Author: After the Rain
Length: Approx. 2,500 words
Summary: Sir Cadogan tells a group of first-year boys the story of King Arthur.
Author's Notes: I had a hard time deciding which story I wanted to post for the challengs, but I've always had a soft spot for this one, and I think it remains more or less canon-compatible in the wake of HBP. Much credit is due to Sir Thomas Malory, a knight prisoner, may his soul have good deliverance.
I have been a portrait in Hogwarts Castle ever since my own time, the time of King Arthur, and over the years I have seen many a young squire and damsel come and go. They were fair, and merry, and wise in their day; but for the most part they have all come to dust and shadow now, and their names are not remembered save by God. Yet I remember one small band of squires in particular, for they were as fair a fellowship as any I have seen. Bright and quick to laugh they were, and curious, with a taste for exploration that led them to my corner of the castle when they were only eleven. And they looked upon one another with the shared faith and friendship that made me think of the knightly company that was once my own.
These squires were favorites of mine, although I never liked one of them so well as the others. When I have told you of them all in turn, you shall hear which one he was and the reason why.
The smallest of them came first, the fair-haired one with a round face, on a day when his friends had gone off somewhere and left him to wander about the castle alone. He sat down on the landing of my stairway and asked me to tell him a tale to while away the time until they returned, for this child was a dreamer and a weaver of stories.
And I told him of Sir Kay the Seneschal, he who watched his foster brother Arthur grow taller and braver than himself, year by year, and at last stood by as the nobles hailed young Arthur king of all England. His heart ached with secret jealousy then, and he had a mocking tongue that often landed him in trouble with other knights; yet for all that, he loved the brother he served and in the end he proved as true a knight as any in the land.
Young as he was, the fair-haired squire knew how envy and admiration sometimes twine together until one can scarcely be separated from the other. He listened with wide eyes and open mouth until the coming of one of his friends, the slightly built one with light brown hair.
“Oh, there you are, I’ve been looking all over for you. What in the world are you doing?”
“Listening to Sir Cadogan,” said the first young squire. “He knows a lot of stories, you see.”
The second young squire sat beside the first. He was a tucked-in sort of child, one who curled up rather than sprawled, and though it was early in the day, he seemed relieved to settle down as if his limbs were tired. He, too, heard my tale in silence, for this one was a listener and a thinker, careful to consider all sides of a question.
And I told the tale of Sir Percival son of King Pellinore, who grew up at the edge of a forest with only the birds and the deer for companions. And at last he met two wandering knights one day and left his mother grieving sorely, for though he loved her well he yearned for the friendship of other young folk above all. And afterward he traveled to the Holy Land in quest of the Grail and saw wondrous sights.
And the brown-haired squire cupped his chin in his hands and leaned forward, for loneliness was something he understood. They sat in quiet companionship until another of their friends joined them on the stairway.
This third squire was a well-favored dark-haired child, the only one of their fellowship who was tall for his age, and he moved with an easy grace. And he was quick and sharp of tongue.
“How come you’re listening to that nutter?” he asked.
“Sir Cadogan isn’t a nutter,” said the brown-haired squire reprovingly. “He’s just ... moderately eccentric, is all.”
“Exactly. That’s what normal people call being a nutter.”
The fair-haired child stuck his tongue out at him, and the brown-haired one looked him over coolly and said, “Define ‘normal people.’”
“People who aren’t named Remus I-Won’t-Tell-You-What-The-J-Stands-For Lupin.”
“He told me,” said the fair-haired squire, “and it’s boring.” The dark-haired boy ignored him.
Squire Remus, meanwhile, thought things over and smirked. “And Sir Cadogan is not named Remus I-Won’t-Tell-You-What-The-J-Stands-For Lupin. Therefore, by your own definition and the rules of logic, he cannot be a nutter. So there.”
The dark-haired boy smacked him, but he sat down beside the other two all the same. He stretched out his long limbs and I saw at once that I would have to weave a swift-moving tale to keep his attention, for this third squire was a child of action, bold and eager.
So I told him the story of Sir Gareth of Orkney, the child of a family steeped in blood and vengeance, and yet he was a virtuous knight who hated the sins of his kindred and clove instead to noble Sir Lancelot as though he were his own born brother. He came to the court alone and friendless, refusing help from his brothers, but his valor and courtesy soon won him admiration for his own sake; and he slew many giants.
As I spoke, a look of recognition and sympathy crept over the tall squire’s face, and I saw that I had chosen my tale well. He knew the bitterness of family feeling gone wrong, this one, and he had great pride in his heart.
They huddled on the stairway and listened, three small heads bent close together and lost in dreams of a kingdom long vanished, until they caught sight of the fourth squire, the one with dark untidy hair and glasses. The others looked up at him when he came and ceased to listen to my tale, so I fell silent and began another. For this one was a leader, and only one story would do for him.
I told him of Arthur, the young prince born into a kingdom torn by civil wars and fostered without knowledge of his birthright. He pulled the enchanted sword out of the stone and became king of all Britain, and he fought a long war against five rebellious kings and brought peace and prosperity to the land, and afterward he married Queen Guinevere. But the great love of this king’s life was not his queen, but his circle of noble knights, and at the end of his days he was sorrier for their loss than her faithlessness.
The fourth squire listened, but not so eagerly as the others, and his attention soon began to wander. There was little I could say to hold it, for he knew nothing of growing up neglected and overlooked, nor of fighting against great odds, nor of fearing to lose the one thing he loved most. He was brilliant, and beloved, and well-favored, and at eleven he had the air of command. Life had been generous with him.
It was this boy, Squire James, whom I did not like as well as his friends. The favorites of fortune are never the favorites of storytellers.
But my words had touched the hearts of the other three, and after that they were knights. Squire James grew restless and tried to persuade his friends to play at something else, but for the first time, and perhaps for the last, he did not carry the day.
The tall squire fashioned a sword from a broken broomstick and practiced the moves of jousting and tilting, and the brown-haired one studied the language of chivalry and learned to say “prithee” and “gramercy” instead of “please” and “thank you” (for he was a well-mannered child), and the small fair boy, who liked to play a part and had a gift for comedy, became a succession of dwarves and court fools and hapless peasants, until the others nearly fell off the staircase laughing.
This last one was more faithful than the others – for children, as a rule, are fickle. As the weeks and months went by, the two dark-haired boys began to seek out newer games, and the brown-haired one sometimes disappeared for days at a time and came back looking as if he had fought some hard and secret battle, but this small one came every day. And he listened to me with the hunger of one who needs stories to live, one who must always have a brave and merry tale on his lips, no matter whether it be false or true.
And so I came to care more for Squire Peter than for his friends. I say not that he was the best of them, only that I loved him best.
* * *
He who tells the story of the coming of Arthur must also tell the story of his passing, as surely as night must follow day and the blossoms of spring must give way to the withered grass of autumn. The two are linked, one to the other. It was in the glorious month of May, when every heart flourishes and burgeons, and men and women rejoice and are glad of summer coming with its fresh flowers, when that great strife began which did not end until the flower of chivalry of all the world was destroyed and slain.
But I lie; it began much earlier than that. The coming together of that knightly fellowship held the seeds of its ruin.
“Hark, my young lords, and I shall tell you a tale of fate and destruction,” I began. “The story ends with the kingdom’s last days, but it begins with the very first great adventure of the Round Table. This is the story of Balin, the Knight with the Two Swords, and his brother Balan, whom he loved best of any man in the world.”
The small fair-haired boy elbowed the brown-haired one. “Like us. Brothers.” And they edged together, as it was their custom to do, for these two were closer than their other friends.
“You look not alike,” I said.
“We adopted each other,” explained the fair-haired squire.
“We’re both only children,” said the other, “and we’re not from old pureblood families like they are, so we made up a family crest – ”
“The Not-So-Ancient and Most Ignoble House of Lupin and Pettigrew – ”
“Toujours Poor,” added the brown-haired child.
“That’s. Not. Funny,” said the tall, dark boy, and they caught each other’s eyes and laughed. But I thought the brown-haired boy laughed more easily and wore his patched robes with less discontent than his friend.
The four squires grew quiet as I continued my tale. I told them how Balin and Balan slew each other in the darkness, and each recognized his brother with his dying breath. Their fate shadowed the glory days of the kingdom and echoed on the Day of Destiny when none were spared. Every knight of the Round Table was to learn that the hardest battle follows when kin and friends do battle against each other, and the bitterest knowledge is the knowledge that comes too late.
“It was Mordred’s fault,” said the tall black-haired boy when I had finished. “He was Arthur’s own son and he betrayed his father. Arthur should have killed him when he had the chance, and the kingdom wouldn’t have fallen.”
The brown-haired squire considered this and shook his head. “It’s more complicated,” he said. “Mordred couldn’t have done it if people hadn’t followed him. Even before Mordred, there were factions dividing the Round Table. Sir Cadogan said many people were glad to see the knights fighting among themselves.”
“Exactly,” I said. “It is not so easy to say, this was all the fault of Mordred the traitor, nor yet of Agravaine the slanderer, or of Gawaine the hot-headed, or of Lancelot and Guinevere the adulterers, or of Gaheris and Gareth who were slain because they went unarmed, or of Morgan the Dark sorceress, or of Morgause the seductress, or of the feuding families of Orkney and Pellinore, or of King Arthur himself, or of the unknown knight who drew his sword to slay an adder and touched off the final bloodbath. There is plenty of blame to go around, and much of it falls upon men and women who were not so very evil.”
The squire with the untidy hair had no patience for shades of grey. “But Mordred was evil, and without him none of the other bad things would have happened.”
“But –” said the fair-haired squire, and immediately fell silent, for he was shy of speech and always a little afraid to disagree with the others.
“Go on,” said his brother-by-adoption encouragingly. “What is it, Peter?”
“I think Arthur made Mordred what he was – and not just because he was his father. If Arthur hadn’t tried to kill him when he was a baby, and if he hadn’t been brought up away from the court, maybe he wouldn’t have turned out evil at all.”
“You understand well,” I said. I turned to Squire James. “Even if you would blame it all on Mordred, you must remember that Mordred was the child of King Arthur’s own sin and shame, and shame twists many a branch that might have grown straight.”
Squire James rolled his eyes. “You call that an excuse? He was an evil, treacherous coward, and who cares how he got that way? I’m bored, let’s practice Quidditch” He got to his feet and ran down the stairway without looking back.
But his three friends who remained on the landing bowed their heads and seemed to understand, for each, in his own way, had tasted the corrosive power of shame.
And I wondered which of the three would be the betrayer this time.