2. The Sword And The Crown
Camelot changed rapidly over the next few days. The plants were all removed and their place was taken by people. People from the west, people from the east, people from different castles, people from other villages, vagabonds and craftsmen, merchants and quacks and a lot of accidental people with no apparent reason to be there at all. Lot's threat had not been taken lightly, so groups of soldiers were arriving frequently and the smithies produced all sorts of weapons. From early dawn till after dusk, the Courtyard was buzzing with activity.
Radja had become acquainted with Queen Igraine, who demonstrated a genuine concern to establish a proper hospital wing. Not only was there the anticipation of battle but her husband, the late King Uther, had been poisoned, she told Radja, and she would not let anything like that happen again.
"Which is why I would like you to be here day and night, dear. And when you have to leave, make sure that a capable doctor has taken your place until you return."
"Of course, my lady."
After the common doctor had kindly been informed of the basic courtesies, she had begun to develop a liking for the Queen with the sad eyes and long grey hair. Despite her losing two husbands along with being denied the childhood of her only son, she displayed a general kindness to all persons equally. Moreover, she did not ask Radja many questions about her past, for which the doctor was inexpressibly grateful. Life at Camelot was focused on the future.
Along with the people, her first patients arrived. A boy with chicken-pox, a barefooted crone with bleeding blisters, a cook who had accidently cut off his own fingertips – she treated them all, but for the fevered priest there were no medicines and for the leper her help came too late. Both were buried outside the castle walls, next to Arthur's foster mother. On the third morning, Radja walked once more among the Courtyard hoping to find a merchant who could sell her some herbs. So far, her efforts to acquire new medicines had been futile and the eccentric plants that grew around the castle had left her no wiser than before. Today, not much new folk had arrived yet, but before long the large wooden gates opened with the deafening creaking sound that had already become familiar. Instead of the usual mob, however, there was but one rider who announced to all who would hear, "Someone's trying to pull the sword of Mars!"
At once, the Courtyard broke out in excited muttering but Radja was quite at a loss. She addressed the man closest to her, who was filleting a large amount of trout.
"What's going on?"
"The sword of Mars, woman! Now don't tell me y'don't know the stories – the Legend of the Sword of Mars? No?"
"I was told he carried a spear."
"No no no, woman, the sword! The sword of Mars!" In his enthusiasm he almost pierced his fish with his knife, instead of using it to remove the frame. "I take y'do know the Autumn Falls, eh?"
She did. The waterfall was one of the highest in the area and was known to overflow the rivers several times a year during the late autumn. Yet there were no near villages and the few times Radja had passed, she had been hastening on with bowed head, wishing only for a dry place to stay and a bit of food.
"Y'must've seen the sword, then. No? Never looked up? It's a mighty great sword, woman, I can't believe you've missed it!" the fishmonger prattled on. "It's stuck up there on top of the highest rock of the Falls for who-knows-how-long. Mars himself put it there, as a sort of... challenge, see? As long as that sword's there, he says, the kingdoms of Britain'll be at war. He's the god of war, so for sure he must like war, see? Why, it's been true as long as I've lived and as long as me old man lived too, for it's him as told me this story and he must've had it from his father again, I wager... But this is the point," he grinned and hacked of the head of another trout, "the man who climbs them rocks, defies the tons of water crashing down on his head," he cut open the trout from head to tail, "and pulls the sword from that stone... Why, he will be the king to unite all of Britain!" He finished the trout and dropped it on the heap along with the others before starting on a new one. Radja had been listening rather sceptically to his tale but then something dawned upon her.
"The king to unite all of Britain?" she repeated.
"Why, yes, I was just saying so, woman!"
"Fool!" she cursed.
"What – you asked me to tell this story, woman!" the fishmonger said indignantly, slamming down the trout that happened to be in his hand.
"No, not you! I mean Merlin..."
"Hey there, that's our very sorcerer you're talking about! Wait, why –"
Hurrying off, Radja had half a mind to ride down to the Autumn Falls herself to be there should anything go wrong, when she heard somebody call her name at the entrance to the Great Hall. It was Queen Igraine, who looked concerned to the point of fear.
"I've been looking for you, Radja," she panted desperately.
"It's Arthur, isn't it?"
"He's gone to the Autumn Falls to pull the sword of Mars..." Igraine was almost crying.
"I already thought it sounded just like one of those adventures Merlin likes to plunge Arthur in," Radja said with a wry smile. "What would you have me do? I could go there..."
"No," the queen said resolutely, "I want you to stay here. I'll go there, I'll take... Leontes, yes, I'll take Leontes with me and you stay here and prepare for when we return. Prepare for the worst, dear. Prepare for the worst..."
Radja sought for something comforting to say. "Arthur is sure to come right. He's a strong boy."
Tears glistened in Igraine's eyes. "Everyone who has tried it before, died," she whispered. Then she turned and left Radja on her own.
So anticipating the worst, like Queen Igraine had urged her, Radja set aside one bed and began arranging everything she could think of that might help Arthur after a fall from a steep cliff, but before noon new patients had come in again, so she was kept busy till sunset. When she visited the Courtyard again, she found it almost empty – everyone had gone to watch their new king die, a guard told her. She found the castle deserted too, with a chill creeping through the corridors like the silence before a storm. Yet the hours past and nothing happened. Ultimately, Radja sat down on a chair and resolved to keep up the fire while fighting the sleep.
She was awakened by a shadow rushing through the door. The fire had ceased to a faint smoldering and the hospital wing was covered in grey and blue tones. Outside Radja could hear shambling feet and hushed voices. Through a haze of sleep, she saw a silhouette approaching her and making a grab for her arms. In a reflex Radja yanked herself free and stumbled backwards, but then Queen Igraine's voice began to whisper in a torrent of words about Arthur, who had got hold of the sword but made a fall from the top of the rocks into the lake below, from which he had been rescued by Leontes and that he was alive but unconscious and she had to come as fast as she could to the king's chambers because that was where he was right now...
"Why his chambers?" Radja whispered. "Why didn't they bring him to me?"
"Merlin's orders," the queen answered, pulling the doctor along.
"There she is..." she heard Merlin mutter as she dashed into Arthur's bedroom. The faces of Kay and Arthur's foster father Ector lit up in relief but Radja was oblivious to this and went to Merlin instead of Arthur. "Why did you –" she began, but he lifted his hands and cut her short.
"I brought him here because I don't want all the world and his wife to come and take a peek at their wounded king. I don't care whether you agree; all I want you to do now is prove you're a capable doctor and save your king's life."
Radja's mouth opened and closed a few times as she considered the threat within his words but then she wordlessly spun around and bent over Arthur. The future king looked small and very pale against the wine-coloured bloodstains on his face and clothes. His left arm was broken and had already been put in splints. Radja found his breathing to be shallow and nearly inaudible but there were no signs of fever and his reflexes still functioned. Arthur would have to wake up in order to make out any further complications but that would only happen once his body was strong enough to cope, so Radja went back to the hospital wing and brew a basic medicine that enhanced dreamless sleep and restored strength.
It was well past midnight when Radja had finished the concoction and given it to Arthur. Then they decided to take turns in waking over him so all could get some sleep. Radja found herself unable to rest and wandered aimlessly through the night until it was time for her watch. When she entered Arthur's chamber, she found Queen Igraine having an argument with Merlin.
"Do something... You have powers! Fix this!" the queen said in an urgent whisper.
The sorcerer shook his head. "No."
"Then what use are you?" the queen sobbed and exited the room without awaiting an answer.
Merlin did not move from the windowsill as Radja quietly seated herself next to Arthur's bed. She checked his condition but he was no worse, which was something. A long silence followed.
He was staring out of the window and did not even blink.
"You risked everything. You could have lost everything."
He turned his head and looked at her. "Of course. Otherwise there could be no gain."
"This is not a game in which you can win a price! You are dicing with death."
"Doctor..." Merlin said slightly annoyed, "Arthur would have been as worthless as any handsome farmboy had he not proven himself today. He holds all the elements of excellence inside but demonstrating that to the world can only be done by taking tremendous risk."
"You've been preparing this since the day he was born. Had he failed, you'd have to start all over again!"
"I trusted my instinct."
"But you couldn't know!"
"Can we ever? I know what I'm doing, doctor. I know which horses to back. Arthur is the right king. Leontes is the very example of knighthood. Camelot is the proper place to revive the legends… It's like a puzzle."
Radja refused to see it that way. "It's not a game."
He looked away and they submerged themselves in silence again. Radja presumed this night was serving as the test that decreed if she fitted his puzzle, too. She also knew perfectly well who would get the blame, should Arthur die. Not the mother, who bore him but did not raise him. Not the mighty sorcerer, who invented this entire exploit. Not the brave knight, who plunged himself into the water too late. Not the people, who called for a hero king. Not the king himself, for being so stupid. But the doctor, who was not supposed to be involved at all.
A couple of hours before sunrise Merlin said, "You should rest. I'll watch him till dawn."
"Don't bother, I won't be able to sleep anyway."
Merlin eyed her inquisitively.
"I don't... I don't sleep easily when patients are in such a state as he is."
"For fear of losing them?"
This time Radja looked away.
"Did you –"
"You've not closed an eye yet either, have you?" she interrupted before he could continue his interrogation. Merlin did not fail to notice her ruse and they peered at each other tensely until Arthur started coughing violently and Radja jumped up to help him. When he had calmed down, she suddenly remembered the artefact Arthur had set out to capture.
"That sword of yours –"
"Not mine," Merlin murmured grumpily. "It used to be the sword of Mars... and now it's Arthur's."
"Don't be silly, I know it's your sword. Mars carried a spear."
He smirked and finally gave up. "Fine. Call me a fool if you want to..."
"I will," she said.
To be continued...
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