the places in-between. These stories of kindness and bravery seem fantastical, but I don’t doubt they are true.
While I haven’t seen my son in 20 years, I know his heart. The boy who would collect wildflowers and bring them to me, the boy who curled in my lap as I read to him at night, and the boy who rescued wounded animals and nursed them back to health. My heart could sing ballads of all the good of Arthur, long before he became king, and long before he wasn’t mine anymore.
The young girl makes a sort of small squeak, like a wounded puppy. She’s staring at the floor, at the soft brown leather boots on my feet, and at the mud and grass sticking to the sides, soiling the cleanliness of the majestic hall. I know what disgraceful things have been said about me, and I wonder if she believes them. She won’t meet my gaze, so I imagine she does.
“No thanks,” I say. “Take it away.”
The ceramic teapot and cup rattle on the wooden tray, her hands and body shaking as if raked with fever. She doesn’t look up from the floor but speaks again. Her voice is now breathy and panicky. I wonder who made her come in here.
“My lady, I was told not to take no for an answer,” she says.
The poor child looks as if she may collapse, so I motion for her to set the tray on the table. She shakes her head no and makes the same sound as before. It takes a moment for me to realize, I sigh. The rules.
“Oh, that’s right,” I say. “Nobody may use this table until my son returns.”
It’s one of the many rules I’ve learned since my arrival in Camelot, always delivered by some young servant with shaking hands and downcast eyes. I’m unsure if there’s an actual list of these rules somewhere, or if they are created by someone who wants me to know how unwanted I am here. Whoever gives the servants orders, they must be scarier than me.
The girl says nothing, but silent tears fall down her face. I wish I could enfold her to my bosom and tell her all will be well, but I cannot. I have lost the ability to comfort others, as my son’s dying face fades in and out of my vision. I point to a small round table set near the fireplace.
“Set it over there,” I say, “and please leave me. I don’t want any more interruptions, no matter what anyone tells you.”
The girl sets down the tray with a thud and runs as fast as she can out of the room. A sick feeling rushes through me, making me weak and dizzy. I close my eyes and summon stillness and strength, calling it to me as I was trained to do during my time in Avalon, amongst the priestesses. I walk with silent footsteps to the oversized brown leather chair by the fire and sit stiffly with both feet on the floor in front of me. I allow the full force of the feeling to hit me.
It’s happening faster than I thought. I consider drinking some of the tea, but my body hums and vibrates, and I know it won’t be possible to swallow it. The coldness inside burns, but my body begins to sweat. I stare into the fire, trying to see the happy image promised to me. I see nothing but the flames and feel nothing but the chill, as I replay the night, the horrible details clear and naked before me.
She’s easy to find, far easier than I expected. Her hut lies in the exact spot I’d been told it would be, deep in the woods, past the boulder fields, and nestled on the shore of a long-forgotten bog filled with decay and death. The smell overwhelms me, but the sound of my son’s pleas moves me forward until I’m standing at the doorway of a sideways leaning shack, the wood covered in greenish grey moss and mold. I knock hard on the scraggly door of rotting, softwood, and it responds with a squishy, soft thud, barely audible.
“Come in,” a scratchy voice says. “I’ve been expecting you.”
For indeed, this is the way of things, I think. Prophecy and fate, for I must have known all my life I’d end up here with this wretched spirit. Her voice sounds familiar, the stuff of nightmares, and a terrifying internal tugging accompany the sound. My body recoils and I fall to my knees and puke onto a pile of dead leaves. Something stirs, moving through the brownish mound, and I stand before I can see what it is. The door creaks, shifting toward me, and I turn the handle. I’ve already made up my mind, there’s no turning back.
The hut is small and dark, but several shafts of sunlight spike through the tattered roof and illuminate the scene before me. A horribly thin woman sits naked in the center of the dirt floor, a pile of grey skin and bones. Her legs are twisted to her sides, bent at odd angles, as if she’d been crushed. Tall piles of too-white bones lay around her. Long grey hair falls over her face and breasts, tangled and filthy. I try not to think of the things she’s eaten or killed, but instead on why I’m here, and what I’ve come to bargain for.
“You know the price,” she says.
She laughs, a short screechy sound I feel move through me like a gust of wind. She picks up two long bones, femurs, and smacks them together before dragging them in the black dirt, drawing two spiraling circles weaving in and out of each other. She presses harder and harder, the bones digging deeper and deeper, creating furrows in the ground. Grunting, she presses harder and harder still until the bones snap in two. The sound lingers and moves around me, mocking me. She lifts one of the broken bones to her mouth and licks it, her tongue a snake darting out of her hair and back, one quick repulsive motion.
She hums deeply and rocks back and forth. Then pulls a rough stone from under one of her thighs and sharpens the broken piece of bone, rubbing it back and forth across the dark rock. The continuous humming and sharpening sounds make me feel weak, but I don’t dare sit on the floor. I’ve heard the stories of those who show weakness in her presence.
“Say the words,” she says, “and it will be done.”
She continues to rock, to sharpen, and to hum. I’m dizzy, and I don’t want to say the words, but the face of my boy dances around me. All the faces of my boy, from the day I pulled him from my body to his dying moment, they flash like lightning before me, a cruel horrible storm of time, love, guilt, and regret.
I know the moment has come. I have no other choice. It’s now or he will die. Fate, it seems, has no wiggle room. Stepping forward, I hold myself in the regal way I was taught. I let down my defenses and speak clearly and strongly.
“Save Arthur. Save my son,” I say. “Please. I will pay the price.”
The words slice through the air, stopping all other movements and sounds. A wind rushes around us, moving the hair from her face, revealing dark holes where her eyes should be. She leaps to her feet and rushes toward me, faster than a diving hawk. I watch, outside myself, as she stabs the sharpened bone into my chest, into my heart. I feel the blood pour from my body, the corruption of my soul, the death of all I’ve been or ever will be. I don’t scream, and I don’t cry.
We stand locked in this position, her boney body pressed against mine and a wide, toothy smile on her skeletal face. Her teeth are sharp, and for a moment I think she will lunge at my throat, but she yanks the bone from my body and retreats to her spot on the floor, to her pile of bones. She begins licking and sucking the bloody bone, a horrible slurping sound, and I walk, dazed, out the door into the moonlight.
Never have I seen such a moon, so full of light and life. Merlin once told me it’s a giant stone in the sky, nothing more. Like a boulder in the middle of the ocean, held in time and place, but responsible for the movements of the tides and the flow of blood in a woman’s body. I didn’t understand until this moment. It’s as if death, its icy grip tight around my throat, wants me to truly see what I’m leaving behind.
As I walk back toward Camelot, I feel resolved. I would choose to save my son every single time. My life hasn’t been what I thought it would be when I was young, my dreams of adventure and epic love dashed and broken. I’ve made bad choices, I’ve hurt those I love, and I’ve suffered. But I saved Arthur, and I loved him with all I am, and for that, I am beyond grateful.
I touch my chest, expecting a gaping hole, but find none. There’s no trace of blood or gore on my body or my clothes, but I can feel it moving through me. I didn’t know death would be so cold. As I reach the top of a small hill, Camelot comes into view. The sun rises behind it, making the glorious castle glow golden and pink. It could be in heaven, I think. Such beauty belongs to Arthur, not to me.
“Arthur’s back! Arthur’s back! The war’s over! We won!”
The excited voice of a small boy breaks the silence of the hall, and I realize I’d fallen into a trance as I watched the flames, reliving the last few hours, and feeling the cold devour me, bit by bit. I’m empty of the truest part of me, and I know it’s nearing time. I want to gather Arthur into my arms and feel his warmth, feel the life in his body, and tell him I love him. He must know I love him, he must know all the things I’ve held back, all the truths, and all the sacrifices.
The hall’s alive with activity; colorful banners and flags appear on the walls, the large chandeliers burn bright with dozens of candles, enormous barrels of ale with shining silver spigots appear everywhere, and plates of hot food and large, pewter mugs cover the famous round table. Servants rush to and fro, smiles on their faces, singing and laughing. Arthur’s alive and so, it seems, is Camelot.
The sounds of horns, horses, and metal armor reach the castle, and I stand. Nobody notices me, as I take a final look at the place my son created, at the people he protects. This victory will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity for these people, his people. I know this to be true, the same way I know I shall never embrace my son again.
Weaving through the rushing servants, I exit the great hall. With all the strength left in my body, I hurry through empty corridors until I reach a small wooden door at the back of the castle. It’s left ajar, beckoning me outside, as if Camelot has decided to help me, to protect the king.
Nobody notices as I walk down the stone staircase, through the beautiful gardens, and to the shore of the lake. A bit of fog hugs the edges of the water, but it’s not too thick, and I can see the trees reflected in the glassy, smooth surface. I stop with my toe at the edge, savoring the sounds of celebration in the distance, and lift a large white stone into my arms.
I won’t allow Arthur’s victory and joy to be crushed by my death. It would be cruel to die in his arms, although my heart longs for nothing else. Oh, to hear his voice say, “I love you, dear mother.” I can’t think of it.
No, my disappearance, if he’s told of my visit at all, will not seem out of character for me. My son has grown used to my comings and goings, my life seemingly my own. He knows not of the ways I’ve guided the world to bend toward him, and he will know nothing of my death or the price I paid to save him.
I step into the cold water, its iciness matches the chill already infecting my body from within. My dress and shawl absorb the water, forcing me to fight them, to fight for every step. I know not what awaits me, but I know this is the way it ends. I’d seen it as a child, felt it every time I was near the water. Yes, this is how it ends.
I step over slippery stones and see small fish rush away from my boots until I reach an underwater ledge, a drop-off so deep I can see nothing but blackness. Cradling the stone in my arms, as if it’s my baby, my Arthur, I step into the deep, and allow myself to sink below the surface.
Author’s note: With this prompt, I decided to play with the idea of the martyr mother. My son recently turned 17, and I’ve been experiencing some strong feelings as we navigate a new relationship. It’s been painful, and although I strive to not slip into martyr or victim mode, it felt like the perfect moment and story to explore the idea of giving all to our children without expecting anything in return.
Short Story Challenge | Week 1
Each week the short stories are based on a prompt from the book “Write the Story” by Piccadilly, Inc. This week’s prompt was to write a new take on the Arthurian legend. We had to include the words Avalon, crossbow, orphan, list, comrade, corruption, lake, enfold, disgraceful, and grass.
Write With Us
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