The birth of a legend is a peculiar thing. There’s a reason, you see, why folks like you or me cannot put a date to something like the Fall of Camelot. If you follow this passage you will see that there is sufficient evidence that Father Time conjured the Great Forgetting in order to untangle the threads Arthur and the others wove into history. When the Forgetting ended, the threads strong enough to be remembered wove themselves into tapestry, and the legend was born.
But in the meantime, the folk who lived during the Great Forgetting walked amidst the geography of dreams.
* * *
Gyneth had not been sleeping well. Though she could not remember a night when she had. Her small little house had no fireplace, for Roland had forgotten to build one. The nights were cold and her covers were thin and scratchy; and Roland snored like a crumbling mountain, which didn’t help.
But that was not why she couldn’t sleep lately. She would wake in the night, and a thought would wedge its way into the forefront of her mind, which led to more questions, which lead to less sleep.
Why did Roland forget to build a fireplace? Was there ever a fireplace? She thought there was, once, but the memory was faded like dying embers. What was it like when they had a fireplace? Did they have children? Or was Roland her brother—if so, did they have parents? Surely everyone must have parents! But what if Roland was only a friend? Were there other friends? Were they orphans? Or was it always just the two of them?
Tonight, her questions led her to the embers of her memory of someplace called Camelot. But that Kingdom was long gone—though she wondered if Roland hadn’t left the fireplace in Camelot—but that couldn’t be. Camelot had fallen centuries ago. Or was it weeks? Days? Gyneth’s head hurt.
Already her recollections were veiling themselves. Memories, she decided, were like dreams in the seconds after waking.
A week ago, perhaps longer, Gyneth and Roland had left their village behind in search of the fireplace. “I don’t want to be cold anymore,” Gyneth had said.
“But there are others with fires to spare.”
“I want my fireplace,” Gyneth had said. “Not theirs.”
Roland reminded her of all the stories of shamble-men. “They’re out there,” he said. “There are more of them than us. They’ll trap us and kill us.”
“Don’t you want to be warm? We can’t always expect others to lend us a fire. We must find one ourselves. Don’t you want to know what happened to our fireplace?” Gyneth snapped.
“Well, yes, but—”
“Good,” she interrupted, striding toward the timbered gates of their village. “Then let’s go!” She hobbled along, old bones squealing inwardly like rusted metal.
* * *
The next morning, she awoke in a field atop a hill. The morning mist shrouded the horizon. Sometime in the night Roland had blanketed her with his cloak. She held it close, feeling safe. It smelled like him—like freshly cut timber.
Roland himself awoke as the first notes of birdsong entered the air. “Sleep well?” He asked Gyneth as he stood. He offered Gyneth his hand and helped her up.
She fastened his cloak about his shoulders. “Wonderfully,” she answered, grinning. “Let’s go find that fire.”
They set off, wreathed by mist, into the countryside.
* * *
The fog had come after Camelot fell, somewhen ago. A thick, moist blanket covering all of Briton. But it seemed to veil more than just the eyes along the countryside.
Sometimes in her village, Gyneth would remember a name or a face in her mind’s eye, yet when she spoke of the person to Roland or anyone else, they didn’t quite remember her. It would only be after a long conversation that the fragments of what memories they still had left to them would fit together, and they’d recall the person had been eaten or carried off by shamble-men.
She wondered if the shamble-men were not responsible for the abduction of the fireplace—or her memories of it, at least.
* * *
“Are there shamble-men hereabouts?” Gyneth asked. Her own question had stoked the dying embers of her recollection of such creatures: a nasty, jumbled patch of flesh and stone that would come stumbling into their village in search of people to eat.
Or had that just been a story?
“I’m not sure,” Roland said, squinting through the thick mist. “The shamble-men have to come from somewhere.” Roland tripped, stumbled, and then regained his balance.
“What was that?” Gyneth snatched up his hand. I won’t lose him in the fog, she thought. I won’t forget him.
“Nothing,” Roland said. “Just a tree root is all.”
Gyneth glanced back, squinting. “It looks like a bone.” She knelt to tug at it, but it was wedged firmly in the ground. “I don’t see any trees,” she said. Her knuckles whitened around Roland’s hand.
“Roots can stretch far enough,” Roland said. “Come, we should keep going forward.”
“Where?” For a moment, she’d forgotten, and then a chill wind blustered her cloak and she remembered the fireplace. “Ah, yes,” she said. “Let’s go.”
* * *
“What’s that out there?” Roland asked. His red-brown fingers closed on his small, half-moon shaped axe. Gyneth had forgotten he’d brought that. She huddled close to him. He smells of timber, she thought.
“Do you see them?” Roland pointed and she followed his finger. The fog was thin enough to see two figures squared against each other.
Both of them had their swords drawn.
The one on the left seemed almost nonchalant as he came towards his opponent. The other one, large, had his sword angled at the other, gripped in both hands levelled just over his shoulder.
He charged forward, sword high, but his opponent sidestepped the thrust-down and drew his sword across his foe’s belly. The movement was simple, though awkward. It got the job done well enough. The fallen foe made a wet noise and spattered to the ground. Something spilled out of him and he landed in it.
Then the victor turned his attention to them. He limped forward to close the gap between himself and the other two.
“He’s shambling,” Gyneth said, “He’s a troll! A shamble-man!”
Roland hefted his axe.
“Travelers,” the stranger cried as he cut through the fog. Gyneth saw he was missing his right arm. “What is your business here?” When he had bridged the gap between them she noted his pallor. She had heard of men with skin dark like that before. She couldn’t quite remember where they were from. She knew that one of them was named Nubia.
“We seek a fire,” Gyneth said. Without looking away from the man, she put her hand over Roland’s and lowered his axe.
The stranger laughed. “There are many fires to be found. Do you have flint? Kindling?”
Gyneth corrected herself. “We seek a fireplace. A specific one.”
The man sheathed his sword, seeming more at ease now. “Where is this fireplace, may I ask?”
“Forward,” Roland said. “We’ll know it when we see it. And what about you? What’s your business here?”
The man sighed, seeming to deflate. “Long ago—I think it was long ago—I served a King. A good and just King. But I’d turned to some sort of folly. Because of me that King is dead, and now I’ve turned to errantry.”
“What’s your name?” Gyneth asked.
“Lancelot,” said the one-armed man, and then: “Do you need a guide?”
* * *
Gyneth, Roland and Lancelot rested that night on the precipice of the forest. The only sound was the crickets chirping. They each huddled inside their cloaks.
“Who was it you killed?” Roland asked Lancelot.
“A shamble-man,” Lancelot said.
Gyneth broke in, saying, “He didn’t look very shambly to me.”
“That’s because they only walk like that when they’re hungry, my Lady,” Lancelot said. “And most times folk only chance upon them when they stumble their way into a village.”
A howl noised in the distance. Gyneth thought she recognized the noise well enough—but did not remember the name of the creature that belonged to it. Her heartbeat quickened and she thought she heard scuttling feet—or was that just the leaves? Shattered shards of memory tugged her mind this way and that until—
“Wolves,” Roland said, hefting his axe. But Lancelot caught the haft a second later and eased him back down. “There are no wolves hereabout,” Lancelot said. “Leastways the ones on four legs.”
“Are there wolves on two?”
“Only those that come on silken banners carried by men shelled in steel.”
“But you said there were wolves on two legs.”
“I don’t remember…”
Gyneth squinted through the fog at the one-armed Nubian. “Can a man be a wolf, Lancelot?” The thought—or perhaps the cold—made her shudder.
Lancelot nodded gravely. “In a sense, aye my Lady.”
“What was that howl, then?” Roland asked.
Lancelot tilted his head. He leaned forward, through the thick fog. “What howl?” he asked.
“There—there was a howl…I think. Wasn’t there?”
Gyneth could only bundle in her mind the fraying seams of the incident, but already they were unspooling. The fog grew steadily thicker, so she decided it was best to let the matter go.
* * *
Gyneth had awoken early to a mist thick enough she could scarcely see her hand in front of her face. So she sat there and waited, listening to everything around her. The birds in the distance and small things tramping over twigs.
What was she doing here? Wasn’t there a village? Why was she out here all alone? Slowly, as she began to wake up, the mist seemed to clear, and she remembered Roland, sleeping next to her. She smelled timber and clutched at the cloak he’d draped over her. It smells like him, she thought.
The one-armed Nubian was gone from the camp, though Gyneth hadn’t noticed his absence until his return.
Roland had woken up, climbed to his feet and helped Gyneth to hers. She had wrapped his cloak about his shoulders when Lancelot returned—though she hadn’t remembered his name, at first.
“Where did you go?” Gyneth asked. She couldn’t quite tell if his sword was blood-slicked. But she recognized the scratches on his calves easily enough.
“There were wolves I had to take care of,” he said. “Dress warmly. It is like to be windy today.”
* * *
The wind billowed Gyneth’s cloak. She noticed that it was grass-stained, shards of green reaching up her shoulders. Then a fragmented memory seeped into her mind’s eye. “Roland,” she shouted to be heard over the wind, “Do you remember that emerald cloak you gave me?”
Roland smiled at that, and slowed his pace so that Gyneth could catch up to him. Lancelot forged ahead, undaunted.
“The emerald cloak,” Roland mused, “Was that the one hemmed with rhinestones?”
“Rhinestones?” Gyneth echoed. “I thought they were rubies.”
“Like I could afford rubies,” Roland laughed. “They were rhinestones, I swear. Hemmed into the softest satin.”
“I’m sure it was velvet—I distinctly remember you saying that you wanted it to have at least some practicality.”
“Was it velvet? Now that you mention it, perhaps that is so….”
Lancelot called back, “What happened to this cloak?” His interruption sent Gyneth’s heart abounding. How did he hear us over the wind?
“It was lost,” Roland said. “I think she blamed me for it.”
“Did I? I thought I had torn it on a tree one afternoon in the woods and threw the silly thing out.”
Roland laughed, saying, “That’s what I had tried to tell you. For years you insisted I’d lost it.”
Gyneth wondered if this cloak came before or after the fireplace, but that was a thought for another time. She frowned and hugged her own closer. “I’d quite forgotten that part. It seems such a cruel thing, arguing over cloaks—rhinestone hemmed or not.”
Lancelot glanced over his shoulder. “Some things in this world are more precious than rhinestones.”
“Like rubies?” Roland jested, and all three of them laughed.
“Yes,” Lancelot said, smiling. “Like rubies.”
* * *
The three sat beneath a large oak that night. The wind was dying down and fingers of moonlight brushed their faces. They had a modest meal from the cold rations Lancelot had been carrying, though he’d forgotten about it until that night.
With a mouthful of cold salt beef, Gyneth asked him, “What happened to your other arm?”
Lancelot wiggled the stump such that she could almost imagine him waving. “I…I lost it. What did you think happened to my arm?”
“I think she wants to know how you lost it,” Roland explained.
“Yes, that’s it.”
“Oh, said Lancelot, cheeks coloring red. “Well it’s quite simple, really. I fought with Arthur against his son’s men. One of them caught a gap in my armor–at the shoulder–with a heavy war axe and cleft it straight off. When I awoke, Arthur and his son were dead. Along with most. At least I think most of them were dead. In the midst of that battle, I remember a fog. A strange fog called down by some magician.”
“I’m not sure what a magician is,” Lancelot said. “It just seems like the right word. I’m not sure why. Whatever they were, they summoned a fog on the battle to help Arthur and his men.” He seemed to be talking to himself now, “Yes, that was it. That was when I first saw it. Had I passed out from the wound, truly? Or was it…I’m not sure what else might have happened. I certainly have no memory of anything after that. And yet it might be—might it have been something else?”
“Like what?” Gyneth asked.
“I’m not sure…” Lancelot whispered, staring at nothing in particular. He shook his head. “It will be full dark soon. We should get some rest, friends.”
“Agreed,” Roland said.
Gyneth curled up on the ground, hoping against hope that they might find the fireplace tomorrow.
Sometime in the night, she felt something that felt like heavy wool and smelled like chopped logs draped over her. It smells like Roland, she thought, distantly.