a sample from Kingdom of Arthur II : The Headwinds of Destiny
The second Arthur book was actually the first that I conceived. When I developed the story in 2017 I always had in mind Arthur first fleeing his responsibilities and then, through various circumstances, being forced to accept his calling. This scene is taken from chapter five, entitled “A Late-Night Bar Fight” and is the first instance of Arthur coming face to face with the bigger world he has been trying to run from…
Archimedes’ tavern was nestled inside a narrow crook along the south side of the River Loire, about half a day’s ride to Orleans. The old curmudgeon who built the establishment was careful to pick a spot where the only proper way in or out would be the front door. You can slip out the back if you like, but you’d better be prepared to swim.
Patrons tried to tell him it was foolishness to build so close to the river’s edge; “you’re liable to slip off and float away” they said. But he would have none of it; “I’ll have everything in front of me” he’d grumble, “drunkers, eaters, and all my guests.”
He kept a rat-infested row of single-room “cottages” (he called them) just outside. No one in their right mind would stay there voluntarily, but as his was the only establishment of its kind for six hours in any direction and as his was the only place to get “Grape and Honey Wine,” and and as Grape and Honey Wine was a homebrew of such remarkable potency it could turn the largest and most hardened man blackout drunk in mere minutes, Archimedes’ ratty cottages were a wise investment (since he charged a hefty price to rent them). They were regularly stocked with patrons, too.
As most of the bar’s business came in the evening hours, Archimedes tended to sleep in the day and oversee things during the night. He trusted his hired hands to manage his affairs during daylight hours, when most of the customers were passers-by looking for a place to rest before continuing on. During these hours, the bar was regularly tended by a twenty-something blonde-headed lad, so gangly-thin and puny-looking it you’d think a gust of wind would blow him over.
It was common for a large brute to step up to Arthur, laugh at his wiry frame, order a drink and then laugh at the irony of being tended to by an overgrown boy who looked like the mere smell of alcohol would make him wobbly. Arthur didn’t mind, though. He’d always been smaller than the rest; it was a good way to keep out of sight and out of mind. It’s only the people with big fat necks and big beefy arms that go sticking their noses into other men’s matters, and those are the ones who usually end up gutted.
Arthur would be perfectly happy tending bar, away from trouble, for the rest of his life.
Of course, if you’d asked him a year ago he’d say he was perfectly happy selling fish in Paris. And two years before that he was perfectly happy working as a cobbler in Tours. Happy though he was at almost every stop along the way, he was never happier than during the five years he spent in Amiens, where he buttled for a Lord named Wadsworth.
He was terrible at his job, but happy to sleep in a room with a functioning fireplace every night. But then Wadsworth’s daughter was kidnapped, a ransom was gathered, and Arthur was tasked as the most inconspicuous and unintimidating person available to make the exchange. He made it, but passed out when the bandits arrived with the lady of the house.
She ended up helping him back to her father, who quickly grew suspicious of the young foreigner he’d taken into his home and what his intentions were with his daughter. He had no intentions, mostly because he had no idea what to do in that capacity, but still the father questioned.
Arthur had a passable grasp of the Franks’ language, but it was always obvious that he was an outsider. The locals seemed able to smell it on him and whenever questions about his past would start to be raised, that’s when Arthur knew it was time to move on.
For five years he enjoyed the blissful ignorance of his Lord, but when he started asking “how a boy his age found his way into Amiens, with no mother or father tending to him” and “how someone like this came to be in the employ of French nobility,” Arthur ran, as he always did.
It was the easiest thing in the world to do—running—and what he was certainly best at in life. He ran, scavenging for fish and fruit as he went and didn’t stop till he found Archimedes. For no good reason at all, the grumpy old man took him in, gave him a free glass of milk (“wine don’t come cheap, and besides…it might kill a twig like you!”), and a place to sleep.
The next day he hired him to sweep his floor. A month later he was allowed to wait tables. Three months ago he began tending bar and once more he was happy…especially since bar patrons never pay any mind to the guy who pours the drinks. No one asks questions, no one cares who you are or what you’ve done. Just pour the drinks and they’re happy, and that made Arthur very happy indeed.
As to the second question that the Lord of Amiens posed, Arthur had a perfectly rational explanation, though it was not one he was eager to explain. He spent his first year in France in Andres, being cared for by an old man and his wife, whose only son had died a year before.
He was, as they told him more than twice, the answer to a prayer they never expected to have answered. They adopted him into their home with no questions asked, fed and sheltered him, taught him the language and the customs of the land, and above all showered him with affection and love.
He felt so undeserving of it.
Leaving them was harder than leaving behind the offer to sail with the Pirate Robert. Leaving them was harder than leaving his own father behind, mostly because when he ran from London he chose not to think about his father. But when he ran from his new parents, he could not suppress the reality of the heartbreak he’d be causing them.
Nevertheless he ran. He had to. He did not deserve a family or affection. He was a murderer—or an attempted one he would later discover—and deserved punishment. He may have been too cowardly to face the death he was owed, but he was at least noble enough to punish himself a little bit every day, by denying himself the peace that comes with a happy home. To Arthur, that was a just and proper punishment, in many ways a fate worse than death.
As to the first question Lord Wadsworth demanded of him on the night he fled from Amiens…that was a little more cloudy to Arthur. After running from Andres at the age of ten, he spent two years traveling from town to town, begging for food and living wherever he could. France was a new Kingdom, politically, but an old land, historically; there was much to do and though not everyone was generous, Arthur was particularly lucky about always finding someone with some bread or cheese to spare before he starved to death.
After a while it started to feel like more than luck.
The Cobbler he worked for claimed Arthur was the answer to his prayer as he’d been without an apprentice for two years and was considering closing his shop. That wouldn’t have resonated with the young boy except for the fact that it was what his adopted parents used to say to him all the time. And then there’s Wadsworth, whose House Steward hired him with barely any inquiry as to his background; only a vague “we’ll keep an eye on you early on to make sure you’re up to snuff” was said to him.
It was the easiest job interview he’d ever had; even the farmer who once paid him with a hot meal for a day’s worth of work at least asked him where his parents were. Not one to tempt fate, and no longer one to speak up and draw attention to himself, Arthur was happy to have the good luck—or whatever it was—as long as it lasted.
But before too long, something would be said in casual conversation, some hint that Arthur was not just a travelling boy who’d found his way into town or some slip of the tongue that would give away his London upbringing; something would be said and Arthur would be running again.
Archimedes’ Bar seemed like the perfect remedy to all of those questions. In a bar, no one knows your name and no one cares to. There would never be a reason to tell anything or ask anything beyond “what would you like” and “how about a glass of Grape and Honey Wine?” and such like.
But then England came to the Old Lands.
It started as rumors, as whispers of a campaign in Scandinavia. The talk was that the Slavic clans had invaded their western neighbors and killed King Harold. The talk changed just as fast, however: Instead of an invasion from the west it was one from the east. The King of England had sailed to the Norse lands to squelch a rebellion that was brewing in his conquered territory.
“It don’t concern us.” or some variant thereof was the common refrain that followed that news. The French had more than enough to be getting along with. Lords in the southern part of the country were whispering their own rumors and talk of a rebellion of their own was reaching the ears of the peasants and patrons in the bar.
“Old King Leon might want to double his guards if them southern Lords get pushed too much harder.” Arthur overheard one drinker say just a few months earlier. “They’re looking to rejoin the Romans from what I hear.”
“Ah from what I hear they want to start their own country—”
“That’s fools talk! We got enough countries to be getting on with already. Everybody wants their own country these days. Nobody wants to just get by with what they already got.”
As always Arthur paid it no mind. England was a long way away, and Scandinavia was too…but as the months rolled on, the rumors about the King of England persisted. Soon he had left Scandinavia and was marching into Germania. “They’ll eat each other like a couple of pissy snakes!” one drunkard predicted.
“I dunno Claude, seems like he’s inching this way…”
“Don’t be mad; he’s got barely an army to get through two Empires. If he even tried to step into France, old Leon could thump him, even with that namby son of his leading the charge.”
At that, chairs were hastily scooted, bodies were raised with a stagger and shouts about the honor of the Royal family were had. Archimedes swept on them like a bird of prey. “Out!” he shouted, driving them to the door before they had a chance to start a raucous. “I’ll not have a fight in my establishment! Look at the sign!” He pointed a boney finger to the sign painted (and repainted a time or two) onto both sides of his door:
“And you, boy!” he spun around, pointing the same finger toward Arthur. “Your job is to keep the customers in their chairs, not throwing them!”
“I thought my job was to bring them drinks when you’re not asleep?”
“You keep your tongue and your cheek to yourself!” the old man barked. Archimedes was always good for one or two odd sayings that he and he alone thought were wise or profound or, at the very least, clever, but really were just nonsense. “If the patrons are drinking, they are sitting, if they are sitting, they are drinking. If they’re standing they are fighting. That’s the one rule of bartending: Keep…the patrons…sitting!”
“Alright, I’m sorry. Next time I’ll—” There was no end to that sentence. Arthur might have said “I’ll throw them out myself” or “I’ll tell them forcefully to sit back down” but he knew good and well he wasn’t going to tell some drunken ogre twice his size to sit down. Fortunately he knew Archimedes would interrupt him before he could finish the thought…and he did.
“See that there’s not a next time and you won’t have to worry about it! I’m going to bed, you lock up tonight.” he said, shaking his head and causing his grey-streaked flattop haircut—which flared out into brown peaks on either side—to flutter and shake.
Arthur returned to the bar and began contemplating. He’d been thinking about Kason ever since he heard England was marching south by the Slavic borders on his way to Germania.
Would he really invade the empire of his father? Maybe that’s why he’s doing this…some twisted bit of vengeance against the Empire he never knew but which his father always loved more than England…more than his son. Surely he wouldn’t take on the whole of the Holy Roman Empire. That’s suicide; no one has beaten them since Charles Le Magne and he had help from within—
“…and the Pope’s said to be riding to Vienna for a secret meeting.” A voice to Arthur’s left stole him away from his thoughts. The drinker was sitting at a table by the wall, talking a little too loudly, as drunkards do.
“If it’s a secret you’re tellin’ here it ain’t much of a secret is it?” his companion said holding a drink but too distracted by the conversation to swig; he just kept swinging the glass around as he talked, sloshing the foamy liquid onto the wooden table between them.”
“Nah see, my brother’s uncle is Roman. A real Roman, lives in Rome I mean. He works at the Pope’s Castle.”
“Pope don’t got a Castle, he lives in a big square building with a wall around it.”
“That’s a Castle ya dunce.”
“Whatever, isn’t no way your brother’s uncle…which would be your uncle too wouldn’t it?”
“No it’s my brother’s wife’s uncle, same meaning for the purposes of my story.”
“Story is right.”
Arthur did not even notice himself inching closer to the end of the bar, to keep within earshot as the two men leaned in to each other to speak a little more quietly. But again, being drunk, their idea of a whisper was really just a normal tone.
“Do you wanna hear this or no?”
“Alright then go on.”
“My brother’s wife’s uncle is a Cardinal in Rome.”
“Stop right there!” the talebearer’s companion shouted. “Story’s fake. Cardinals and Bishops and all them is celibate. Means no family for them.”
“It means they have no wives. They’re allowed brothers and sisters—” He stopped short and turned his head toward Arthur, noticing the blonde-headed young man all but staring at them. “Something you need bartender? Can I pour you a drink and draw you up a chair?” he said crassly.
“N-no I’m fine. Sorry for the Pope—the trouble!”
He scooted back to the middle of the bar, poured a few drinks absent-mindedly and occasionally stole a glance in the direction of the two by the wall, not so much to eavesdrop (they were too quiet to hear by that point) but more to, nervously, check that they weren’t watching him with ill-intentions. Unfortunately, they were watching Arthur to make sure he wasn’t still watching them .
And that’s just the kind of thing that would give them ill-intentions.
“Alright!” the man said angrily, slamming his palms down and rising from his table. Arthur quickly sped toward them with Archimedes’ one rule overriding his own desire to cower.
“Sorry, sorry, I was just looking to see if you needed another drink. Please sit down and I’ll get you one…o-o-on the-the house!”
That did the trick for a moment, but by the time Arthur walked over to their table to deliver the drink, the storyteller had (being drunk) forgotten why he was coming. Assuming he was eavesdropping again, he jumped up and grabbed Arthur by the collar of his plain brown shirt. “I don’t like you boy, and I don’t like being spied on!”
“I wasn’t spying, honest!”
The man looked him up and down. “Where’re you from?”
“I-I-I live here with Archimedes. I sleep in the little shack by the stables.”
“I mean where are you from? You don’t sound like a Frank to me, does he Réjean?”
His companion was still seated but he too had started to give Arthur an inquisitive glare. “Say something in English boy and it’ll be done.”
Arthur shook his head.
“Go on, say something about the pearly wall at Dover.” Claudé said, threateningly. “I been there, ya know? Dover. Went there couple years ago. Pretty place. You can see it from Caletum. You ever been?”
“I’ve been to Caletum.” Arthur said.
“Now say that in English.”
“I’d rather not.” Arthur said, still speaking the best French he could. He’d been in the country for over a decade but he still struggled with his “R’s.” Typically it was cause for some slight mockery but when you’re being interrogated, every slip up is cause for concern. He was hyper-aware of both the number of eyes watching this spectacle and of the single bead of sweat that was moseying down his cheek.
“You know what I think?” he said, slurring slightly and wobbling even more. “I think you have been to Dover.” He put a stubby finger in Arthur’s chest. “I think you have been to England…” He turned his head halfway toward the mass of eavesdroppers. “I THINK…” he shouted, so the whole room could hear “WE GOT OURSELVES A SPY IN THIS FINE BAR! SOMEONE WORKING FOR THE KING OF ENGLAND BEFORE HE INVADES!”
Arthur laughed involuntarily but, as he would soon discover, that was a bad move.
A sucker punch right to his gut sent him staggering backward. That was lucky for him, though, as seconds later a chair went flying across the room and crashed onto the table right next to where Arthur had been standing.
As it turns out, Archimedes is wiser than he looks. Once the drunkard stood up to confront Arthur, everyone else started watching carefully, first looking to the stairway that led up to Archimedes’ bedroom and then back to Arthur to see if the young man would have the strength to force the men to leave.
When it became clear that Arthur was not going to be much of an authority figure, all the other patrons in the bar began to realize they could also have a fight with someone without repercussion.
And since no one goes into a bar to drink without having someone on their mind they’d like to hit, once the action started everyone in the room thought to themselves “my turn” and joined in, swinging for the first free jaw they could find.
Within seconds it was pandemonium and only seconds later Archimedes was storming down the stairway, shouting obscenities and swatting at people with the first weapon-like thing he could find (a hatstand). It took a little work but he finally got everyone herded out into the night and over to the stables.
Soon, the thunderous sound of dozens of horses galloping away rattled the windows. Arthur pulled himself up from behind the bar, tender in the stomach where he’d been punched. It was the only wound he suffered in the melee, however. His attacker was quickly distracted by the chair-thrower and forgot all about him, much to his relief.
The door slammed shut and Archimedes stood huffing. For all the mania that had just taken place, the old man’s hair had managed to remain in that same, weird, double-peaked style that he always favored. “Well?” he said.
“Well…” Arthur said.
“Well I have to fire you, obviously.”
“I may be English but I’m not a spy.” Ordinarily Arthur would have slipped out the back during the fight and disappeared, reappearing a week or so later in some other town doing some other thing. But since the bar doesn’t have a back door he was a bit cornered.
The accusation was a joke to him, but it was serious enough to everyone else that he needed to set the record straight lest he find himself being hunted by a lot of the wrong kinds of people. I don’t want to think what the King of England might do if he finds out the French have captured a supposed-spy of his…
“Who said you were a spy?” Archimedes asked, bewildered and annoyed all at once.
“Um…no one. I guess it was the fighting not the shouting that brought you downstairs?”
“I tend to drown out the sound of drunken shouting, yes. It was the sound of broken tables that tipped me off.”
“Right. Well then…I’m off.”
“Oh no. You’re cleaning up this whole mess, and you’re going to go fetch the old tables out of the storage house to replace the ones you broke.”
“But that’s my house.”
“Not anymore it isn’t.” He reminded the young man. Arthur’s shoulders slumped a bit, but the old man was not feeling sympathetic. “Go on, get started.” he said, heading toward the stairway. He turned around one last time, catching Arthur just before he headed outside: “Lock up when you come back in. I’ll be down in a bit to pay you off.”
“Where are you going?” Arthur sassed.
“I’m going to put pants on. I’m not going to fire a man without proper clothes.” Arthur noticed only then that the old man was wearing slippers and a nightgown that just barely reached his knees.
The night was perfect. The stars were shining without a hint of overcast and the temperature was just warm enough for the mild breeze swirling around to feel good against the skin. Good travelling weather, Arthur thought as he stepped into his makeshift home in the shack beside the recently-vacated stables.
The room was quartered off, with one quarter devoted to Arthur’s small cot next to the backroom door and a single—cushionless—chair facing the sealed-off fireplace. Other than that, and the few sacks of clothes at the foot of his bed—some clean and some not—Arthur had nothing to his name. He tied up the sacks and set them outside the door before returning back inside to drag a few spare tables back into the bar.
The tables were heavy and awkward; round tops with three legs and no easy place to hold them. He had to roll them to the tavern door and twist and turn to fit them in. Finally he did and set it upright in the middle of the room, puffing large gusts of air as he did.
He shut the door behind him, intending to get the rest after a drink, then went behind the bar, squatted down to the bottom shelf, and grabbed a bottle of goat’s milk that thankfully had not been smashed in the mayhem earlier.
Several other bottles had been broken and the wood floor was saturated with the mixture of beers, wines, and meads and other of Archimedes’ assorted concoctions. Fortunately for Arthur, the old man had not glanced behind the bar to see the destruction and hopefully would not until Arthur was well on his way down the road.
He stood back up and nearly threw his drink in the air. “Wua!” he shouted. A man was sitting at the table, smiling blankly at him as though it was the most normal thing in the world to sit at the only table in a bar whose floor is littered with debris and not another soul in sight.
His faced was aged, but his striking blue eyes were very much full of life. He had a plain robe, dyed blue and homespun wool by the look of it, and a matching wide-brimmed hat resting on the table in front of him. His hair was the real eye-catcher, though: He was bald on the very top but the sides erupted with hair like great white horns. His silver mustache almost completely covered both top and bottom lips and his beard mirrored his head, with only a thin coating of hair on his chin but with hair pouring from his cheeks like a ridiculous white waterfall.
Staring at him and processing the spectacle of him must have taken Arthur a good ten seconds, during which time the room remained completely silent. The elderly man just sat there, staring and smiling mildly at him. “I’m sorry but we’re closed.” Arthur willed himself to say. “As you can see we had…an incident earlier.”
“Oh that’s alright I’ll just have a drink.” he said, happily, with a wave.
“No really we’re closed. If you come back tomorrow night they should be back open again.”
“Oh? They? Will you not be here tomorrow night?”
“…It’s not likely.”
“Well then you should get me that drink once before you go!” The sides of his beard lifted again; it was the only indicator Arthur had that his guest was smiling at him. That, and the deep lines that appeared next to his eyes.
“Look, I don’t even work here anymore, the man upstairs—”
“You know the man upstairs?!”
“…yeah. Do you know the man upstairs?”
“Oh yes, very well, we go back a long time.”
“Well then, if you come back tomorrow he should be here and you can see him.”
“Well yes, but I came to see you!” Another awkward silence followed, still with the man smiling gently at him. Finally he knocked twice on the table and said “now how about that drink?”
“Alright,” he sighed, “we don’t have much right now and that part of the storehouse is locked. We just have…” He looked down to find a bottle that wasn’t broken, cracked or goat’s milk. “Grape and Honey Wine.” he said, rolling his eyes. “Archimedes makes it, but I never asked—”
“Oh, Archimedes!” the man said, snapping his fingers in remembrance. “That’s where I knew this place.” He nodded to himself, looking around at the mess with great satisfaction. Finally he turned back to Arthur. “Just water, though, thank you.”
“Water?” he said, looking around foolishly before realizing. “We have a river in the back. We have drinks in here.”
“No bother, no bother. I can manage.” he said with a smile.
Arthur poured the drink and delivered it to the lone table in the room. The pale red liquid spilled a bit as he set it down. “Sorry.” Arthur said, grabbing a rag to soak it up, turning the white cloth pink.
“Hmm, now let’s see.” the man said, giving the glass a side-eyed glance. “Ah yes.” he said and then pulled out what looked to Arthur to be a simple twig picked up from outside. It was almost as long as his forearm, smooth and straight. With a simple *taptap* he chinked the glass with his stick and then, in a blink, the red liquid had turned clear. “Perfect.” he said, before lifting the glass to his mustache and drinking it down.
Arthur looked at him incredulously. The man set the mug down and Arthur watched a bit of the liquid—crystal clear—slide smoothly down the side. Instinctively he reached for the rag, to catch the drop before it landed, and noticed the pink stain from before had likewise turned clear. He drew it up to his nose to smell, not the strong aroma of wine but the aroma of…nothing; the kind of nothing one smells when smelling water.
“Ohhhhh great.” Archimedes said. Arthur turned around to see him standing at the bottom of the stairway. “Merlin. You found me.”
“Found you both, I'd say.”