The Golden Bowl
Fiction by John Vicary
Winter was coming. Anguselus could sense it in the unforgiving bite of the wind from the north. The ache in his old joints had intensified with the onset of bitter air. He sighed and tried to settle into a comfortable spot, but no matter how he turned, a root seemed to find the small of his back or lodge in the hollow of a rib. As rest eluded him, so did a peaceful mind. Like a stone in his shoe, his thoughts kept turning to incidents from long ago that he couldn’t quite make peace with. His time was growing short in which to salve his conscience, and he was too tired to keep the memories at bay any longer.
He had once been a king, a great ruler of the proud and mighty Scots. Lothian was no backward province, no kingdom of little worth, but he’d given it up so long ago that he hardly remembered the title had ever been his to claim. He’d fancied himself a saint instead. Anguselus turned and stared up at the bare branches of the trees above him. That past was so distant in his mind that it had faded away into the dream of another man’s life.
Had it been the right decision, to leave behind his subjects and to travel so far with nothing more than his sword on his back and his zest to change the world as his only shield? He had been so sure of everything back then. Ah, the perfect righteousness of youth. If only he had the same comfort in his old age. Anguselus frowned. Why was he thinking on days gone by? The past could not be changed, no matter how much he might wish otherwise. The tread of his thoughts was as worn as a village footpath. If regret could turn back time, he would be 18 again. Yet, here he was, an old man alone under the fading trees.
Might for right …
Anguselus sat up, startled. There was no one there, merely the creaking of the wind through the branches playing tricks with his mind. Still, it seemed as if he could hear him speaking …
If people reach perfection, they vanish, you know …
It couldn’t be! Anguselus searched the shadows, but he knew it was futile even as he glanced around. It had been too long since he’d heard that voice, too long ago even to bother thinking on it. Why was he imagining Artorius here, now?
Anguselus swallowed. He had vowed never to say the name again, not even in his own mind. The cause of his greatest shame, the man whom he’d betrayed. He didn’t want to think about this now. He wouldn’t.
But it seems, in tragedy, that innocence is not enough …
“Stop! Stop!” Anguselus shouted, the words echoing around him. He covered his ears with his hands until he could hear only the sounds of his own breathing. The naked trunks of the silent forest mocked him.
He had blocked the memories for too long, and now they were coming back to haunt him. They trickled in like water through cracks in a dam; once the flow began, he was powerless to resist the urge to remember.
He could still see the banners of Tintagel as if it were yesterday. Anguselus had traveled south with little more than faith and rumors to guide him, each one more outrageous than the last. They said that in Camulodunum, it never rained until after sundown. When he crossed the borders, though, he hadn’t seen evidence of any of the sorts of things they’d been saying. This was no new Holy Land, where miracles of temperate regions were enforced. In fact, he’d ridden through a fog bank that very morning, in direct contrast to what he’d been led to believe.
“Halt!” a voice said. “Who goes there?”
Anguselus peered through the gloom, up past the sentinel. Tintagel’s pennants drooped, an anticlimactic sight after the long build-up of hopes he’d been carrying all the way from Lothian. He’d abdicated his throne for this?
“No one,” Anguselus called back, and turned away. The myth didn’t stand up to scrutiny. He should have known better. He could already taste the bitter crust of the humble pie he would have to eat in order to regain admittance to his own kingdom.
“Not the image of what you’d expected, hm?”
Anguselus turned his head to see a man leaning against the outer wall, buffing an apple on his tunic. “How could it be? I’ve been hearing tales all the way from my homeland. Here, I come to find it is a castle, just like any other.”
“Not quite like any other,” the man said, taking a bite of the fruit. “You sound as though you’ve traveled far. I’m sorry we are such a disappointment that you won’t even partake of an evening’s hospitality in your haste to be gone.”
“Who are you to apologize? It’s your king who should be sorry,” Anguselus spat. “He perpetrates preposterous rumors designed to entrap the noble!”
The man laughed. “So the fact that the snow does, indeed, slush upon the hillside is the cause of your perturbation? Tut, tut. Such things should not upset a knight of the realm.”
Anger flared in Anguselus’ breast. “You make sport of me? It is not the precipitation; it is the fact that your monarch shows himself a liar. He purports to be Godlike. I can see that he is not in control of the weather, his own reputation, nor anything else, for that matter! It is best that I go to a holier place, where men speak plainly and keep to their pledges.”
The man’s gaze turned steely. “Hold, friend. You make quite an accusation of our king. How can he help what the bards sing of him? And you have not given him a chance to prove his cause to you when you turn away at the gate without audience. Rather it is you, methinks, who have committed the sin of pride.”
“How dare you address me thusly? Who are you to speak on behalf of your king? You are not a knight, but a peasant! Silence your tongue, or I shall silence it for you!” Anguselus placed a warning hand on the hilt of his sword.
“Ah, but you do not understand the simplest virtue of this realm, do you, Sir Knight? I need not be entitled to speak my mind. Here we preach might for right, not the other way around. That is what you have come to seek, have you not? The Round Table? That is the idea that Artorius espouses: equality for the common man. And the protection offered those who haven’t the muscle to provide a voice to the populace for themselves.” The man nodded at the castle. “There is justice, my friend, within these walls. That is the salvation you are seeking. It isn’t about miracles in the snow and fog. I’ve heard the songs they sing, and I’m here to tell you that there is no legal limit to the winter here. But you are welcome to come and sit at my table if you want to work as one of us.”
Anguselus stared, unblinking, at the man before him, who munched on the apple. The man wasn’t seven feet tall, with hands that could uproot a mighty oak tree and shoulders so broad they blotted out the sun. He was of reasonable stature, yes: he stood but an inch shorter than Anguselus himself. How could this be? “King Artorius?” he croaked.
“Mm?” the man answered.
Anguselus fell to his knees. “Forgive me, King.” He bowed his head, the burning shame lancing through him to his very core. “Forgive me for my impertinence. You have shown me the meaning of true humility. I am your man. You shall never doubt it. My sword is yours, always. If by my life or death I can be of service, you need never even voice it. I am yours to command.”
“You don’t understand the nature of our mission, er …” King Artorius waved the core about. “What was your name?”
“Ah, yes, of course! Please, rise. It is I who am indebted to you, Highness. Word of your … commitment to our cause has preceded you. Your sacrifice is greatly appreciated.” The king cleared his throat. “I know it is difficult to adjust to the idea of equality. Those who have been nobility often feel as though they are losing the most. Yet, I hope to show you how much you will gain in our cause.”
“Of course, Majesty,” Anguselus said, rising.
“None of that, now. Everyone just calls me Artorius.” He clapped Anguselus on the back. “Come in, and join us for dinner. No doubt you are weary.”
“Yes, Maj — Artorius.”
It had been the beginning of a friendship unlike any other Anguselus had ever experienced. He didn’t know if it was because they both had been kings — he’d heard whispers that Artorius had not been raised as royalty and didn’t have the blue blood of true nobility, but Anguselus had always turned a deaf ear before finding out more — or if it was merely complementary personalities, but whatever the reason, Anguselus had never shared closer kinship with another person. Artorius was a man of principle, someone Anguselus could respect; where one was the thought, the next was the passion. Together they created a dynamic that sparked life into the ideal of Might for Right, the campaign under which the Round Table labored and flourished.
“And so I was thinking of hosting a tournament. What say you?” asked Artorius, as they practiced their swordplay on the bluff overlooking Trebarwith Strand.
Anguselus grinned and took the offense with a dritto technique. “Bloody brilliant, Artorius! What better way to call attention to the growing popularity of your knights?”
Artorius countered the attack with a crucibus parry and fought back with a blunt downward blow. His strength had always been in the forthright attack, while Anguselus’ skill lay in the subtle dance and parries. “It has been a while since we have had entertainment. And I admit, I have special cause to celebrate.”
“Oh, and what is that, my friend?” Anguselus performed a series of floryshes, and ended with a foyne.
Artorius neatly avoided the display, choosing to step back out of harm’s way. “Did you not wonder why I chose this place on which to call practice?”
“I did think the beach a strange spot to sport with you, but who am I to deny you a beautiful venue for your disgrace? Prepare for defeat!” teased Anguselus. In truth, they were well matched in skill. He raised his sword and stepped in to perform the coup de grâce.
“We are here to greet my wife.”
“What?” Anguselus faltered. He was sure he’d misheard.
Artorius took advantage of Anguselus’ misstep to grab his wrist. In an instant, Anguselus found himself pulled close against his opponent, his own blade stifled against Artorius’ shoulder and a cold length of steel throbbing gently in time with his own pulse against his exposed neck. In his confusion, he’d let himself be captured by the disarmo-soprano.
Artorius smiled. “Do you yield?”
“I don’t understand, Artorius.” He could hear himself begging, and he didn’t like it. “What are you talking about?”
“Do you yield?” Artorius’ breath was hot on Anguselus’ cheek.
“Yes, dammit! Tell me what this madness is all about!”
Artorius dropped his sword. “Turn your head, and see for yourself.”
Anguselus looked out to sea and saw the shape of the ship carrying their destiny ever closer with each break of the wave upon the shore.
A sharp gust of wind brought Anguselus back to the present. That had been so long ago. He hadn’t thought about those things in years and years, yet he could still remember standing there on the Strand, sparring with Artorius. They had been in their prime and all was bright, but Anguselus shivered even now at the remembered chill of foreboding that reached its long shadow through the years and grabbed him by the neck with its icy fingers. He’d known, somehow, that they were standing on the edge of a precipice. It was that moment right before the fall. The golden bowl, unbroken. And yet, there was nothing he could do to stop it from slipping from his fingers and shattering into a thousand pieces at his feet. Only, he was the vessel of destruction. His was the hand that had thrown it down, and once it was falling, he could only watch, in soundless horror, as it fell to pieces around him. His life — their lives — would never be the same as they were that day on the beach in Trebarwith Strand.
Gwenhwyfar was a force to be reckoned with right from the beginning. In the midst of her dark-haired countrymen, she stood out like a beacon of light. She was all things bright, with hair the color of flax and eyes so blue they could make the sky, itself, jealous. It hurt to look for the beauty of her, and she was nothing short of Venus rising from the sea when she arrived from Castell y Cnwclas, a gift from her father, King Ogrfan Gawr of Wales.
Anguselus knew then that whatever he might have felt, whatever he had known in his life before that moment, it was nothing. He had never really been alive. Seeing her was like taking his first breath. He had been dreaming, and now he was awake, and life had more color than anything he could have seen in his sleep. What was this feeling? Anguselus reeled, as if he had been caught by a blow from a broadsword, yet, he was intact. He could breathe and see and feel with a passion he had never known existed on this mortal plane. There were tingles in his hands and butterflies whirling in his stomach. Gwenhwyfar did this to him. She had made him a man instead of the cold figure of a saint that he had always aspired to be. Why had he never seen how empty he had been without her?
He had thought that love such as this could only be felt in the afterlife; he had given himself over to prayer and celibacy to find it when he met his end. Never had he thought to experience for himself the jolt of ecstasy that was reserved for the purest of love.
And not with another man’s wife.
The dark side of the dream echoed itself in Artorius’ eyes. His friend, his brother, looked upon Gwenhwyfar with the same eyes that Anguselus, himself, did.
Anguselus wrapped his blanket around himself to drown out the sound of Artorius’ voice. He could hear him now, through the years. He thought that perhaps he always had. Anguselus had loved her so. Anyone who cared to look could see it plainly. It was there in the way his eyes had followed her around a room, and in the way he touched her cheek. He would stand on the battlements and watch her dance the Maypole. He had delighted in her free spirit, even when he, himself, was weighed by so much more. The two of them would stand together and enjoy her delight in the simple things, in ribbons and spring.
Artorius had loved her enough to look away. He would swallow and take down a book. He would rest a hand on Anguselus’ shoulder, that small act absolving them both.
Artorius had loved her enough to let her go. Anguselus had been the coward. He’d pretended not to see the tears, but instead kept his head down. He couldn’t look Artorius in the eye and keep his honor. But neither could he give her up.
The best thing for being sad is to learn something …
“What have you learned?”
Anguselus opened his eyes. It couldn’t be. … Was that Artorius standing over him? “You look so young!” he marveled. “Just as I remember you. You haven’t a strand of gray in your beard!”
Artorius inclined his head. “But the years have weighed upon you, my friend. You are burdened by grief.”
Anguselus lowered his chin. “I am. I have never been able to ask your forgiveness. I do not deserve it!” He couldn’t stop the tears from escaping his eyes and leaking down the deep ravines that creased his cheeks.
“You do not need to seek forgiveness. You have lived your life in penitence. I would not see you sickened any longer by your regrets. Come, put aside your sadness. It is a day for healing.”
“I cannot!” Anguselus sobbed. “I betrayed you! You cannot know how sorry I am about Gwenhwyfar. But I regret ever more your Table. That we caused the fall of Camulodunum is a sorrow I shall bear until the end of my days.”
“Then, you shall be sorry no longer.” Artorius held out a hand. “It is time for you to come and join me at Avallon, where the mighty kings of old come to find their reward and their peace. Join me now.”
Anguselus blinked. “What is this? You are a vision to take me to my death? I do not deserve reward, not for all I have done in this life.”
Artorius sighed. “You are hard on yourself, much harder than I would have you be. For one brief, shining moment, we made a difference. History shall remember us kindly for it. We shall survive the telling in our own way. We have played our parts, Anguselus. The miracle was never about any sword in the stone, but about man seeing the change he wants in this world and making that happen. We did that. You were my friend, for your part, and I loved you. I loved you and Jenny both, and I would see us together again at the end. You have earned your rest. Take it.”
“I cannot forgive myself.” Anguselus felt the snow upon his face, and he shivered. “I will never be able to.”
“If people reach perfection, they vanish, you know.” Artorius grasped his hand. “It is time.”
Anguselus closed his fingers around Artorius’ fist. He stood up and shook off the cold for the first time in longer than he could remember. Everything was light; he had just needed a friend to guide him. Perhaps that was all he’d ever needed. “Show me the way home.”
This is clearly a retelling of the Arthurian myth. Some lines were taken from T. H. White, and some were alluded to from the Lerner and Loewe musical, Camelot. I did extensive research in this tale, and some of the names, places, and details may not be familiar, but I have sources to corroborate and support this version. Please remember, however, that this is an extremely varied and disputed myth with a ton of material to draw from. I know that a lot of people feel very protective of this tale, but I hope that readers are able to read and enjoy this version, be it less traditional.