The Fate of Excalibur (February 2022)
By Callie Cameron
Lots of people wanted Excalibur. No one wanted it like I did.
Arthur was old, and had little need of a sword anymore. When he wanted to store it, somewhere it couldn’t be stolen, he put it back in the stone. Well, why not? – only he could pull it out again. The stone stood behind the altar in the cathedral in Camelot. When the sunlight came in during the morning service, the golden hilt shone, reminding everyone of Arthur’s God-given rule.
No one ever asked where that sword really came from. Arthur had pulled it from the stone. Merlin had made the stone, and put the sword there, and set the spells that would yield it only to the true king. Merlin had gotten the sword from the Lady of the Lake. But where had she gotten it?
I knew, and the knowing tormented me every day of my life.
I had never been to Camelot before. I had never dared. If I came that close to the sword, I wouldn’t be able to resist its pull. I would throw all my magic into reaching it. But Merlin would have stopped me. Morgan would have stopped me. They were both more powerful than I was. Maybe even the knights, in their prime, could have stopped me.
But Merlin was gone now, snared forever by a witch’s spells. Maybe one day I’d visit her, my sister in magic, and thank her for ridding the world of that menace. Morgan was gone, too, tending to her wild family in the north. The Round Table was failing, and the knights that remained were not as they once were. Arthur himself was at the end of his strength. Now it was my time.
Even so, when I went to Camelot, I went in disguise. I could feel the closeness of the sword, aching in my mind. I knew exactly where it was. I would never turn back now.
But Merlin’s old wards still stood, and when I passed the gates, they showed me for what I was. Guardsmen came running. I would fight, then. After so long, I found I was eager for it.
So I summoned tendrils of flame to brush aside their arrows and spears – but it was hard, like dragging the world screaming to my will, and I knew I couldn’t keep it up. More guards came – more than I could ever fight. So I left the fire as a distraction, and slipped between them like a shadow, and on into the darkness of the cathedral. I sealed the door as best I could, but it wouldn’t hold for long. Maybe it would be long enough.
The ache in my mind was thrumming now, impossible to ignore. There was the stone behind the altar. I was at it in a moment. Beside it stood an old man, with wispy hair and a crown of gold, roused from his thoughts by my presence – the king himself. I should have knelt, kept up the pretence. But I couldn’t. All I could see was the sword, and I couldn’t take my eyes off it.
How did you even make a magic sword? Where did its power come from? I knew. I was there when it was made.
I thought I was safe, once, with my magic and my changing, living alone in the wild. I thought no one could touch me, no one would care to – but I was wrong. I was the wayward daughter of a minor noble, exiled but not forgotten, and that was how they learned that I existed. They came for me, and I fought, and I ran, but they had magic of their own, and in the end I could do no more. They trapped me, and took me back to their island home, where I would be at their mercy.
Avalon, they called it. But the smiths of Avalon did not want me for what most men want. No – they wanted me for the gifts of a shifter’s flesh, that I could take on any form I pleased. They held me still. They cut a part of my body from me, and tore away a part of my soul. With enchantments they compelled my stolen flesh to take the shape that they chose – a sword, wondrously sharp, unbreakable. They did not care how much I screamed. Then they bound the sword with that fragment of my soul, to sustain their spells forever.
After that they discarded me. I was useless to them now, half-mad. When I came back to myself, far from Avalon, I was less than I had been. Much of my magic was gone. The gifts of my flesh were gone. I was stuck in a single form, a limitation I had never known. I was raw and broken. My soul was torn in two. They had tried to sever those parts of me completely, but the severing was incomplete. So I could always feel it, there at the back of my mind, that sword – an aching wound that would never heal. Excalibur, they called it, as though I’d never had a name of my own.
I heard the tales, sometimes, in the years to come. A sword sent by God, the people said. I laughed, I cried. If only they knew.
And now I stood before it. The golden hilt, the shining blade; five inches of steel, bare above the stone. And the words. Whoso pulleth out this sword … I didn’t need to read them. I knew those words, had known them since the day they were seared into my stolen flesh. All I could see, all I could hear, all I could feel, was the sword. The need to be whole.
I would have thrown myself at it as soon as I saw it, pressed my hands and face to the metal, wrapped myself around the stone to be as close as I could. But now I was here, I saw the magic on the stone. Merlin’s spells would protect the sword, even from me. As long as Arthur did not draw the sword out from the stone, I could do nothing.
So I forced myself to step back, and look around. It was all I could do, dizzy with the closeness of it. There was the king, still watching, head tilted in amusement. I don’t know how long I’d stood there.
“It is quite a sight, is it not?” His voice was still firm, though there was a sadness in his eyes. “As bright as the day I first held it, in London all those years ago.”
I remembered that day, too. I had felt those hands, that grip. And why shouldn’t he be sad? All his youthful dreams had come to fruition – and then he had gone on, growing old, as all he’d done began to crumble around him.
But he seemed at ease. I knew nothing of him except the stories, and we all know those can lie. Maybe he hadn’t heard the commotion outside. Maybe he didn’t know what I was.
Now I did throw myself at his feet. Play the part. I was a pilgrim, nothing more. Tears came to my eyes. It wasn’t all an act, not with all that thrumming need so close, so close.
“Oh great king!” I cried, “Will you draw it from the stone, for me?”
The king chuckled. “A thousand times I have drawn that sword from that stone, before a dozen times as many people. Is that still not enough to prove myself?”
“You need prove nothing, oh king.”
“Then I will not draw it.”
Think fast. “But, king, I swore I would not leave this place until I beheld the sword!”
He gestured. “And so you have. This is all you will see. This is all you need.”
He began to turn away. I was on my feet in a moment. What did he know of need?
“Then I will fight you.”
I was desperate. There was a thumping on the door now – the guards had realised it was sealed. But Arthur turned, and frowned, and his voice was sharp.
“What is it to you? Who sent you? Are you Morgan’s? She lost me the scabbard, and now she would take the sword from me as well?”
“No one sent me!” My voice cracked. I was shaking, I realised. “All I wish is to see it. Draw the sword!”
His eyes were moving quickly, taking everything in. He was old, but he had been a warrior, and there was still strength in his arms. He thought he could overpower me, but he wouldn’t have reckoned on the strength of my kind. I had to move before he did. I would grab him, bind him with my spells, put his hand on the hilt myself. As long as he lived, maybe the magic wouldn’t care that he was compelled—
There was a crash from behind. The door was splintering – we had only moments. I spun, and called up my wards and what little fire I could.
Then I felt his touch, felt the grate of stone on steel. The thrumming became a roar. Arthur’s voice came from behind me.
“Lay down your magic. You know no ward can stand against this blade.”
He had drawn the sword. I turned, and it was levelled at my heart.
He expected me to run. Instead I flung myself at him, and threw myself on the blade. I’d never seen such astonishment as was there on his face.
As soon as I touched it, the enchantment was broken. With a snap, I was whole again, and I cried out at the shock. My gifts returned. And the sword was no longer Excalibur, no longer a sword, just … a part of me, like anything a shifter formed. I changed it away, flowed out of his hands, drew it back into my body as though it had never been.
I resealed the door with a gesture. So easy, now. The air had cleared. A weight had lifted. I was alive, in a way I had almost forgotten. And I stepped back, and held up my hands, to show I meant him no harm.
But he had stumbled when I lunged, and stood with his back to the now-useless stone. “What have you done?”
I told Arthur the truth. How the sword was made, and by whom. That his reign was founded on a theft. A lie. God-given rule? There was no true king, but what Merlin and the smiths of Avalon had decided, for their own ends. And that I had felt every cut, every kill that sword had ever made.
He lowered his eyes and bowed his head, as if the weight of years was suddenly too much to bear.
“They are all gone now,” I told him. “Make the last years of your reign your own.” He said nothing. I left him there, the king with the sad eyes and the wispy hair, and did not look back.
Would I seek vengeance? The king himself was blameless. Merlin was already gone. The Lady of the Lake was just a go-between. And the smiths of Avalon? – I would be happy never to set eyes on them again. It wasn’t vengeance I sought, it was freedom.
I couldn’t leave the cathedral the way I’d come. Every guard in the city would be waiting for me. So instead I found a little postern-door, and for the first time in so long, I changed, and spread my wings, and flew.
Text copyright © 2021 by the author. Illustration by Pixabay, used under license.
About the Author: Callie Cameron (Instagram) is a Scottish writer living in Zurich, Switzerland. Her work has appeared in Three Line Poetry and Lucid Dreaming Experience, and is forthcoming in Silver Blade.