Sunday, April 24, 2011

Eighth excerpt from 'Twelve Towers'

Arthur paid close attention and played with both models...
The next morning they rode down to the waterfront and Gwilym purchased a ferry ride for them and their horse and cart across the river. All was a-bustle as the tides were slack and everyone wanted to ride at this time. The horse was nervous but the experienced ferry-men calmed it with a few oats and low voices. An hour later they were safe on the further bank and riding up the hills towards their destination.
They met no further adventures on their way other than seeing the bustle of men and knights passing to and from the royal castle of Caerleon. As they approached the gates, Gwilym was shocked at seeing the smirking face of Tarrant, his old supervisor, on his way out of the castle. Neither said a word to the other but Gwilym was unsettled by the man.
Gwilym showed his letter of introduction from Father Drew to a succession of guards, finally being led to the Seneschal of the castle, Sir Kay. He read the letter laboriously and told them, “The king is out hunting right now but will return in a few hours. Come back here after we eat and I’ll introduce you to him.”
Gwilym found a tavern near the entrance and settled himself painfully on a bench. Bleddyn looked solicitously at his father. “You’re in a lot of pain, father. Why don’t you rest here while I look around on my own?” Gwilym hobbled to the window and told his son that he could look around but stay in sight of the window and return when he called. Bleddyn happily ran outside and ran around the bustle of the courtyard, feasting his eyes on the knights, the horses, the men and women working for the castle, coming in and out. Gwilym was surprised at the lack of upkeep here in the king’s castle. Horse dung lay in piles in the courtyard along with every kind of household refuse. Beggars and pick-pockets plied their trade amongst the merchants. Bleddyn wandered around, looking at everything and watching everyone, feasting on the experience.
Eventually the hunting party returned, led by the young King Arthur, surrounded by his favorite knights and followed by the squires and masters of the hunt, bearing two field-dressed stags. Neither Bleddyn nor Gwilym knew which knight was which, except for the famous Sir Launcelot, sitting high in the saddle with his dark, good looks and shaven face.
Bleddyn ran to his father after the party had passed and said breathlessly, “Did you see them, Da? The king’s knights! And the king himself! Will we really go and talk to them?”
“Yes son. In about an hour we’ll go again to Sir Kay and ask leave to visit.”

some were resting in a pile of rags near the fire, some were snapping up food from the table, others fighting for dominance. King Arthur sat at the center of a group of unruly, feasting men, all of whom showed their devotion to the young king by their attentions. They shouted their hunting exploits over one another, wrestled for sport, yelled insults to each other and crowded as close to the king as they could. 
One of them spotted Gwilym and yelled out, “Watch out fellows, here comes a Saxon giant!” The rest looked Gwilym’s way and they all seemed compelled to make sport of him.
“Where did you get your leg wound Saxon, did I leave one of you alive in my wake?”
“Have you come to beg peace of us at last, Saxon king?” 
The entire company burst into laughter at this last jest. Kay walked Gwilym and Bleddyn close to the king’s side. The men quieted one by one with Gwilym’s approach until Arthur stopped his conversation with Launcelot and looked up expectantly.
“How came you by that wound, Saxon?” Launcelot inquired?
“I’m no Saxon warrior, Sir Launcelot.” replied Gwilym. “I am in charge of rebuilding the battle tower at Huish and come to ask help of the king.”
“Ask away,” said the king. Gwilym was shocked at the king’s youth. He was just starting his first beard and his skin had the rosy hue of a boy. Yet he appeared comfortable in his role and wasn’t constantly looking for the approval of his elders in the way of other young leaders Gwilym had encountered before.
“My lord,” said Gwilym, relating his much-practiced speech. “The battle-tower at Huish is an essential part of your country’s defenses as it watches one of the major invasion routes of the Saxons. It provides early warning of their approach and serves also as a signal tower to the rest of England. The completion of this tower cannot be delayed.”
“And yet is has been delayed, some say deliberately!” interrupted one of the knights. “The old master builder has informed us that someone deliberately sabotaged the tower, causing it to collapse and getting himself appointed to the rebuilding. What say you to this charge?”
“I say that this Tarrant says many things when witnesses are not around and little when there are people to dispute him. Think you Father Drew a fool that he fire Tarrant and put me in his place? If you wish to see why his tower fell and my design will not, my nine-year-old son will demonstrate while I continue.” This drew the eyes of the curious knights as Bleddyn soaked the small sticks in water and began assembling the two towers, explaining the differences as he went.
“Do you agree, my lord, that this tower cannot be delayed?” He received King Arthur’s assent with a firm nod of the head.
“And do you agree that there are many things that could delay its construction: supplies of logs, stone, men and masons?” Once again he received a nod.
“And if my lord were with me at all times when I struggled to obtain these items and continue with the building, no delays would ever appear due to your presence?”
At this, Arthur looked disturbed and argued, “I’ve no plans to stay by your side during a tower construction, my good man. While it is important, there are many other things I need to do during this time.”
“Quite true, my lord. But what if I carried with me a royal charter, spelling out what I was charged with building, how much wood, stone and skilled men I needed, where I was to obtain these, how much I were to pay for these, where the tower should stand and how high? What if this charter could say your words for you, while you continued with your other leadership duties in peace?”
“I would ask to see this charter.”
Gwilym pulled the scroll from his bag and unrolled it in front of the king. Arthur, Launcelot, Kay and a couple of the other knights read it with interest. The others feigned indifference, probably to disguise their illiteracy, and paid closer attention to the models being built by Bleddyn.
“You would like me to affix my signature to this, ahh…Gwilym?” said King Arthur, scanning the charter again for his name.
“Plus the royal seal in the space at the bottom if you would, my lord. I want it to be an impressive document, even for those who cannot read it.”
“What say you, Launcelot?” he asked of the handsome knight to his right who was studying Gwilym with interest.
Launcelot paused and looked deep into Gwilym’s eyes. Gwilym felt uncomfortable but met his stare. “And what does Merlin say of this charter?”
“It was Merlin’s idea.”
“Merlin never tells anyone what to do. What do you mean it was his idea?”
“Merlin asked me questions that made me think of this solution.”
“Ha!” Launcelot barked out a quick laugh. “That’s Merlin alright.” He turned to King Arthur and said, “I think you should sign this charter and watch this Saxon to see how well it works. My kinsman has good ideas, even if he never says them out loud.”
King Arthur called for quill, ink and wax and was pleased to see that Kay had them all ready. He signed the charter with a flourish, attached a red ribbon to the bottom with some drips of red wax, then pressed his ring into the cooling wax to leave an imprint of the dragon seal. He handed this back to Gwilym and asked to see the models.
Bleddyn stepped forward and stammered out a description of the two designs. Arthur paid close attention and played with both models and set them carefully by the fire to dry. Bleddyn blushed happily from the attention. Arthur placed his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “May I keep these fine models, son?” Bleddyn was torn inside and looked aghast at his father.
Gwilym nodded to his son and told him he’d build him another set. Bleddyn said, “Yes, my king. It would be my pleasure to give them to you. Just soak them in water for ten minutes to take them apart.”
King Arthur stood, gravely shook Bleddyn’s hand, then Gwilym’s and told them he would be keeping a close eye on this tower and on them. “And there is no need to worry about Tarrant. I didn’t trust those beady eyes when he came here. You, I trust.”

Gwilym and Bleddyn were asked to join in the feast in exchange for a tale to add to the merriment. He told a story of his travels as a young man. “I was in a bazaar in an Arab town near the Holy Land.” This caught all the knights’ attention. “The men there sold their wares to all comers and it was to their advantage to guess the language of their customers as they walked by and to speak to them in that language with what little they could pick up. I passed a seller of brass-works in a street full of brass. He looked at me, smiled and shouted, in highly accented English, ‘Just looking! Just looking!’ He must have heard these words so many times from other Englishmen he became sure this was a greeting of some kind.”
The knights roared in laughter and toasted Gwilym, begging for more stories. He obliged them once, then turned the conversation back to them and listened to their stories until he saw his son stifling his third yawn. “I must return early on the morrow, gentlemen. Thank you so much for your hospitality. My king; thank you for the royal charter. I shall not disappoint you.”
Bleddyn walked by his father’s side on their way to the tavern, looking up at him with a new respect. “Did you really have those adventures, Da? I never knew you had traveled so far. Was I with you?”
“No lad. That was during my misspent youth. I did many dangerous and fool-hardy things at that age that I don’t want you to try. Please forget the stories.”
“But Da, what did your father say about the things you did while you were traveling?”
“My Mother and Father were dead when I was quite young. I did no-one else’s bidding at that age.”

To read the entire first draft in one shot, click here:

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