A Midwinter Message from King Wyndrake Pendragon
On the night of the birth of Arthur and Morgana, in the heart of winter, it is said that a great fog covered the lands of Albion. Some say that this was the work of the Merlyn, who had risen that night from his slumber to claim his payment from Uther for the works he had done in securing his throne.
Three hedge knights, travelling the realm, made camp in a grove of trees. They had travelled far that day, heading from the eaves of the Great Greenwood, south and east, on the road to Winchester, to make for the Midwinter Tourney.
Though their names are lost to history, we know them by their achievements – by the sigil each bore upon his shield. There was the knight whose shield bore a swan, the knight whose shield bore an apple, and the knight whose shield bore…well…a boar.
They had built a fire and enjoyed a passable supper of dried meat and dried fruit, and they were preparing to bed down for the night.
The three hedge knights were surprised when they were joined at the fireside by a hooded figure, who had not been there mere moments before, but now sat comfortably warming its hands at their fire.
“Hooded one,” spoke one of the knights “Who are you to so boldly join us at our fire without first asking to our permission?”
“Sir Knight, who are you to so boldly make a fire using the leaves and limbs of these here trees without first asking THEIR permission?” spoke the hooded figure, gesturing at the trees standing sentinel around them.
“I did not think a man needed to ask the permission of the forest to set a fire. Why should the trees need such deference?” asked another knight.
“Better you give us deference for sitting at our fire, for we are knights!” claimed the first knight
Softly at first, then rising louder, the forest seemed to come alive with ominous creaking and rustling and snapping. The trees swayed somewhat, turning their trunks as if to get a better look at the knights. Overhead their boughs moved towards the knights. The hedge knights gave a start, but the hooded figure merely continued to warm its hands at the fire.
“Would you willingly give offence to the land?” asked the hooded figure, “I bid you heed my words, and make deference to the trees.”
With that the knights rose, and, addressing the dark woods around the circle of their fire light, made supplication to the trees, asking their leave to have their fire and to rest under their eaves.
When they had done so, the cacophony died away, leaving only the usual sounds of the forest at night. The trees did not so much return to where they had stood but seemed as if they had never moved at all.
“A knight should be respected, that is true enough” said the hooded figure “but forget ye not that the land must have its due also. And you who tread upon it, and make use of its bounty, should pay it respect indeed. For the land of Albion is alive, it has feelings, it has hopes, and fears, and dreams of its own. And this night, one of those dreams shall come true.”
“What dream can a land have?” asked one of the knights, but the hooded figure said naught.
“Go ye now hence,” said the hooded one “and get ye on the road to Tintagel. There, at the end of the road, shalt ye find the summation of all Albion’s hopes and dreams.”
“But Tintagel lies leagues away,” said the knight to the hooded stranger “and we have no steeds to carry us on that long road. We should never arrive afore two days hence!”
“Have faith, good sirs” said the hooded stranger “for if you walk in honour you shall be fleet of foot. Keep your hearts loyal and true and you shall be guided on the breath of the Dragon. I shall see to that.”
The knights looked to one another. It seemed they shared a thought – that this could be the very start of an adventure, of a quest. And thus, each of them stood, and made ready to leave.
A great fog began to rise, soaking up through the ground, pouring out of the bows of the trees, rising, it seemed, out of their fire itself. In the dimming glade, through the dampening fog, it seemed to the knights, as if they heard the roar of a dragon.
“But the rising of these mists shall surely be athwart us,” cried one of the knights, forlorn.
“Aye, that it surely will. For if you are false and walk the breath of the dragon, the mists will claim you. Yet, if your heart is good and your loyalty true, then the light of honour shall guide your path, and you shall not falter.” Said the hooded one.
“Remember this – turn not away any who venture to join you on this pilgrimage, be they high or low, for on your journey your footsteps shall echo through the ages, and your choices this night shall have consequences for the realm.” Said the hooded figure.
“How shall we find our way through the mists? How shall we know we are on the right path?” asked the knight of the apples
The hooded figure rose from the fire, and spoke: “The light of faith shall guide you.”
“Before we part,” asked the knight of apples “stranger, who are you to set us on this quest?”
The hood twitched, and the figure spoke once more
“A dream to some.”
The figure raised his arms high and shouted, “A nightmare to others!” and disappeared, and as he did so, a great light shone from the other side of the glade, flaring so brightly into existence that the knights had to shield their eyes.
It was warm, and it cast away the chill of winter from their bones. The light dimmed, but remained, high in the sky to the south of the glade, shining brightly enough to be seen through the trees.
Disdaining the advice of the hooded stranger, the knight of the boar shield scoffed.
“We three who are knights, just and bold, should take the wittering’s of a moon mad, wizened hermit as the truth of things? We shall never make Tintagel this night or the next, and we are fools to think it.”
“Hold your tongue, brother” said the knight of the swan shield “for I truly believe what the hooded stranger did say to us. Something great and magical surrounds us, and we would do well to follow this quest as it has been set.”
“Aye,” agreed the knight of apples, “Come, brothers. I shall take the first step, and trust my faith that this is Albion’s will.”
With the first step taken, the knight of the boar and the knight of the swan trod on after the knight of the apples, into the swirling mists.
The three knights kept close together, for fear of losing one another in the ever-shifting mists.
“Impossible,” spoke the knight of the boar “we should have travelled for hours to come to the edge of the forest, we have walked only a few minutes.”
At the edge of the clearing a forester sat upon a felled tree.
“Good sirs, it is late in the evening – why do you travel so? Should you not make camp?” asked the forester
“Our business is not your concern, woodsman.” Spoke the knight of the boar.
“Come now brother,” spoke the knight of the swan, “be courteous. We are on a quest, friend woodsman. We travel earnestly on a great errand.”
“This mist will surely waylay you – you would be welcome to come to my house and take shelter with my family. We can offer you supper, only a simple broth, but it will be hot and hearty.” Offered the forester.
“We must away,” said the knight of apples “for the night draws on.”
“What quest is so urgent that you needs must travel by night, by mist, and without succour?” asked the forester. And with that the knight of apples did explain their encounter in the woods, though leaving he did not include the necessity of welcoming any offers of companionship on the road.
Considering this strange circumstance, the forester tamped out his pipe, and spoke “Then, good sirs, I shall join you, If you will have me as a travelling companion. For I would like to pay my respects to the King and Queen.”
With that utterance, the mists seemed to grow thicker, and swirl about the clearing.
“Friend forester,” spoke the knight of the swan “we welcome you most graciously.”
The knight of the boar scoffed.
“You take this forester for a companion if you will, but I shall have none of it” said the knight of the boar shield, “I am an anointed knight, a paragon of justice and virtue. I have raised my sword a hundred times in the cause of righteousness, and supped with lords and ladies anon. I will not deign to call this serf my companion, nor will I deign to grant him passage to Tintagel.”
A dull rumble echoed through the surrounding mists.
“Brother mine,” warned the knight of the swan “have a care. Rescind your words and welcome this forester as our companion on this quest, for the consequences of your ignorance, I fear, shall be grave.”
The forester spoke “Good sir knight, I apologise for my perceived offences, but I am a good man and loyal, and I wish only to pay my respects to the King.”
The knight of the boar laughed at the forester, “No, peasant, the King will not receive you. Be gone from our company before I draw my sword upon you.”
The two knights protested, but the knight of the boar would not relent.
The forester dropped his wood axe and spoke, “I will not fight you, for you are a knight, and I am but a forester. I have not skill at arms, and it would be wrong to strike out at you for you have done me no wrong. I do not count your words as insult. I am a good man and loyal to the King. I wish only to travel with you.”
The knight of the boar loosened his sword in his scabbard. The knight of the swan and the knight of apples moved aside the forester, and brought up their shields.
“Brother,” said the knight of apples “if you would fight this forester, then you would fight we two also. We are sworn to defend the defenceless, and to take arms against those who would do harm to the people.”
“Stand aside, whelps.” Spat the knight of the board, unsheathing his sword and raising it high.
As his sword arm went up, the mists seemed to bulge, and the knight of the boar stood, frozen, immobile. As the two loyal knights and the forester watched, the knight of the boar seemed to fade into the mists, leaving no trace that he had ever been there.
A whisper echoed through the mists – “Look into the eyes of the dragon and despair. I destroy you, I consign you to oblivion.”
“What-“ began the forrester, but the knight of the swan raised his hand, and shook his head.
“Good forrester, if you would walk this path with us, then we must ask you to heed the warnings we were given,” and with that he repeated the words of the Hooded Figure.
Unnerved, the three companions trod on, through the mists, following the light the saw before them.
As they walked, the knight of the swan turned to the forrester and asked, “Good forrester, when you are about your work, do you give deference to the trees?”
The forrester looked at the knight, puzzled, and answered “Of course. It’s manners.”
They walked on into the mists.
On and on they walked, until one of the knights drew them to a halt.
“That light which we follow seems to be dimming,” spoke the knight of the swan to his companions.
“Perhaps we needs must hurry?” offered the forester, and with that the three companions began to run. The more they ran, the dimmer the light became, causing them to run more swiftly in a panic.
They ran in such haste, without care for ought else, that they were still running when the forester shouted “The mists! Where are they?”
The three companions halted and looked about them, only to see the dense mists through which they had been travelling had receded, and all about them lay a normal night’s mists. The grass was crisp underfoot, for the winter’s frosts had come.
“Look!” exclaimed the knight of apples, “the light!” and he pointed further onto their course. Down the rolling hill they could see a small settlement, with lights and trails of smoke rising, and beyond that, the sea. From the settlement a bridge rose from the cliffside, and on its other side, a great castle on a high islet. Atop the castle, a great, tall tower, and atop the all tower, a bright, shining beacon.
The castle of Tintagel, with its great signal fire for sailors, had been their guiding light as they passed through the mists.
The three companions walked on, and as they passed through the village they could see and hear the people jovially celebrating. Each stranger they passed had a smile or a kind word for them, and more than once were they waylaid by folk offering ale or mead.
“Our thanks, friend,” spoke one of the knights, “but we must travel on to the keep with all haste.”
And on they trod, towards the cliffs, and towards the light.
The wind changed suddenly, and whipped out the banner so that it shone in the firelight. The dragon banner flew high over the gate, scarlet
“The Banner of the Pen Ddraig?” asked the knight of the swan
“The King is feasting in the hall with his knights who have come to pay homage to his children,” spoke the guard, “and the Queen is within her chambers with her new babes.”
“Babes?” asked the knight of the apples, “The Queen has given birth! The realm’s future is secured!”
“Albion’s dream,” whispered the forrester.
“Where now is the boar?” asked the guard.
The companions were struck dumb by the question. They saw now that these warriors barring their way was no mere castle guards, but knights of the Royal guard, armour shining, scarlet capes fluttering in the breeze.
“The mists have him,” offered the forester.
The Royal Guard looked them up and down, and nodded, “My Queen was warned to look for three guests, companions on the road, two proper and one unexpected. I was bade keep watch for an apple, a swan, and a boar, and I surmise that this warning foretold you three. I was given leave by my Queen that, should I spy them, I was to admit them and direct them unto her. You may pass freely and attend my Queen.”
They made their way through the inner yard, the walls of the keep echoing with revelry, and were guided through the halls by a page, coming to a halt before a chamber door, flanked by two Royal Guards.
“By what manner did you walk?” asked the Royal Guard
“By way of the mists,” answered the knight of the swan.
“And by what manner did you find your way?” asked the other Royal Guard
“By the light of faith, by being good, just, and true.” Answered the knight of apples.
Satisfied, the Royal Guards stepped aside and admitted them to the Queen’s chambers.
“My Queen,” spoke one of the Guards, “The three travellers about whom we were told.”
“Enter and be known,” spoke the Queen, turning to regard the three newcomers.
The two knights advanced and knelt before the Queen, who was seated next to a bassinet, in which the newborn prince and princess were soundly sleeping.
The forrester, unsure of court protocol and somewhat nervous, hung back, but went to his knee when he saw his fellow travellers do the same.
The three companions looked upon the table of gifts that had been brought to the children in awe.
There were piles of furs and pelts, a great golden torc, a silver tiara, a pouch of jewels, chests of coins of gold and silver, books of illuminated manuscripts, glittering flasks, goblets, and plates, a great drinking horn, a sheath of arrows and a shaft of spears, an ivory longbow, there were piles of spices and delicacies, and even a clutch of dragons eggs, and many more treasures besides.
“My Queen, we have no gifts of great wealth to bestow upon your children,” lamented the knight of apples.
“Indeed we feel poor and shamed by the gifts your children already have been given,” echoed the knight of the swan.
The Queen pitied the two knights, and told them “My son and daughter are a prince and princess of Albion. One shall be King, the other, so my soothsayers tell me, shall be a great mage. They shall live in comfort and splendour their whole lives. They have no need of gifts of gold or jewels, or any trinket so easily discarded by a great lord. Do not feel poor, good knights, for your gifts, I am sure, will be greater than any that lie upon yonder table.”
With that, the knights felt emboldened.
Said the knight of the swan, “My Queen, I swear that as long as I live my sword shall be raised in support of your children, and I shall strike down their foes with all the strength that I can muster.”
And with that he laid his sword before the bassinet.
Said the knight of apples, “My Queen, I swear that as long as I live my shield shall be raised in support of your children, and I shall defend them against their foes with all the strength that I can muster.”
And with that he laid his shield before the bassinet.
“That is well said,” trilled the Queen happily, “for my children will ever need good and loyal friends and protectors throughout their lives. I bid you retrieve your sword and retrieve your shield – you can raise neither for my children if you give them away. But come now, who is this?” the Queen gestured to the forester who still lingered by the door.
“My Queen, this is our good friend and companion, a forrester, who has travelled many leagues with us this night to look upon your children and do them homage.” Said the knight of the swan.
“Come hither, good forrester. You need not linger upon the threshold. Come, and greet your new Prince and Princess,” bade the Queen.
The forrester stepped forward and bowed to the Queen. He looked over into the bassinet and saw the sleeping royal babes, and he smiled. He bowed to them also, and this made the Queen smile widely.
But then the forester stepped back, and looked forlorn.
“Good forester,” spoke the Queen “are you not pleased by my children?”
The humble forrester, who had no worldly wealth or riches, nor strength of arms, felt poor and embarrassed that he had nought to give the newborn prince and princess.
“I am, my queen, and greatly so. For it is a great honour for one such as me to look upon them and greet them. But, I fear these great knights have given you great gifts, which I cannot hope to match. I have no sword, no shield, no strength of arms. I have only my wood axe, which is a poor and ill-made tool, and not fit to be a gift to a Prince and Princess. Still, I would gladly give you my wood axe, but then I would have no tool to complete my work, and no way to feed my family.”
Queen Igraine smiled at the forester and said “We would not have of you that which would impoverish you and bring hardship to your family, good forrester. That you have journeyed, and that you are here, is gift enough.”
The forrester thought a while, then said “Then, my queen, if you will have it, I shall give your children this – my loyalty. Though it be but a small thing, and poor, it is what I may freely give. My honour, such as it is, belongs to your children.”
“And that,” said a voice from the door “is perhaps the greatest of gifts.”
The hooded figure from the woods did enter the chamber, all gasped as the hood was lowered to reveal the familiar face of the Merlyn of Brytannia.
“The loyalty of the common man, their honour, their belief, is what gives the Pen Ddraig the power to rule, to guide, to protect. It is your loyalty,” the Merlyn now spoke directly to the forrester “which is both the greatest gift and the most severe obligation.”
The knights and the forrester bowed to the Merlyn, who was visibly irked by this “Stand up, you oafs, you need not bow to me, for I am merely a moon mad, wizened hermit.”
At that the two knights looked stricken, until the Merlyn began to laugh, as did the Queen, and soon the companions laughed also, in relief.
What happened thereafter between Queen Ygraine, King Uthor, and the Merlyn is, of course, a tale for another time.
The knight of the swan and the knight of the apples remained at court, serving in the Royal Guard as the sworn sword and sworn shield of the Royal Children.
That humble forester returned to his home and his work and told his wife and children all that had occurred that night. His children listened intently, but none more eagerly so than his youngest son.
The young boy took the tale to his heart with such devotion that many years later he would seek out Arthur’s court at Camelot and would serve the King.
When Arthur II acceded to the Throne, the forrester’s son, now a man grown and a famed hunter, would serve as hunts-master to the Throne, and was counted as a great advisor to the young king.
Marin, for that was his name, was ennobled by Arthur II, and his tale is also told elsewhere.