The Otherworldly King by Felipe Pan

Glamorgan, c. 530 A.D.

Gildas stared intently at the piece of parchment lying on his candle-lit table and sighed.

Every other pupil had already retired to their dormitories, leaving the dark corridors of the monastery of Cor Tewdws eerily silent. The smell of clay and timber assaulting his nostrils was a sign that food hardly ever found its way into his room, just as the absence of any bed-resembling object also served to remark the life of austerity the monk had chosen for himself.

Head tilted down, Gildas said a little prayer before dipping his quill in the cup of black ink kept by his side. A series of words then began to scar the parchment at once, soon to be endowed with the grace of meaning. Anon, the monk’s right hand danced perfectly to the rhythm of his rhetoric, names flickering in his mind much like the small flame burning close to his face.

The history of Britannia contained far too many villains for his own taste, he knew. As such, Gildas would have to be selective with the material at his disposal. The departure of the Romans from the island naturally deserved more than a few lines of his time, but he also felt it was his duty to condemn King Vortigern for the barbaric invasion of the last decades – just as he felt it was his duty to describe the harrowing fate of his brother Hueil at the hands of the warlord celebrated almost everywhere on the island.

Doubtlessly, that piece of parchment could be said to be the greatest work Gildas had ever set upon himself to accomplish – and he was determined to pour his heart and soul onto every word he was summoning, of course. That is before there was an unexpected knock on his door.

‘Gildasius? Are you there?’

The deep voice coming from the other side of the chamber didn’t belong to any of the other monks at Cor Tewdws. Gildas set his quill aside and ambled hesitantly towards the door, opening it a fraction. The narrow gap was enough for him to see part of the old face staring at him.

‘My good man, Gildasius! What a sight for these sore eyes,’ said the elderly-looking man with a bow of his head. His wrinkled face sheltered a pair of bright blue eyes that glared childishly at Gildas under his torchlight.

‘Yes?’,  tried the monk politely. ‘How can I be of service?’

‘In many ways, my friend. In many ways,’ the stranger replied, nodding his head. There was a scent of mint coming from his dry lips, and Gildas could not help but notice how remarkably white his teeth were, especially amidst the grey beard that coated his jaw. ‘Would you be so kind as to take an old man in for a moment? I promise this shall not take very long.’

Gildas frowned as he scratched his face. His skin had been itchy for weeks now, given the number of fleas residing in the battered hair-shirt he wore under his cloak. Only then, surrendering to the hospitable behaviour so often preached by his late master Illtyd, did the monk slowly make way for the stranger to enter.

Gildas glared fixedly at Myrddin, unsure of what to say next. His lips meant to move, but the words failed him.

‘Lovely tonsure, I must say,’ praised the old man. ‘If anything, I quite enjoy how it provides you all with a sense of unity.’

Gildas tutted and shut the door behind them. The old man lifted the strap of his calfskin satchel and placed the object carefully on the floor. He then busied himself by looking for a place to hang his torch.

‘Forgive me, but I don’t believe we have met before,’ muttered Gildas, taking the torch from the old man’s hands.

‘Oh dear. You do not recognise me, do you? I should have known better, I should. You were but a child when I visited this place for the first time,’ said the man. ‘I heard word of what happened to master Illtyd, bless his soul. You should know I held him in very high regard, and shall be forever thankful for his friendship. Have you kept in touch with Samson and Paol by any chance?’

Gildas frowned in confusion, taken aback by how swiftly the stranger seemed to ride through the lanes of his past. ‘Wh-Who are you?’

‘I have had many names, you see. And shall have many others, I suspect,’ started the elder. ‘I was born Emrys Wledig, but your mentor might have referred to me as Emrys Myrddin. Or simply Myrddin.’

The old man took a few steps through the shabby chamber, aiming at the stool lying opposite to him. There were a few snaps as Myrddin bent his knees before sitting.

‘These are difficult times we live in, Gildasius. I am glad to see a pious man such as yourself refuse the luxury that has followed the spread of the word in the continent,’ said Myrddin, staring at Gildas once again. ‘But that is not why I find myself here tonight. Oh no, not at all. The future of Britannia may very well rest in our hands as of this moment.’

Gildas glared fixedly at Myrddin, unsure of what to say next. His lips meant to move, but the words failed him.

‘Hand me that manuscript of yours, will you?’ asked Myrddin. Gildas hesitated for more than just a moment, bidding the old man’s request with a look of discomfort on his face. ‘De Excidio et Conquestu Britanniae ac flebi castigatione in reges, principes, et sacradotes. A bit too lengthy, if you ask me.’

‘I have just only started it, in actuality,’ harrumphed Gildas in response. The monk could feel his face blush brighter with every exchange.

‘Then I am glad I was not too late,’ rejoiced Myrddin, returning the parchment over to Gildas. ‘My dear friend, there is something I must ask of you tonight. And it deeply concerns that manuscript of yours.’

Gildas took a few steps back, his expression turned sour. ‘I take it you are here to censor my work then, are you not? Who was it that sent you?’

‘Hush now, Gildasius. There is no need to get uneasy, my friend,’ retorted Myrddin calmly. ‘I am here because of your manuscript indeed, but it is not in the affairs of the clergy that I have any interest whatsoever. Nor in your sermons about the sins of the noblemen who have reigned over this land. I fear my interest lies somewhere else. Somewhere else entirely.’

‘What do you want from me?’


Gildas’s scowl could be easily read. ‘The Great Warlord was killed in battle years ago, along with every man of his kin.’

‘But you see, it is not in such Arthur that my interest resides,’ revealed Myrddin, just before a sudden burst of cough cut him short. ‘I happen to be more concerned with a different Arthur, whose fate is what joins us tonight.’

Gildas’s grimace changed into a look of doubt. He motioned to say something, but the old man promptly resumed speaking.

‘I am what some folks would call a druid, Gildasius. A magus coming from a distant land,’ said Myrddin, his amiable semblance transformed into a stern frown. ‘I have spent the last forty years in Britannia tending to the legacy of my lord, Arthur mab Uther, soon to be Penndragon. I have managed to cater for him by means of the arts at my disposal, but I fear my abilities might not be enough to accomplish the task I have at hand. Therefore I plead for your help.’

‘Speak of the man and he will never be anything more than just a man. A myth, however, is not confined to the mortal laws of the flesh, nor the space or time attributed to it. Once left to the whims of the human imagination, he shall become something far greater. A symbol strengthened by the passing of time.’

Gildas stared defiantly at Myrddin, crossing his arms in contempt. After all, as far as he knew, druids had always been a deceitful lot – nothing more than heathens whose rituals of blood and fire had little to do with the faith he and his companions so passionately preached.

‘I do not think I can be of help to you,’ retorted Gildas somewhat drily. ‘I have never been trained in the arts of a leech, and prayers do not seem to be the sort of thing your lord is in need for.’

‘It is not in your words that I lay my request, but in your silence,’ replied Myrddin. ‘Your brother’s death has left wounds which shall never fully heal, and I understand you would like to use your manuscript to describe what has come to pass between him and the Great Warlord of Brittons. Nevertheless, it is imperative to the future of this island that the name Arthur remains hidden for a while longer.’

‘I-I am not sure I understand.’

‘Speak of the man and he will never be anything more than just a man. A myth, however, is not confined to the mortal laws of the flesh, nor the space or time attributed to it. Once left to the whims of the human imagination, he shall become something far greater. A symbol strengthened by the passing of time.’

As Myrddin well expected, Gildas found no difficulty in understanding his words. Had not the monk himself chosen to tread on such devotion? Had not Gildas chosen to believe in a story, never having seen the man?

‘I stand before you tonight to ask for your omission, and nothing more,’ continued Myrddin, drawing a heavy sigh. ‘I believe the preservation of my lord and sovereign’s name in this world is the only way to kindle this island’s eternal beacon of hope. Now tell me, Gildasius, would you be willing to do that? Would you be willing to seal the Great Warlord’s fate with your silence?’

‘The man I once knew, whom some call Arthur, was a born leader and a fearsome warrior,’ explained Gildas, choosing his words with utmost care. Somehow, he felt that denying the fantastic nature of Myrddin’s words would place him in a delicate position in regards to his own faith. ‘My brother was too naïve to think the Great Warlord owed him tribute, and he was the one to pay in the end. Still, I cannot sympathise with a man who deprived me of my own kin. Is that what you want me to do? Erase his sins through anonymity?’

‘I want this Great Warlord of yours to be replaced, yes,’ replied Myrddin. ‘His real existence shall be forgotten, so that the name can gain a new identity. When the time is right, it shall resurface, and serve as a different symbol. The image of a once and future king, the one who will inspire Britannia come the darkest nights. And come they shall, Gildasius. Make no mistake.’

Gildas sighed as he scratched his forehead. ‘Wh-Why are you doing this? Why would you leave the fate of a name in my hands when I barely know you?’

‘You carry the gift of the word in an age when words are all that we have. There is no one else to whom I would rather make such a request, and I shall act according to your wise decision,’ Myrddin said calmly, slowly rising from his seat. ‘I believe my role here is thus finished. The days of Aneirin and Taliesin still wait for me, and I fear my skills as a poet are in dire need of improvement. I can only hope your actions will be guided not by the faith expected of you, but by the faith you carry deep in your heart.’

Gildas remained silent as the druid reached for his satchel and strapped it around his chest. With a final, gentle glance at the monk, Myrddin took his torch back and walked towards the door. Gildas did not protest against Myrddin’s departure, but could not coax himself into asking the old man to stay either.

‘Just tell me one thing, Myrddin,’ Gildas said abruptly, just as the druid was halfway through the door. ‘Will it be worth it? Preserving your story instead of exposing mine?’

‘There is a pair of curious eyes set on us right now, and they certainly seem to think so,’ said the druid, smiling tenderly at the monk.

He then walked into the corridor of the monastery and waved his hand, confident that his words had had the effect he desired. Myrddin had finally taken his first step, and the druid knew he would have to prepare himself even better if he were to carry on with his bold mission – the mission of creating the most notorious hero Britannia would ever see.

More to come? We shall see…

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