Part 4: Nightmares and Dream-Quests

Chapter 13

It is hot; abominably so.

The sky is an ominous, ugly red, like drying blood; it makes my eyes sting. There are no clouds, no sun; just an empty burning expanse, extending from horizon to horizon.

Beneath my feet is a fine, grey grit, halfway between sand and dust.

I am dressed in a drab robe, thin and shabby. For some reason, there is a blanket over my shoulders; I’ve no idea why this should be, and consider throwing it away immediately – it seems insane to bear a blanket in this blazing land – but perhaps there is some reason for my keeping it, some need I may later find it fulfils.

I look around me; the land is almost as featureless as the sky: a flat, dreary blankness in three quarters, like a duneless desert. In the fourth, the outline of a distant mountain dares to intrude into the sanguineous heavens.

It is still; nothing stirs, nothing moves, there is not even the gentlest of breezes. And nor is there any noise; no sound at all. A grave could not be quieter.

I don’t know what I’m doing here, if there is any purpose to my presence in this torrid place, but with no other option presenting itself, I tie the blanket around my waist and start pacing toward the far-off mountain.

The grit is abrasive, and somehow too solid; I leave no footprints in my passing.

I walk, and I walk, and I walk. The only way to measure my progress is by the slow swelling of the mountain. But, not knowing how far away it is, nor its size, it is difficult to know how long it will take to reach it.

There is no escaping the thick red air, the endless grey ground, and the pervasive, alien heat.

My head aches, my feet are sore, and my mouth is dry.

I hate it here.

I consider giving up, just sitting down and waiting for something else to happen. But I get the impression that nothing has happened here for a very long time. The mountain seems to hold my only hope, and so I drudge on.

The landscape starts to lose its flatness, and I am soon surrounded by mounds that are strangely regular in shape and separation; I navigate my way through the wide, criss-crossing channels that run between them.

The mountain starts to loom. I notice the highest reaches begin to darken, and a gloom is spreading above my head. A freezing gust of wind, like a bucket of ice-water, strikes my back, nearly bowling me over.

I gasp and glance behind me.

Heaving itself up from beyond the horizon is a bloated, black sphere which stains the sky the colour of an old bruise – a livid purplish brown. It sheds dark rays that leach the warmth from anything they touch.

I untie the blanket, wrap it around me, and hurry, stumbling, on, desperate now to reach the mountain, where shelter might be found.

As the darkness consumes everything, an anti-shadow appears before me – a bright patch etched by my body into the air and onto the earth. It helps pull me forward.

I come to the base of the mountain. It is much eroded; the peak rounded, the sides softened. I search about frantically, and count myself blessed when I discover a small cave, little more than a crack in the rocks amidst the mountain’s roots. I crawl inside; although hardly comfortable, it does give relief from the black, frigid fingers of the unholy hell-sun.

I pull the blanket around me to protect me from the now chilly air, and fold my arms into a pillow on which to rest my head. I sleep fitfully. Eventually the gloom recedes, the horrendous heat returns, and, almost regretfully, I exit the cave and start to climb the mountainside.

Although the ascent is not difficult, the going is arduous; I feel drained and wretched. I’ve never been so thirsty. I abandon the blanket; I hope it is no longer needed.

I push myself, clambering, upwards. At last, I arrive at the top; an ashen stony plateau hanging in the red sky. Sitting in the middle of this barren place is a figure, as grey and still as the land itself. A statue, apparently; but it disconcerts me.

With a sense of trepidation, I approach.

It is the figure of a female, sat cross-legged, hands resting, cupped, in her lap. Her eyes are closed. Her grey hair hangs loosely down to her shoulders, blending into the rest of her motionless, monochrome form, which itself is one with the earth. I kneel down before her, gaze into the harsh, yet delicate, lines of her face. There is something familiar about her features, and a name swims some-where beneath the surface of my consciousness.

Not knowing what else to do, and more to satisfy my own wish to break the relentless silence than out of any expectation of an answer, I crack apart my parched lips and ask: “What are you doing on this lonely mountaintop? And why am I here? What’s the point of all this?”

Her eyes suddenly snap open and stare at me with a severe, uncompromising gaze.

Shocked, I scramble backwards.

She speaks, her pitiless vehemence tempered only by a note of utter weariness: “Desist your questions and depart this place! Lost spirits receive no welcome here!”

I wince, cut to the quick by the disdain and lack of sympathy in her voice. I want to retreat, to run away, but force myself to stay, to make a reply; “I am sorry to have disturbed you, and believe me, I would gladly leave if I could – but I don’t know how I came to be here, and don’t know where to go. You see, I am not a spirit, but I am lost.”

Of course you are a spirit, ignorant one, for I am the last being that lives; all else perished an aeon ago.”

I shake my head. “No, that cannot be true. This cannot be real.”

Enough!” she shouts. The word is a thunderclap, knocking me to the floor. I cower, covering my ears. “You dare call me a liar? Deluded ghost, do you not realise that you could have saved this world? It is because of you the land is dead; there is no-one else to blame for this desolation. Now, begone!”

A fierce wind erupts from her body and sweeps me up, hurls me aloft. As I tumble through the air I see, far below me, the area of mounds and channels I had passed through – which, from this height, look like nothing so much as the street-plan of a city: a city worn to dust by the passage of a million merciless years.

I scream.

* * * * * *

The scream was still tearing itself from my throat when I hit my bedroom floor and woke up.

I lay there on the carpet, my duvet tangled around me, panting with relief, while the sheen of sweat that covered my body turned cold and clammy.

What was that about?’ I asked myself.

It was still the middle of the night, so I picked myself up and got back into bed.

I couldn’t fathom what the nightmare signified. Was it a warning, a prophecy, or a reflection of things going on in the depths of my mind? Was that dull, lifeless land an image of my soul? I shuddered at the thought, shuddered again when I considered the possible meaning of that obscene black sun which consumed warmth and light rather than gave them.

There was one thing I was certain of, however; the statue-woman had been Ellie, or a version of Ellie that had been drained of love and kindness, emptied of colour and compassion. It could not be the real Ellie (I was not due to see her again for another three weeks), but was, rather, a twisted version of her created by my own imagination.

I had no idea why it would want to do that.

I was reminded of the first dream – nightmare – I’d had in which Ellie had featured, before she’d appeared to me properly. That had been a warning; it had been telling me not to carry through my murderous, suicidal plan. Was I being warned of something now, and if so, what?

Enough!’ the nightmare Ellie had commanded me. I agreed; it was time to rest. I could leave my investigation until another time.

I rolled over and tried to get back to sleep, but my efforts were in vain and eventually I decided that I might as well get up. The office doors opened at seven-thirty, so I got out of bed at half six to have a wash and prepare myself some sandwiches for lunch, then walk in at a leisurely pace.

It was cold, windy and drizzling outside, which encouraged me to set a brisker pace than I had intended, with the result that I arrived at the office before the doors were open, and I had to huddle in the doorway to hide from the weather. I stood and shivered, watching a ragged plastic bag fluttering and tumbling along the street.

It was only a few minutes wait before I could enter the building, but the cold had nevertheless bit into my flesh, making my nose run and ears burn. I navigated my way to the bathroom with foggy glasses, before heading to my desk.

The lack of sleep and chill made me feel feverish. I drank coffee after coffee to try and keep myself awake and functional, but instead became jittery and on edge. The day passed slowly.

I left the office as soon as I reasonably could. Too tired to face the walk home, I got a bus, which passed by the shops near my house, so when I got off it wasn’t much of a diversion to pop in and pick up a bottle of wine.

I got in and took off my shoes, coat, hat and scarf, before sitting down in front of the telly with the wine. I drank a glass with an unsteady hand, hoping the alcohol would calm my nerves, but instead it just made me feel worse. Too exhausted to worry about food, I decided to have an early night, so I brushed my teeth and stumbled up the stairs to my bedroom.

I sat and regarded Ellie’s shrine. I had neither the energy nor the inclination to light candles and kneel on the floor.

My head drooped, and I muttered to myself in a poor impersonation of a French accent; “Not tonight, Josephine!” I focused on the shrine again, and said. “I’ll make it up to you tomorrow, Ellie – I just need to get to bed, now. I’m so, so tired!”

I dragged myself to my feet and across the room, turned off the light, and shuffled back to the bed, removing and discarding clothes as I went. I collapsed on top of the covers and had a struggle to get underneath them.

“Goodnight, my angel,” I murmured, my eyes already closed. “Goodnight! Parting is such sweet sorrow!”

Despite the torment of the day, I nonetheless went to sleep that night with a smile on my face.

Chapter 14

I find myself standing in a bare room of stone. The air is musty, with a hint of wax and incense. I get the impression that I am in an old place, perhaps a church, although a large, double-glazed window suggests the building is more modern, or has been modified. I approach the glass and see, outside, a small town, where a normal day is underway; people walk about the streets, go in and out of the shops, drive around in their cars.

A heavy shadow stretches over the scene, and I peer up through the glass at a cloud of whirling white.

It is snowing.

Only this it not ordinary snow; I watch in amazement as the first fat flakes float gently past the window and see that they are not what they initially appeared to be. What they are, are notes: five pound notes; ten pound notes; twenty pound notes; fifty pound notes.

A vast fortune drifts down from the heavens to settle on the land below.

The reaction of the townspeople caught in this bizarre blizzard is instantaneous. They leap out of their cars, and stream out of the shops and houses, to collect as much cash as they can. Some reach their arms above their heads to pluck the money from the air, while others fall to their knees to grab armfuls from the ground. Shrieks of joy fill the swirling sky.

The strange snow stops after only a few minutes, but within this time so many notes have fallen that they form a thick layer over everything. People stumble through the streets as though drunk, laughing and kicking the notes up into in the air like leaves.

Just as suddenly as the snow had started, and then stopped, it begins to rain.

Only this is not ordinary rain; it is not raining drops of water, but raining coins. And they do not drift down through the air like snowflakes, but hurtle like bullets shot from the barrels of a billion guns.

The windscreens of all the cars shatter in unison, and the noise of the coins striking the road, the pavement, and the roofs of the buildings, almost manages to drown out the screams of the people who, all caught out in the open, are reduced to a shredded mass of flesh and splintered bone in a matter of moments.

The rain is over even quicker than the snow, leaving a dreadful silence and stillness in its wake. The streets of the town are a mess. The notes still cover everything, but blood is soaking into them, creating a pink, soggy shroud. The cars are wrecked, and many of the buildings have been reduced to rubble by the metal deluge.

It looks like the aftermath of a war.

Behind me a door opens. I turn round and there, dressed in dark ragged robes, with lank, black hair, an ashen face, and a murderous look in her bloodshot eyes, is Ellie.

Oh, useless child!” she spits scornfully at me. “Art thou happy now? Is all this death and destruction pleasing to thee? Thoughtless, uncaring, spiteful, wretched brat! Why didst thou stand and watch? Why didst thou not stop this tragedy?”

I take a step away from her. “What could I have done?” I ask. “How could I have stopped it?”

She advances on me, her eyes burning with hate and anger. I try to keep a distance between us, but my back comes up against the wall. She is upon me, screaming into my face; her hot, rancid exhalations rasp against my skin, penetrate my airways. “Brazen, trothless villain! Dost thou deem me witless? Fie on thee, knavish churl! Did I not warn them of thy feckless nature?”

I shut my eyes and try to turn my head away, to escape her burning breath and stinging accusations. “I’m sorry,” I wail; “But I don’t know what you want of me, what I could have done. Please, have pity on me!”

There is no response.

Gingerly, I open my eyes.

She is gone.

I breathe a sigh of relief, and glance back out the window. It is growing dark, and I’m thankful that the night is coming to hide the view. But then I hear the howling of wolves, and in the twilight see their sleek forms prowling through the streets, searching through the paper for the fresh meat beneath. I can hear them feeding on, fighting over, the corpses; the sound is sickening, chilling.

* * * * * *

The next instant I was sitting bolt upright in my bed, heaving in air. My skin was slick with cold sweat. Snarls still echoed in my ears, and the sight of mangled bodies haunted my vision.

Slowly, I eased my breathing.

My bedroom was illuminated by thin streaks of dull, dawn sunshine. I looked over at Ellie’s shrine. Her picture was just visible in the gloom; the only feature of her face that could be made out was her smile. I took some comfort from this, and drew upon our shared love to calm me further.

What’s going on?’ I wondered to myself. The previous nightmare had been sinister and disquieting; this one had left me shocked, confused and dismayed. There had to be some reason behind them; they were too vivid, too tangible, to be ordinary, everyday fictions of the brain.

But they were surely not visions sent to me by Ellie, regardless of her apparent appearance in them. She had told me I would not see again her until a month had lapsed; therefore, it couldn’t really be her.

There was, however, something about the character her simulacrum had adopted that touched a part of my subconscious; I almost recognised what she was symbolising. It had something to do with the archaic way she spoke, with how she looked.

I had no further time to consider the matter, as I had to get up. At least I was better rested than yesterday; this nightmare had come later, and I’d gone to bed early, so I’d managed to get a full night’s sleep.

One should be grateful for small mercies.

* * * * * *

Three quarters of an hour later I opened my front door, then just stood there, trembling. It was cold, but today that was not what made me shiver – it was the thick clouds scudding overhead. They were ominous; threatening. A sense of panic gripped me, and I considered not leaving the house; I could call in sick and go back to bed.

No.’ I told myself sternly. ‘You’re going to work.

If I took much more time off sick, I’d hit a trigger point and have to go through the whole attendance management process. Joan being Joan, I’d probably end up with a formal warning, which I’d find very upsetting. It was exactly that kind of black mark against my name that had made me leave my last job, which had been at the City Council, and re-join the Civil Service.

I simply could not bear any kind of dishonour. My dependability, efficiency and integrity were of utmost importance to me – they justified my existence; without them, I would consider myself unworthy of life.

Therefore, there was no question of staying home.

I forced myself out the door, fought against the urge to run for the nearest cover and hide there. But I compromised by getting a bus, minimising the amount of time I spent out in the open air.

The day went by at a snail’s pace. I was obsessed by the weather, and couldn’t stop looking out the window. I nearly screamed when it started raining. I had, before opening the front door that morning, intended to go out at lunch to get something to eat, as I didn’t have much in at home – but I cancelled that idea. I wasn’t going to go outside unless I absolutely had too; I wouldn’t even venture out for a cigarette.

As I hadn’t eaten dinner last night, I became more and more hungry. Frustratingly, it rained on and off throughout the day, keeping me trapped in the office until just after six, by which time the sky was relatively clear. I rushed to the bus stop before more clouds could gather.

Getting off the bus, I hurried to the shops and picked up a bottle of wine and, to satisfy my rumbling belly, a chicken and vegetable pie, two medium sized potatoes, and other supplies to restock my cupboards, fridge and freezer.

I ran home with my shopping. Once inside, I drew the curtains as soon as my shoes were off, and turned on the telly to drown out the sound of any rain which might fall that evening.

I was about to open the bottle of wine I’d just bought when I noticed the one from the previous evening, still mostly full. “Waste not, want not,” I told myself, and put aside the new bottle to finish the old.

I poured a glass and took a gulp, but my hunger was urgent, so I started preparing my dinner, taking occasional sips as I worked. When the potatoes were peeled, chopped and simmering away in a saucepan, and the pie was in the oven, I retreated to my living room to relax. I drained the dregs from my first glass and poured myself another, then rolled a cigarette.

While I sat, drinking and smoking and waiting for my dinner to cook, I brooded on the nightmares I’d had over the last couple of nights. “Will there be another tonight?” I wondered aloud. My gut instinct said ‘yes’ – that a third would follow those of the previous two. I worried about the impact on my state of mind of a further night of horror, destruction, and blame; I had already developed a fear of the weather (and what would that be called, I pondered. Meteorophobia? Or is that the fear of rocks falling from the sky? And, in my case, is there much difference?), what reaction might I have to another nightmare? A complete mental breakdown? Had I been mistaken in my earlier analysis, when, sat in the shrine room at the Buddhist Centre for the first time, I’d concluded that I should just accept Ellie’s presence in my life and not question it? Had that decision brought me to this situation? Should I instead have resisted her in some way? But the mere thought of rejecting Ellie in any manner caused an upwelling of pain that flooded through me like a wave of pure, cold agony. I felt trapped by mysterious forces that were far beyond my knowledge or control; caught between the devil and the deep blue sea.

By the time the pie and potatoes were done, I’d finished the first bottle of wine. I drained and (after adding a dash of milk, a knob of butter, a light sprinkle of salt, and a much heavier one of black pepper) mashed the potatoes, transferred the mash and pie to a plate, and carried my dinner through to the living room.

Despite my earlier hunger, the sour mood that had washed over me had robbed me of my appetite, and I could only manage a few mouthfuls before pushing the plate away. My mood had done nothing, however, to reduce my thirst, which I proceeded to slake by opening the second bottle of wine and carry on drinking until I was merrily drunk, and my worries had been carried away on a tide of vino. “Mission successful!” I declared with a hiccup. I looked at my empty glass, and the nearly empty bottle. ‘Might as well finish it off,’ I thought to myself, but, as I reached forward, changed my mind and, with the back of my hand, knocked the glass across the table. It dropped over the edge and rolled in a circle on the carpet. I was almost disappointed it hadn’t smashed.

My gaze wandered and I noticed my cold dinner. I burst out laughing as the memory of a series of adverts I’d seen in my childhood surfaced, and I announced; “For mash get smash!”

I hiccupped again.

With an effort, I got to my feet. “It’s all getting very, very silly,” I said. “And I’m not standing for it! Hic! No, I’m not – well, I am standing, but I’m not standing for it, I’m just standing. Hic! And that’s the last you’ll hear from me on the subject! Now, if you’re excuse me, I must be going to bed. Goodnight, ladies and gentlemen!”

With a final hiccup, I turned out the light.

I couldn’t be bothered with brushing my teeth, so I staggered straight upstairs. I wanted to go directly to bed, but remembered I had made a promise to Ellie the previous night, and, regardless of everything else, I was not going to break it.

In consideration of my drunken state, I lit the candles with care, before turning off the light and kneeling down. The foolish grin that was on my face slowly transformed itself into a frown. The tide of my emotions had apparently turned, and my worries were floating back to me like so much unwanted jetsam.

“Oh, Ellie,” I said, after making the sign of the cross and bowing. “I don’t know what’s going on. I don’t know why I’ve been having these nightmares.… I wish I could speak with you about them, that you could tell me what they mean. They seem… so morbid. Death, destruction, despair – why, just when I’ve found such happiness, do these haunt my mind? Is there anything I should be learning from them? Are they part of the journey?” Images from the dreams whirled through my consciousness: the city of dust beneath a black sun; the townspeople killed by falling coins; Ellie’s dark twin telling me it was all my fault, that I was to blame for everything.

It was just too much.

“Am I doing something wrong, Ellie? Am I being punished for something? If I only knew what to do, I’d do it. Truly, I would. It’s the not-knowing that’s so difficult. The uncertainty.” I sighed. Things had been so much easier when I’d just been existing, when I’d given up on life and was just enduring each day with a disciplined nonchalance. I hadn’t suffered so much then; there had been no questions nor challenges, and with nothing to do and nowhere to go, I’d experienced a kind of sullen, joyless peace – or, at least, the conflict within me had been so muted that it was below my everyday awareness.

It hadn’t been much fun, but it had, in hindsight, been bearable. That’s how I’d managed to live that way for so long.

How many people are living like that right now?’ I suddenly wondered. ‘How many other zombie people are there in the world? Just living out of a sense of duty, or fear, rather than out of any joy, or passion, for life. Without any hope.

It was a sobering thought.

“I’m sorry, Ellie,” I said, staring at her picture again, although I was having trouble focusing. “I’m so lucky to have you in my life. I know I am. But I don’t feel so good about things now. I don’t know what to do, what’s wrong with me. I’ve been given a great gift, but at the moment it just feels like a massive burden. I’m sorry, but that’s how I feel. I do love you, and I am grateful… but I’m also lost and alone, and don’t know where to turn. Please help me; please comfort me and guide me, help me to see the light again. I know it’s there – I know it’s always there – but I just can’t see it.”

I didn’t know what else to say. I was exhausted, and could barely remain kneeling; I was swaying so much I feared pitching forward and breaking my nose on the floor. I sighed; “Thank you Ellie; thank you for listening, for being here with me – though I can’t sense your presence as strongly as usual, I know you’re here. So, I thank you. I do love you, Ellie; I really do.”

I made the sign of the cross and bowed again, climbed cautiously to my feet, then sat on my bed while taking off my clothes. I considered leaving the candles burning whilst I slept, but thought better of it, and blew them out.

“Goodnight, my angel, my love. Watch over me, keep me safe.”

I got into bed. Completely forgetting about the nightmares, I visualised Ellie as I’d seen her standing by my bedroom door, haloed in glimmering, silver light. This happy image stayed with me as I drifted off to sleep.

Chapter 15

When I entered the forest I was riding on a Roman road that was still in reasonable repair, but the further I travelled, the more broken it became, until was just an overgrown track with occasional cobbles peeking out of from between the weeds. The trees closed in, and I had to dismount and lead my horse, Caval, or risk being knocked from my seat by the over-hanging branches.

Eventually the road faded away altogether, and we now follow animal trails, picking our route as best we can. So that I do not exhaust my supplies, I forage for food as we go, and make simple snares when we rest each evening.

It is dank and fusty in the deep forest; no breath of wind winds this far within. It is dark too; the thick canopy allows only a dappled gloom to reach the ground, so that each day is but a waxing and waning of twilight, and the starless nights are pitch-black.

Aside from the noise made by Caval and myself, which echoes eerily around us, it is silent.

Time starts to lose its meaning. Everything seems disjointed, lacking a proper context or reference. For all I know, we might be going round in circles; there is too little variety to discriminate one part of the forest from another.

I cannot guess how long ago it was that I left the castle of my lord and set out for Camelot, before becoming hopelessly lost in this forest. A month? Two months? Three? Surely, no longer than that – I would have noticed the change in the season. Even so, I begin to imagine that I will spend the rest of my life wandering within this wooden prison.

But, after countless days, we find an old path; we follow it, and the foliage thins and, finally, the way ahead emerges into glorious sunshine. Caval smells the grass growing beyond the bounds of the trees, and surges forward with enthusiasm.

I let go the reins and follow in his wake; breaking from beneath the entwined branches, I stop for a moment, the bright morning light causing me to blink after the forest’s murk. It is a fine day, with a deep blue sky dotted with brilliant white clouds; the air is sweet and full of birdsong.

Before me the path splits, giving a choice of direction. I can go either left, along the forest’s edge, or to the right, in the direction of distant grey-blue mountains.

I have no way of knowing which way to go, but the mountains beckon, promising adventure, or at least a view over the land I’ve been travelling through.

Ho, Caval!” I call. “Time to stretch those long legs of yours!”

Caval ignores me and continues to crop the grass. I indulge him; there is no rush. When he has eaten his fill, I climb into the saddle and we set off at a canter.

After a few miles we’re in the foothills, heading up towards the heights.

We arrive at a ravine; below a river rumbles betwixt rock walls. Dismounting, I lead Caval to a stone arch that spans the water-cut crevasse. Cautiously, we cross.

There is a sudden, subtle shift in the light, in the very fabric of the air. The sun starts to tremble, as if afflicted with vertigo. The clouds travel at odds to each other; one going this way, another going that. They condense and disperse at random; whole banks of them appearing in one heartbeat, disappearing in the next.

I don’t like this. I don’t want to be here – but nor do I want to turn back. Gritting my teeth, I push forward.

We travel along a precipice, a thin margin around the mountains’ midriff. We walk carefully; scattered boulders warn of rock-slides.

Rounding a bend, I halt to take in a new panorama; a huge expanse of seething sky hovering over hills that stretch to a hazy horizon. The day is well advanced; I would like to hurry us on, but the footing is unsure, and the path narrow, so I have to be content with a considered pace.

I almost miss the cave-mouth, nearly mistake the man sitting therein for a mass of motionless stone. Caval’s senses are keener; he whinnies and nods in his direction.

I stop and stare at the man; he sits cross-legged on a blanket, has long white, wispy hair, wrinkled, weather-beaten skin, and wears a worn, ragged robe. He regards me with a wary, worried look.

I raise a hand in salute to him. “Hail, friend. How fares the day with thee?”

He glances down at a bowl set beside him, before bringing his attention back to me. He seems to be assessing me in some manner.

He opens his mouth, but instead of words he makes only a dry, croaking noise. He coughs and tries again. “Greetings, stranger. Who art thou, and why hast thou come to disturb me in my sanctuary?”

I am Sir Timotheus, a Knight Errant,” I tell him. “And I ride to Camelot, to ask King Arthur if I may join the quest for the Holy Grail.”

The Grail, thou sayest?” He raises an eyebrow in either surprise or amusement, I cannot tell which. “For what purpose wouldst thou seek such a thing?”

King Arthur has decreed finding the Holy Grail an issue of great importance – the fate of the whole kingdom depends upon it.”

Then ’good luck and Godspeed’ say I to thee.”

I get the impression that he would rather I leave, but there is the chance that he knows something that will be useful to me on the road ahead – though he does not seem keen to converse. I decide on a gentle approach, calling on his better nature and, should he have any, his pride. “Tell me, good hermit, do travellers come to thee, seeking guidance and wisdom?”

He answers my question with a question of his own; “Dost thou come to me, seeking guidance and wisdom?”

Yea, I do.”

Then ‘yea’ say I, too.” He seems pleased with this exchange, and smiles. I wait for him to say something further, but instead he closes his eyes and gives every appearance of having forgotten my presence.

Canst thou, then, assist me?” I ask, doing my best to keep any note of impatience from my voice. I am not sure whether this man is playing me straight, nor whether he is entirely sane.

He replies without opening his eyes. “Assist thee? Nay, I cannot. Give thee good counsel? Certes, that I can do. But I wonder if thou wouldst thank me for it? Art thou ready to hear what I wouldst teach thee?”

I will harken to thy words, and thank thee for them, whether I like them or not. Whether I understand them, or not.”

I can ask no more than that.” He opens his eyes again and fixes me with a deep and demanding gaze. ”Thou hath no need to go to Camelot. No need to search, nor to seek. No need to go anywhere, nor to do anything. If thou wert to stop, now, give up, now, be done with everything and desire nothing evermore, then all would be achieved, and the Grail would be revealed to thee.”

He is watching me intently, but I do not know how to respond as I can make little sense of his advice. How can anything be achieved by giving up? How can a quest be completed before it is even begun? “It would seem,” I say carefully, “that were I to act as you suggest, I would have no reason to leave this cave. I would just sit down here, and have no motivation to move again.”

Aye, thou hast the gist of it – but doth thou hath the stomach for it?”

Nay, my friend. I am a knight, and it is my duty to strive; to protect the weak and defend the vulnerable. I am honour-bound to uphold justice; to fight for peace. I cannot sit idly by and watch as the world turns to ruin.”

Then my words are wasted on thee.”

Though they seemeth of little use to me, as promised, I thank thee for them. Perchance there is other counsel thou couldst givest me? Such as directions to Camelot?”

To get to Camelot, just continue to travel. Thou wilt meet opposition and hardship, and, when thy way is blocked, thy wouldst be better served by turning back, but doubtless thy honour will not allow this. Keep going, and to Camelot thou shalt come – and sooner than thou might reckon. I pray only that thou hath learnt something by the time thou arrivest there, and thou hath not caused too much harm during the journey.”

I am very relieved to hear that I will make it to Camelot, and in my relief I miss the warnings being given to me. “I am sure, once I arrive at Camelot, that King Arthur will not refuse me the chance to take up the quest. His generosity is renowned, and it is said that he always grants a boon when asked, should it be in his power to do so, and not be contrary to the code of honour.”

Aye, it is so. Honour and chivalry flower at his court, but these blooms will one day fade, and intrigue, greed, envy, hatred and ignorance will bring crashing down all that he and Merlin hath built. The old order changeth, yielding place to new. That is the way of the world; nothing is permanent, all things that come about, pass away again. The light shines forth on a clear day, but then storm clouds come, and darkness falls over the land.”

But would not that light last longer, would not those storm clouds be blown away, if the Holy Grail is found? Is that not, then, the goal of the quest?”

And what dost thou wit of the Grail? What hath thou heard?”

The story told me is that the Holy Grail appeared at Camelot where King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table were gathered together in celebration. But it was so fulgent and bedazzling that no-one spied it surely. Some said that it were like a chalice, others a platter; one claimed to have seen an ornately crafted cauldron, another, a great gemstone. There is no agreement as to its appearance. This is one of the mysteries that surround the Holy Grail.”

The hermit nods, indicating this is no news to him, which assures me that he does know something of the matter. He sneezes violently, before asking; “So, then – what of its resting place? Hath thou any idea where it might be?”

From what I have heard, it was kept at the Castle of King Pelham of Lambor, but now that castle has vanished, and the surrounding area for many leagues has been wasted and cursed. It is said of that land that it is now hard to find one’s way int’, and harder still to find one’s way out. Whether the Holy Grail remains within the castle, or King Pelham fled from there and took it with him, is another issue on which there is no agreement. Suffice to say, none have stepped foot within the castle, nor seen King Pelham, and returned to report it. That, at least, is what they say.”

And thou hast met this King Pelham – thou art familiar with him?”

Not as such,” I tell him, “but I have heard him described, and wouldst recognise his coat of arms.”

And if he chose not to wear his coat of arms, couldst thou be certain of making him out?”

Not certain,” I answer, a little stiffly; he seems to be implying that my attempting the quest would be nothing more than a wild goose chase. “Unless you can advise me further.”

The hermit shrugs his shoulders. “I’ve never been introduced to him, nor has he been pointed out to me, so how wouldst I know what he looks like? As for where he may be – I’ve been living in these mountains for some years, and have heard naught from any other man until thine arrival, so how canst I help thee find him?”

I cannot argue with that.

So,” the hermit continues. “It seemeth that thou desireth to go in quest of something that thou cannot readily identify, and that is in the possession of someone thou wouldst not necessarily recognise.”

I sigh and sit down, with my back to the cave wall. “It is a fool’s errand, in other words.”

In sooth, thou hath summed up the matter perfectly,” the hermit says with a laugh that turns into a fit of coughing. When he’s recovered, he carries on. “I am sorry that I cannot help thee, but, if this matter is so grave, ‘tis certain Gawain, Lancelot, or one of the other Knights of the Round Table, will persevere and win the day. Someone always does – for the world keeps on turning, despite all the perils it has faced.”

Thou speeketh wisely, yet I shall not stray from my intent. I left my home behind in order to ride to Camelot and take up the quest. Mayhap there is news I have not yet heard; perchance someone has gained some piece of knowledge that might unravel these mysteries, and allow someone to succeed where so many have failed.”

The hermit does not reply to this, and there is silence between us for a minute or two. Despite the discouraging conversation, it is nonetheless pleasant to rest in the cool cavern, and enjoy the presence of another human being after so long with only Caval for companionship.

I start to feel hungry again; I fetch my pack and see what food I have remaining. “Art thou hungry, hermit?” I ask. “Wouldst thou like to share my repast?”

He smiles and nods eagerly. I divide between us the last of my provisions – a couple of handfuls of berries and a few strips of dried meat. We sit and eat.

Thank thee, Sir Knight,” he says, munching away. “Bless you for this provender.”

Thou art welcome. Wouldst thou like some water?” I unhook the flask from my belt, prise off the stopper, and take a swig, then offer it to the hermit.

Nay, friend – keep it.” He gestures to the bowl on the floor beside him. “It rains often in the mountains, and I use this to catch the drops.”

I peer at it. It is simple in design, and made of black, varnished metal. Moreover, and more to the point, it is empty.

Thy bowl is void, friend hermit.”

Aye,” he replies. “But I wit it will rain later.”

I look out the cave-mouth at the churning clouds. “I cannot tell how thou couldst make sense of this wode weather. What is this place, and why does the sky seem broken?”

This is a thin place, where different worlds meet. Things bleed from one realm to another here, but nature acts to screen such doorways, and so these places are hard to find. Which means that they are excellent places in which to hide.”

I feel sympathy for this poor man; whether he is crazy or not. “Tell me, hermit, art thou content here? Wouldst thou not prefer to return to civilisation? Sitting all alone in this cave – it cannot be good for thee.”

He gives me a fearful look, as if I were about to attack him, before answering in a voice full of resignation; “I’ll have none of thy pity, good sir knight! And I wit of no other place I shouldst rather be. The cares of the world are behind me, and I have no wish to return to them. Instead, I strive for liberation. Now, ‘tis time you are getting on your way. Thy horse cannot come within, and ‘twould not be safe to leave him overnight on the slender ledge.”

He speaks truly. I get to my feet, and bow to him. “Thank thee for sharing thy shelter and counsel. May peace be with thee.”

Thou art welcome, Sir Timotheus,” he replies. “Until we meet again, fare thee well.” He then shuts his eyes and reverts to a stony demeanour.

I leave the cave and Caval and I continue our journey.

Soon the path descends, coming down from the mountains into heathland. I re-mount Caval and we travel on.

As the sun starts to set, we leave the heathland behind and, passing through copse-topped hills, come to a wide, fast-flowing river – perhaps the same river we had crossed earlier in the mountains. On the other side are meadows, with forest beyond.

A wooden bridge spans the turbulent flow. It would have once been a fair and sturdy structure, but is now old, its planks covered in moss. Yet it does not seem so decayed that it would collapse beneath us.

Caval balks as we approach; he shakes his head, snorts, stamps his hoof.

What worries thee, my trusted steed? Dost thou think it unsafe? Though it has seen better days, the beams of the bridge are broad. They will take our weight, I’m sure.” I try to calm him, encourage him on, but he remains resolute and will not budge.

I am about to dismount and attempt to lead him across, when a monstrous, misshapen figure climbs up from under the bridge. Its bent body is twice the size of a man’s, its limbs are long and twisted, and it gives off a putrid stench that pollutes the air.

I pull Caval back a few strides whilst unslinging my shield from my back.

Although I have never encountered such a creature before, it matches the description of a troll too closely to be anything else. It bellows and shakes a brutish, clawed hand at me. I respond by drawing my sword, raising it above my head, and shouting; “Come, hell-spawn! Come, taste my steel!”

It does not advance, but keeps its ground, grimacing and gesticulating.

I am at a loss what to do. The troll stands too close to the bank for me to charge at it; Caval and I would end up in the river if we tried that. I could dismount and battle the beast on foot, but given its stature and the length of its arms, I would be at a severe disadvantage fighting it toe-to-toe. My only hope is to lure it away from the bridge and engage it on horseback in the open.

I start to strike my sword upon my shield, and, as I had hoped, the sound annoys it. Growling angrily, It takes a step forward.

Directing Caval with my thighs, I get him to slowly back away, while I continue my clamour. “What art thou waiting for, thou overgrown hobgoblin! Come and fight me!”

The creature takes another step forward, then one more.

It’s enough.

I spur Caval forward, then pull sideways on the reins. Caval reads my intention, digs his hooves into the ground and lunges ahead at an angle. We charge at our assailant, who reaches out to pluck me from my saddle. I raise my shield defensively and the troll tries to grabs hold of it, but I had anticipated this and sweep my blade across my shield’s face; it connects with the troll’s hand, severing one of its clawed fingers. We rush close by its flank, and I pull again on the reins and we wheel sharply around. I catch the beast flat-footed as it tries to turn to face us, and I swing my sword at its throat; it flashes, slicing flesh.

My blow is not quite enough to behead the beast, but it does open a large gash on its neck. Roaring in rage and pain it staggers hurriedly away, blood pouring from its wound. I let it go, content to watch It stumble toward the bank some distance downriver. With a helpless, hopeless wail it dives in, and disappears beneath the water.

I clean my sword, return it to its scabbard, then pat Caval’s neck. “Good work, my faithful friend! Now, onward! The day will soon be done, and we should make camp some distance from the river – in case our injured foe should seek us out in the night.”

Caval starts over the bridge without further fuss. The light, which had been fading fast, vanishes as we reach halfway; thick, dark clouds have suddenly spread across the whole sky.

Riding onto the far bank, there is a split second of stark blue-white brilliance, followed by a rumbling boom of thunder. A wave of water descends from the heavens.

We race along the path, which curves as it traverses the open land, until it runs beside trees.

We arrive at a junction; we can continue straight on, or turn and head into the forest. To escape the weather we seek shelter amongst the boughs and branches.

We have not travelled far when I spy a flicker of flames from a small fire. The offer of warmth, and the hope of hot food, pulls me toward it.

I dismount and lead Caval towards the firelight. I come to a clearing, but it appears to be deserted. The fire has been built within a ring of small stones, to stop it spreading through the twigs and leaves that litter the ground, and close by (but not too close) is a stack of sticks to keep it fed.

I step forward.

A violent shove sends me sprawling. I roll and try to get back to my feet, but a hand presses me down into the earth, and a pair of burning eyes bore into mine.

Shameless fool! This very day the quest could have been achieved, but thou hast failed! Why, varlet, why? Why didst thou not ask him the question?”

Before I can recover my wits and offer a reply, I am hefted into the air and flung into a tree-trunk, banging my head and knocking the breath from my body. I fall to the ground in a heap.

A shape moves toward me; at first glance it looks like a woman dressed in fine brocade, but her visage is malformed; her black eyes are rimmed with red, a pair of yellow tusks protrude from her mouth, her nose resembles a dog’s snout, and her hair is coarse and spiky, like the bristles on a boar’s back.

Witless ne’er-do-well, thou sat before the king and did nought! Was his suffering, his sickness, not evident to thee? The Grail was there, also, before thy very gaze, and still thou didst nought! Why didst thou not ask him? Why?”

The king?” I gasp, when I’ve managed to get some air in my lungs. “I’ve not seen any king; ‘twas only an old hermit, living in a cave, that I saw.”

Oh, blind and boorish villain, that was the king! Time flows weirdly in the wasteland; the king has been hiding there for more than a dozen winters, and thou hast spent fully half that length of time in useless wandering, while the land withers.”

No,” I say, shaking my head. “That cannot be true – it cannot!”

Doubt me not, knave. Hie thee to King Arthur’s court and inform him of thy short-comings; let him wit the quest continues, thanks to thine ignorance.”

I try to object, to defend myself, but everything is spinning too fast, making me feel nauseous.

The harridan leans over me, about to spit more words into my face; but I close my eyes and everything fades away into darkness and silence.

* * * * * *

I woke up with a banging headache, and for a moment attributed this to hitting my head against a tree, but then I remember that the real reason was drinking the best part of two bottles of wine the previous night.

I lay for a few minutes recollecting the dream I’d just had. Although it carried on the general theme of the previous two, I didn’t find it so negative. Indeed, I took a measure of cheer from it; I finally had a handle on the images, which would help me interpret their meaning, and see how things fitted together.

That handle was the Holy Grail.

I had read a number of books about the Holy Grail in my younger years, when I had been fascinated by all things relating to King Arthur. I was familiar both with the apocryphal Christian versions of the story of the Holy Grail, and also a number of pagan myths concerning magical cauldrons and strange quests.

The dark, ugly figure who took Ellie’s form is a character that appears in several versions of the grail-quest, under various names and guises. She often has a close connection to the Grail, and from what I could recall, her role is to admonish the hero for his early failure, and spur him on to renewed effort and, ultimately, success.

Therefore, despite her blame and antagonism, I regarded her presence in my dream as a confirmation that I was going in the right direction.

The king in the cave was a different matter. According to all the stories I’d read, the Wounded King stays in his castle, and waits for the hero to come to him. The hero has to ask the king a particular question, and when he does the king and the land are both healed. Why in my dream the king should have ventured out of his castle, and why he didn’t bare the traditional injury – often delicately referred to as an injury to his thigh – I couldn’t be sure. But I assumed that I would find out in due course.

There was another mystery; the appearance of the Grail itself. Apparently, the metal bowl the hermit-king used to collect water in, was in fact the Holy Grail. Why did it take this particular form?

The final thing I wondered at was the actual experience of being Sir Timotheus, the Knight Errant. I had, during the dream, wholly felt myself to be this character; Sir Timotheus was both me, and not me. We shared the same ideals and passions, the same sense of justice, and aspiration to be and do good, but our knowledge and personal histories were separate.

Although I would have liked to have stayed in bed and mused over these things further, I had no such leisure to do so; it was time to get up for work.

I went through the usual morning ritual; a cup of coffee as I prepared my lunch, brushing the teeth, shoes and coat on – all the while wondering how I was going to feel when I opened the front door.

The answer was: not so bad. I stood and looked out at the world, and the world appeared to be its normal self. Today, it seemed, the sky was not my enemy, and reality regarded me indifferently.

It was the most I could have hoped for.

I went to work not with a spring in my step, but I did sport a sly smile. I thought that I had a better grasp now on the game that was being played. My role had become clearer, even though the goal toward which I was making my way was still obscure.

It’s just a matter of time,’ I told myself. ‘Hang in there; things will get better.

* * * * * *

I didn’t get much done that morning; I was too pre-occupied to focus on things, and kept drifting off into daydreams. I couldn’t stop thinking about the three nightmares, particularly the final one, which I hoped would give me the key to understanding them all. But it was the battle with the troll that my thoughts returned to most frequently; even though it had just been a dream, the way I had bravely faced and defeated the monster, filled me with confidence in my character and ability. I was not a coward, nor was I weak and incapable.

I felt like I could face anything, that I could conquer the world if I must.

Who knows?’ I thought to myself. ‘Maybe I will.

I opened the drawer beside my desk and looked at the picture of Ellie I kept there, and added; ‘With your help, of course, my angel.

I went to the Buddhist Centre at lunch-time for the Friday afternoon drop-in meditation. Gita wasn’t there, but Jo and Rajagaha were. I had a brief chat with both of them before the meditation (we did the mindfulness of breathing), but didn’t stay afterwards. I didn’t wish to prolong my working day.

I was better focused when I got back to the office, which was useful as I’d not achieved much throughout the week. I worked dutifully until quarter past five, when I suddenly decided that I’d had enough.

But before I left the office, I did one last thing – I searched on the internet for local martial arts classes. I found a few, but one interested me keenly; it was called Lishi (which, I later discovered, is pronounced ‘lee-shur’) and was based on Taoist principles. I entered the contact name and number into my mobile phone.

When I got home I noticed first the virtually untouched plate of pie-and-mash from the previous evening, then the glass which I had knocked off the table, laying on the floor. The dregs had spilled out during its journey, leaving three small, dark stains on the blue carpet. I stood and looked at those blotches, feeling that they indicated something meaningful, but which I lacked the means to interpret. After a few seconds of staring I shrugged, picked up the glass and took it through to the kitchen – together with the still-laden plate, which I put in the microwave, to re-heat later. Then I went upstairs and meditated for half an hour.

When I came back downstairs, at around half-past six, I called the number I’d taken down at work. A cheerful-sounding man with a local accent answered. “Hi! This is Martin.”

“Hi Martin, my name’s Tim – I’m ringing about the martial arts class? I found this number on the internet.”

“Yeah, I run the class. What do you want to know?”

“I’m interested in starting martial arts training again after a break of a few years, and wanted to try something new.”

“What did you practice before?”

Aikido, and Jujitsu before that. They’re the two I’ve most experience of.”

“Well, Lishi is not just a martial art; it includes breath-exercises and patterns of movement similar to some forms of yoga. The class is divided in two; the first half is sort of like Tai Chi, and the second part is a bit more like Kung Fu.”

“Sounds good to me, just the sort of thing I’m after. When and where are the classes held?”

Martin confirmed that the classes were held on Monday evenings at a community room at a church about a mile from my house.

“Would it be okay for me to come along to the next class?” I asked. “And, if so, what should I wear?”

“Sure, come along. Loose clothes are all you need – track-suit bottoms and a t-shirt are fine. You can train barefoot, or in plimsolls.”

“Right, I think that’s about all I need to know. I’ll be there on Monday.”

“Great! See you then.”

My evening continued after that along its usual course. I went out and bought a few beers, and then I ate, drank, and was merry.

Bedtime came and I retired for the night, after dutifully giving praise and thanks to Ellie at her shrine.

My sleep that night was, thankfully, deep and, so far as I recall, dreamless.

Chapter 16

I was glad the weekend had arrived and the nightmares had stopped, but remained unsure how to interpret them, and there was still more than another fortnight until I’d see Ellie again and be able to discuss them with her.

So I did some research.

I started with the dictionary; I was curious to know the exact etymology of the word ‘grail’. What I learnt was that it had been come into English via a French word that was derived from a mediaeval Latin one, gradalis, meaning ‘dish’, which itself was a borrowing from Greek, krater, which referred to a bowl.

I guessed that I must already have known the etymology, which is why it appeared in my dream in the form of a bowl. A bit literal, I’d agree, but that’s the way the mind works – or so I reasoned at the time.

But why was the king hiding in a cave half-way up a mountain? This was the part that was puzzling me. The only explanation I could think of was that it was essential to the structure of the quest that I first fail – that I should meet the king and not recognise him. If I’d met him in a castle, I doubted that I would have been fooled so easily.

I next turned to the two previous nightmares. The first, with its hell-like desert, had some similarities with the last one. They both included a journey, a mountain, and an encounter with a dark, rueful Ellie. They shared also a sense of other-worldliness. Whether or not I should see them as essentially the same, or whether they needed to be interpreted differently, I wasn’t sure.

The middle dream, the most disturbing of the three, was the most perplexing. The blizzard of notes, which had enticed all the people out into the open, and the hail-storm of coins, which had killed them all, were not images I could recall ever having heard of or seen before. Taken at face value, the scene could be taken as a prophetic vision – that humanity, or maybe the world in general, would be destroyed by money, by capitalism. But this seemed a bit too obvious; a touch banal, even. And I didn’t have any idea why I should particularly be to blame for either the existence of capitalism or its impact on the planet. So, I figured there had to be a deeper, allegorical meaning.

To try and find some answers I went to the library, returning The Way of the Peaceful Warrior and then spending a couple of frustrating hours going from section to section, picking up books and flicking through them before putting them back. I looked at volumes of psychology, dream analysis, mythology, symbolism – but couldn’t find anything that addressed my specific questions.

I decided to put the matter aside and do something else, so I returned home and meditated for a while, but was in a restless state of body and mind, and soon gave up.

I turned to reading The Power of Now. Whereas The Way of the Peaceful Warrior was written as a novel, The Power of Now was written in a question and answer format. However, I saw similarities in their messages after reading only the first few pages – that one’s mind is, in effect, one’s worst enemy, and we need to learn to reduce its hold over us in order to escape the almost constant worrying, make-believing, and misinterpreting that is its delights, and that keeps us anxious and unhappy.

Both books emphasised the importance of being in the moment – being aware of one’s self and what one is doing – rather than dwelling in either the future or the past, or drifting along with one’s head full of fantasies. And the latter, I thought to myself, is something I’ve been doing for far too long.

On that note, I put the book aside and got on with the business of the evening; eating, drinking and smoking, followed by worship of Ellie, and then bed. For a second night, my sleep was blessedly dream-free.

* * * * * *

My state of mind throughout Sunday was mostly calm and even; I felt neither joyful nor anxious. In this state of mind I got on with some housework in the afternoon, and in the evening read for a few hours, meditated, and contemplated my recent experiences.

I went to work on Monday morning intending to spend the day with as much presence – as much focus on the here and now – as I possibly could. It went quite well; with my mind clear and emotions in balance, I could maintain my concentration on what I was doing rather than thinking about other things.

By the time I got home it had just gone six pm. I had a quick wash, put in some contact lens, changed into suitable clothes, then headed out again. I arrived at the church where the Lishi class was held at quarter to seven, or thereabouts. It was dark, but a street light gave enough illumination for me to see a few people gathered close to a door at the end of the building.

A car pulled into the car park, and a man of medium height and slightly stocky build got out. Salutations were called back and forth, confirming that this was the person I had spoken with on the phone; Martin. He went round to the back of the vehicle and removed a large bag, then went over and unlocked the door.

The gathered people went inside as I approached. Martin had noticed me, and waited for me to reach him. “Tim, is it?” he asked, holding out his hand.

I shook it. “That’s right,” I replied.

“Come on in,” he said.

The room the class was held in was a little on the small side compared to other places I had trained in the past, but there were only five of us there that evening, so it wasn’t a problem.

The training started with a number of stretches, most of which I was already familiar with, then moved on to breathing exercises, most of which I weren’t. This was followed by a kind of game where we formed into a circle and went through a succession of stances, each person adding a stance in turn until we’d gone round the whole group twice.

The next part of the class was concerned with the development of what I can only call ‘gentle power’. These exercises contrasted the use of strength and muscle-power, which tends to be tense and strained, with the use of this gentle power – a relaxed, harmonious and subtle power, which was more effective than that delivered by might. I had touched on such training in Aikido, but in Lishi it seemed to be given a much more central place in its practice.

The half-way point of the class was reached, and we took a short break while Martin and the regular attendees changed from blue tops to yellow ones, signalling the change from yin to yang training.

The second half of the class consisted of exercises that were more obviously martial in character, including footwork and patterns of evasive movements.

I enjoyed the training, and was in a good mood when we finished. I was grateful the class had not been as intense and tiring as I was used to – I’d not done anything strenuous in so long I’d feared that I’d collapse from exhaustion if I pushed myself. Even so, I had built up a sweat and the walk home gave me a good warm down.

My journey was via the off-licence; there’s nothing quite hits the spot after exercising like a beer or three.

I didn’t feel particularly hungry that night, so I just had some toast. There were more than enough calories in the beer to keep me going.

It was with a warm feeling of satisfaction that I went to bed that night, after giving praise and thanks to Ellie. Though I had not been charged with joy that day, nor had I been filled with doubt or despair. Everything seemed to be going well, and I had another night of undisturbed rest.

Chapter 17

Tuesday started much the same as Monday. To begin with, I felt like I was sailing on an even-keel, that I was heading into new waters in a stately and mindful manner. But as the day progressed my sense of calm slowly gave way to one of listlessness. I found myself wondering if I was actually going anywhere or if I was merely drifting along, without having any real destination, or any choice in what was happening to me. I thought that I might be a mere passenger rather than the captain of this ship.

My mood sunk. I became dispirited, and my work bored me beyond belief. I didn’t want to be in the office, yet, when it came to lunch-time, I didn’t feel like going out either. There was a drop-in meditation at the centre, but I decided not to go as I was intending to attend the Introduction to Buddhism course that evening, which included a period of meditation.

I went through the afternoon in a state of ennui. Time crawled along, appearing to go slower and slower. My patience finally wore through when it reached four thirty, and I decided enough was enough. I left work and walked home under a darkening sky.

When I got in, I wasn’t sure what to do with myself until returning to town later. I wasn’t hungry and didn’t fancy reading, so ended up turning the telly on by default.

I flicked through the channels in a desultory search for something to rouse my interest, but it was a wasted effort. Annoyed and restless, I switched it off and paced silently around my living room, trying to think of something to do.

I realised that I wanted a drink. A few beers would definitely take the edge off and allow me to relax. But I didn’t want to turn up at the Buddhist Centre with the smell of alcohol on my breath.

I checked the clock; it was close to quarter to six. That gave me just over an hour to kill. I paced about some more, which did nothing to settle my mind, and took up very little time.

With a curse I put my coat on and went out. I thought a longish walk would do me some good, but it was cold and my resolve rapidly dissolved; my feet turned by themselves towards the off-licence.

I purchased four bottles of beer and a packet of mints, and returned home. I sat in my living room, slowly, sullenly, supping ale. Try as I might to eke out the first bottle, it was soon empty, and there was still a quarter of an hour to go before it was time to leave for the Buddhist Centre.

Sod it, I thought to myself, and got a second one out of the fridge. As seven o’clock approached, I was half-way through the bottle, and I briefly considered not going to the class; instead I could go out and get some more beers, then get properly drunk. I turned the idea over in my head; although it sounded like fun, I knew that I’d regret the decision within a short while, so I put my coat on again and walked into town, munching mints as I went.

* * * * * *

The format of the class was the same as the previous week; meditation followed by a tea-break, then a lecture followed by questions and discussion.

I was feeling okay until I started meditating. The one and a half bottles of beer I’d drunk was, for me, a relatively small dose of alcohol, and I didn’t feel at all tipsy until I got into my posture and closed my eyes. I then discovered that my thoughts were flying all over the place, and, while trying to focus my mind on my body and my moment-by-moment experience, I began to feel quite queasy. I had to open my eyes and just sit quietly until the meditation came to a close.

Neranjara took the lesson again, which began with an outline of the Buddha’s identification of the key factors that prevent people from making spiritual progress and attaining enlightenment. These factors, commonly referred to in Buddhism as ‘the three poisons’, are: aversion, craving, and ignorance (alternatively translated as hatred, greed, and delusion).

I wasn’t particularly impressed by this; I equated the first poison, ‘aversion’, with the perception of things as being negative in some way: horrible, threatening, wrong or contemptible. In judging something to be negative, one’s reaction is going to be negative: disgusted, fearful, angry, or hateful. The second, ‘craving’, was just the opposite of the first – the perception of something as being positive; lovely, delicious, worthy, or beautiful, leading to a positive desire to possess the thing being perceived. The last poison, ‘ignorance’, seemed to be a sort of catch-all for any other unenlightened behaviour that didn’t arise directly from the first two.

After describing the three poisons, Neranjara presented another three-fold list, ‘the three marks of existence’, which are: impermanence; lack of a fixed nature; and the quality of being unsatisfactory.

The three marks appeared to me as three aspects of the same insight – the temporary nature of all things. Nothing lasts for ever, and so all things are impermanent. Because things are impermanent, they cannot have a fixed nature, for this would mean that there was something that was unchanging (the ‘nature’, which is ‘fixed’). So, due to the constant flux of reality, everything is changing, and nothing will last for ever. This results in everything being unsatisfactory, because things cannot be relied upon; they will not endure, and so even if they produce happiness and hope while they persist, one day they will fail and be lost, and this will cause unhappiness and despair.

Following the three marks of existence, we were told of the three gateways to liberation. These gateways correspond to the marks, so for each mark there is a gateway, and the gateways are accessed when the marks are ‘seen through’ or transcended in everyday experience.

Transcending impermanence, one attains to the ‘signless’, a state of being where one realises that discriminatory thought is incapable of describing reality, that our language is inadequate and inappropriate for the task of directly apprehending what is real. Therefore nothing can be said, in absolute terms, about anything – all descriptions and explanations are partial, relating to a particular viewpoint, and have no ultimate truth. When the state of signlessness is reached, one drops all ideologies and metaphysical speculation, having realised these are hopeless and futile.

The mark of lacking a fixed nature is matched to the gateway of emptiness. Once one realises that nothing is fixed, that everything relies upon everything else for its being, and therefore no individual thing could be considered to have an identity (a nature or essence that is separate from other things, and therefore unique), then one sheds the notion of ‘self’, and dwells in emptiness – a state where one does not perceive in terms of self or not-self, and has therefore attained selflessness.

The gateway that corresponds to unsatisfactoriness is that of the unbiased, or ‘aimless’. Realising that all things are unsatisfactory, and that it is pointless to seek for any particular state of affairs (as it will, sooner or later, end), one accepts the present, and does not worry about what might happen. One no longer chases particular outcomes, nor seeks to avoid others, hence one is unbiased and without an aim.

Although the discussion was interesting, I found it difficult to concentrate, and spent most of the talk wanting it to be over. When it did finally finish, I hurried out the door and headed home.

When I got in I was feeling out of sorts, and considered going straight to bed, but there was that beer I’d opened earlier to finish off. It vanished in a few gulps, and I went immediately to the fridge for the third bottle, and the fourth followed a little while later. It was getting close to midnight by the time I eventually retired for the evening.

My final act before getting into bed was my usual ritual of praise and thanks to Ellie, but as I knelt in the soft candle-light, I found that I was bereft of words. All I could do was stare mutely at her image. Her joyful, smiling face blurred as my eyes misted, and a surge of pain and loss made it difficult to breathe.

What I was doing no longer made any sense to me. I couldn’t see any point to my efforts; the classes at the Buddhist Centre, the Lishi training, meditation, honouring and worshipping Ellie. As for the Quest for the Holy Grail, it now seemed such a puerile and fantastical subject, a completely deluded diversion, that it sickened me to think about it.

Nothing I was doing, nothing anyone could do, would bring Ellie back, would make her live again. Even if it was, truly, her spirit that was with me, which had visited me in my dreams, what possible good could my actions do her? She should be in heaven, not wasting her time here, watching over me. The fact that I wasn’t sure whether heaven existed or not was beside the point; if it didn’t, she’d still have far better things to do than this.

Self-disgust erupted within me. ’I am pulling her down,’ I thought. ’If it weren’t for me, she would be at peace now.’ It suddenly occurred to me that what she’d said about how she needed me, and about how we could help each other to become the best that we could be, were lies. Not malicious lies, these; they were, instead, the whitest of lies. She had been giving me reasons to live, telling me things that would give me a sense of purpose and joy. She just wanted me to be happy; that’s why she had lied to me, why she’d been so evasive on some issues, why she had refused to tell me certain things; she couldn’t answer my questions truthfully without contradicting her deceits, and she was wise enough not to make her web of untruth too tangled. It seemed so obvious now I thought about it; how could anything I do make any difference to her? She had died, and so had passed beyond the constraints of blood, bone and flesh. She was a different order of being, and surely no mere mortal could change her, could add anything to what she had become. So, in her unending compassion and love, she had come to me and told me what I needed to hear; to save me, and to stop me committing murder and suicide.

I couldn’t believe how stupid and naive I’d been. I’d bought her story hook, line and sinker. I had questioned her post-humus existence, had wondered if I’d lost my mind, but I hadn’t thought to analyse what she had actually said to me.

I was a total fool.

Shame tore at me, made it impossible to look at Ellie’s image. While my love for her was only increased by the insightfulness of her deception, my sense of self-worth was destroyed by my realisation of the truth.

I was useless, and my existence was robbing an angel of her place in heaven.

I had no right to be alive, nor had I now any desire to keep on living, but I could not kill myself without betraying Ellie. I had promised her that I would not.

That was it; I’d had enough for one day. It was time for bed.

Without having said a single word to Ellie, I stood up and, with my eyes averted, blew out the tea-lights.

The darkness comforted me; it was where I belonged. I undressed and clambered into bed, where I curled myself into a ball. Trying to put everything from my mind, I waited for sleep to take me away.

Chapter 18

Wednesday was awful. I got up and went to work like a man who didn’t know who he was, what he was doing, nor where he was going. Nothing made sense to me any more, but there was no choice other than to carry on with the whole pointless business.

Everything seemed to be going slowly, like the world hadn’t been wound-up properly. At odd moments my mind would just go blank; at one point I found myself standing in the middle of the office with a cup half-full of cold coffee, and wondered what I was about.

Am I going to empty my cup and wash it out, or refill it? I asked myself. If I hadn’t drunk the last cup, what was the point in getting another? I didn’t know. If I’d been at home, I would have hurled the cup across the room with all my might, but I wasn’t at home, I was in the office. I suppressed the grimace of self-contempt that tried to take possession of my face, and deliberately returned to my desk and sat down, placing the half-empty cup beside my monitor where it sat like a mute judge..

The day wore grindingly on, like a cliff being progressively eroded by the sea, until, eventually, all that remained was rubble.

Having lost track of time, when I left the office it was late. The sun had long set, and a cold, dark, cloudless sky hung over my head.

I wandered home, moving only by habit and a lack of an alternative. I realised that I was paying little attention to where I was putting my feet; instead, I was desperately starring up at the sky. I wanted to see the moon; I needed to look upon that bright, heavenly face. Then, somehow, everything would be okay.

But I couldn’t find it. Stars twinkled mockingly in the depths of space, but of the moon there was not even the slightest sign.

The thin sliver of hope that had arisen in me turned to ashes and dissolved in an ocean of despair.

I dropped into the off-licence and picked up a bottle of wine. I briefly considered buying two, but was already feeling tired and hadn’t eaten dinner the night before. Something told me that I wasn’t going to eat any tonight, either.

I sat glumly and silently in my living room, and knocked back the wine as quickly as I could. By 8pm the bottle was finished, and I was done for the night. Without bothering to brush my teeth, I headed for bed.

I wouldn’t turn on my bedroom light; I didn’t want to see Ellie’s photo, smiling away, regardless. So I groped blindly across the room until I found my bed, shed my clothes and crawled under the covers.

I could almost feel Ellie’s eyes upon me in the darkness. Her gentle, ubiquitous presence was with me, whether I asked for it or not. How I loved her, but at the same time, how I hated her! I hated her for killing herself, and I hated her for getting me to promise that I wouldn’t. Why couldn’t she have left me alone? Why did I ever have to meet her? How dare she bring such light into my life, then cast herself away into the darkness? And how dare she come back to me, to fill my heart with love and my head with lies?

* * * * * *

The next day at work was an even greater trial than the previous one. Lost and beyond hope, I swum through a nightmare of mundane events that were meaningless to me. I wanted only to lay on the floor and cry, but I couldn’t see the point, and knew that no tears would come anyway.

Like a robot with faulty programming, I switched between an automatic functioning and a catatonic drifting. I spent nearly an hour sitting in a toilet cubicle, doing nothing, thinking about nothing. When I realised how long I’d been in there, I hastily returned to my desk – where I sat, staring through my computer screen and pretending, unconvincingly, to work.

I was nauseous with hunger; I hadn’t eaten a proper meal since the weekend, but still I couldn’t face food. I felt sick and empty; physically, emotionally, mentally.

How long can I keep going like this? I wondered vaguely, not really caring what the answer might be.

I’d asked the same question of myself on many occasions in the past. What I was going through was not a new experience; I had been in this state a number of times before.

I tried to tell myself that it was different now. I had in my life someone who loved and cared for me; not just someone, an angel. The irony of the situation was that this just made it worse. Because I had every reason to be happy – aside from the lies told to me, which I could understand, though not forgive – the fact that I was so desperately unhappy seemed to me a further revelation of how contemptible I was. Despite the blessings I had been given, I remained essentially cursed; a miserable, whining, discontented thing, unworthy of redemption or love. That I was loved, and loved greatly, was surely an injustice, an unsatisfactory state of affairs; like pearls being cast before swine.

Cautiously, I opened myself to Ellie’s love, to check that it was still there, that I could still feel it. I could; it was like being submerged in a pure, gentle river. And the current of her love did not pass by me, flowing on to some place else; as a river empties into a sea, so her love poured directly into me.

It was too much; something so wonderful and precious should not be given to someone as base and common as myself. It was like pouring holy water into a befouled, unflushed toilet. My skin itched and crawled as it had at Ellie’s wake, when it had wanted to dissociate itself from the black clothing I had worn. Now it was trying to escape the soothing, liquid joy that coursed through my sullied being.

I turned my mind away from Ellie, shut myself off from her, and something shifted in me. The boggy, heavy depression that weighed upon me was being driven away by a fiery, flashing anger that sent sparks flying in every direction. I was angry with myself; angry with Ellie; angry with the world.

A sudden desire took hold of me; I wanted to get drunk. Very drunk, and very soon.

I had had enough of work and wanted to stomp directly out of the office, but it was only 3pm and Joan would be cross with me if I left this early without getting her permission. I glanced over at her desk; she was in the middle of a telephone call.

I started to get ready to leave. I went and washed my cup, tided my desk, and powered down my computer.

Joan was still gabbing away.

I popped to the toilet, washed my hands and my face, and went back to my desk and put my coat on.

Joan’s conversation continued unabated, but I was finished with waiting. I strode over to her desk; she saw me coming and swivelled her chair to turn her back on me.

Already angry, her casual disregard incensed me. I wanted to walk straight up behind her and push over her chair. I imagined her falling to the floor and the chair toppling on top of her, pinning her in place. I wondered whether I should then kick her whilst she lay there helpless.

Before I could indulge any of my violent fantasies, I marched past Joan’s desk and kept going until I was out the door.

I exited the office and my feet took me down the road to the nearest pub. I ordered a beer, drank it in swift gulps and left the empty glass on the bar.

My journey home was in the manner of a pub crawl. It was nearly 7pm by the time I got to my front door, by which time I’d drunk five pints.

But I was only getting started.

My last port of call before I arrived home had been the off-licence, where I purchased another four beers.

I got in, took off my coat and shoes, and then sat down with the bottles lined up before me – I couldn’t be bothered with the slight inconvenience of putting them in the fridge and fetching them one at a time as need arose.

“Just you and me, guys,” I said to the bottles. “Let’s see who’s still standing come the end of the night!”

I opened the first bottle and took a prodigious swig. Beer overfilled my mouth, and dribbled down my chin. Annoyed, I slammed the bottle back down, causing it to froth and spill out onto the table.

“Oh, wise guy, eh?” I said to the bottle. “I’m going to enjoy turning you into piss!”

I laughed heartily, then realised my bladder was already full. I got up and pointed at the bottle, “I’ll be back!” I threatened it, and staggered to the toilet, sniggering and quoting lines from random films and TV programmes.

I seemed to be enjoying myself. Anyone watching me would have confirmed that I appeared to be in high spirits, laughing and joking. But, really, I was torturing myself. Not knowing what else to do, my thirst for self-destruction was being satisfied with alcohol and a dark, nihilistic humour. But, while I stood, swaying, at the toilet, frustration and anger displaced everything else, as if my current mood were leaving my body along with the urine I expelled.

What’s the point of this?’ I thought to myself. I decided I’d had enough to drink. Much more alcohol on an empty stomach was almost certainly going to cause me to throw up, and leave me with a horrible hangover in the morning. What I really wanted to do was confront Ellie. Although another twelve days remained until she would come to me again, I couldn’t wait that long.

I stormed upstairs, turned the lights on and sat on my bed, glaring at Ellie’s shrine. She smiled happily at me; I wanted to see that smile as mocking, condescending, deceitful. But my wish was vain; her smile was open and joyous, without any hint of arrogance or ill-will.

My anger fell away, leaving behind only a feeling of utter disdain for myself. ’How dare I judge her?’ I thought. ’How dare I even question her, after all the love and kindness she’s shown me? She’s just trying to do her best.’

Meekly, I lit the candles on her shrine and turned off the light. I knelt, crossed myself, bowed. Crossed myself again, bowed again. And, for a third time, crossed myself and bowed.

I stared at her, not knowing what to say.

Her beauty stung like a slap, was as sharp as a rebuke. It put my ugliness into stark relief.

Self-hatred, raw and jagged, exploded within me. I wanted to pull out my hair; smash my head against the floor; bite open my wrists. I didn’t deserve to live; should never even have been born.

An incredible pressure of contradictory motivations and emotions built up within me, and I started to rock back and forth on my knees, grizzling continuously. I knew that, despite the urge to self-harm, I could not cause myself the least injury in Ellie’s presence. It would be an unforgivable offence, an unholy insult, an act of evil. No matter how wretched I felt, I could not do that – it would be like spitting in her face.

But she had deceived me. She had mislead me into believing that I deserved her kindness, that I could in some fashion help her. That simply could not be true. I did not merit her love, and she was wasting her efforts on someone as hopeless as me.

‘What if I ignore her?’ I suddenly thought. ‘If I refused her? Would not acknowledge her in any way? Surely she would, eventually, go away?’ How else could I get her to leave, to either ascend in glory or move on to somewhere else, where she could do some real good?

But what would I say to her when she appeared to me again in my dreams, once the twenty-eight days were up? Could I really look her in the eye and tell her that I didn’t want her in my life, that she should just depart?

I imagined myself doing so, and a bolt of grief, guilt, and despair, and a pure and overwhelming pain, tore through me. I collapsed to the floor; gasping, sobbing, spent.

I’d rather die, I thought. I had given Ellie my word that I wouldn’t kill myself, but, given the circumstances, could I break it – could that oath, made under duress and extracted by lies, be seen as given under false pretences?

Then, as I lay there, drained and dizzy, thinking about how I might rid myself of the promise I had made, something happened within me. An unwavering resolve, distantly familiar, was stirring in the inchoate vacuum of my soul. I knew that, due to my honour, there was no way back from this situation, nor any way out. But was there a way forward?

Slowly, I regathered myself, resumed my kneeling posture, wiped the wetness from my eyes, brought my hands together, and fixed my gaze on Ellie.

“O Ellie, my angel,” I said slowly, clearly, purposefully. “You are to me the eidolon of the divine. You represent and symbolise that which is the most sacred, the most good, and the most lovely. Therefore, I vow myself to you; to your guidance, to your care. I give myself to you, utterly. I will serve you dutifully, praise you daily. I will do all I can to repay the kindness you have shown me, and the joy you have brought into my life. I am yours, until the day I die. I will follow the path you light for me, and I will not allow self-hatred or despair to sway me from it. Somehow, I will become worthy of you; I will work on myself until I am deserving of your love. I will not shirk this task; I will not give in; I will not walk away. This I swear to thee, mine angel. I praise thee; I thank thee; I worship thee; I love thee.”

A magnificent feeling of relief and peace arose within me. I crossed myself, bowed, and stood up. I could not look away from Ellie’s picture, and nor would I blow out the candles and pitch us both into darkness. So I retreated into bed, my eyes not leaving hers. I opened myself fully to her love: it flooded into me and washed my heart clean.

I laughed with joy, and whispered; “It’s done. I’ve vowed myself to you, Ellie, for the rest of my days. So, that’s it – you’re never get rid of me now!”

That hard, dark object within me, that I had become aware of when Ellie had appeared, shining, in my bedroom and I had given her my promise that I would neither kill Tony nor myself, seemed to weaken a little further – its hardness turning brittle, its darkness becoming dull.

Tiredness enveloped me. I yawned and, reluctantly, closed my eyes. Sleep came, and another day was done.

Chapter 19

I woke up on Friday morning bursting with happiness. I lay in bed for a minute, full of contentment, before the hollow, ravenous void in my stomach reminded me that I hadn’t eaten in almost three days.

I started to get dressed, but had to pause to look at Ellie. “I love you,” I whispered to her, but this didn’t satisfy me, so I repeated the words at my normal speaking volume. This still seemed somewhat short, so I shouted them.

Too much. I blushed and apologised.

I finished getting dressed and rushed downstairs to make a cup of tea and some toast. Lots of toast.

* * * * * *

I walked to work in a daze, lost in wonder at the oath I had given to Ellie. It had freed me from, or, rather, had superseded, the vow I had made as a teenager, when I had given up on my own life and swore to live only to make others happy. I had, so far as I could see, failed in that endeavour; but I would not fail Ellie.

Joy bloomed in me whenever I thought of her, and the unstinting love she lavished on me.

I did not yet know how I was going to fulfil my promise to become worthy of her regard and affection. But I did know that hurting myself – either physically or emotionally – was not going to help. Far worse; it might also be upsetting to Ellie. She wanted me to be happy, so by being unhappy, I’d been acting contrary to her wishes.

I got into the office and set to; I’d hardly got anything accomplished throughout the week, and had plenty to do. Being busy was useful; it distracted me from thinking too much about things. It was much better to do as The Power of Now advised – to dwell in one’s centre and be present, free from the interference of thought.

* * * * * *

To make up for leaving early on Thursday, I worked late, and when I left the office it was with a sense of satisfaction. I’d completed many tasks, and was looking forward to the weekend.

On my way home I visited the supermarket to pick up some ingredients; I’d decided to make myself a curry for dinner. I bought onions, peppers, chillies, garlic, ginger, coconut milk and a couple of chicken breasts. I didn’t need to buy any alcohol; I still had the beers I’d purchased the previous night.

I drank one of the beers while I cooked, and then another as I ate. By the time I had finished my meal, which was quite delicious if I do say so myself, I was feeling fairly tired. But I perked up after brushing my teeth – it was time to worship my angel

I went through the usual ritual of lighting the candles on her shrine, turning off the light, kneeling, crossing myself, bowing, then focusing my attention on her picture.

For a moment I just stared at her in silence, grinning; happy and at peace.

“Dear Ellie,” I eventually said. ”I’m so sorry for the way I’ve behaved recently. It was wrong of me to indulge my dark side, to curse and berate myself. But it can be difficult, sometimes, to accept your love; it is such a great honour, a priceless gift. How can I ever repay such a debt?”

I paused. “I’m so looking forward to seeing you again. We’re past the half-way mark; less than two weeks to go! I’ve been through so much over the last couple of weeks; my life has been turned upside down several times – I feel like I’m in the spiritual equivalent of a washing machine!”

I guffawed, but then remembered the nightmare that had featured a washing machine, when a blood-soaked shirt had been thrown at me by a twisted version of Ellie. A sudden connection occurred to me, and the symbolism of that dream became clearer – in it Ellie had taken the guise of a Washer at the Ford, a type of ghostly faerie woman, or banshee, who appears when someone is soon to die. This was followed by a second insight; my original interpretation of the nightmare, that it had been a warning to me about the guilt I’d feel if I murdered Tony, was wrong. Ellie had told me that if I had carried out my plan in toto then she herself would somehow end up suffering horrendous consequences. The true message had been about that; warning me of the harm that my actions would bring to Ellie.

What the more recent series of dreams meant, I had no idea. I turned my attention back to the present; I could speculate about the interpretation of dreams at another time.

“I don’t know what I’m doing, Ellie, but I guess it doesn’t matter that much at the moment. If I’m making any mistakes, aside from the obvious ones I’ve noticed myself, you’ll put me straight when we talk. Until then, I’ll try to remain calm and positive, and keep on meditating, learning and training.”

I couldn’t think of anything more to add, so just repeated the last words I’d said the previous night. “Mine angel; I praise thee, I thank thee, I worship thee, I love thee.”

I crossed myself, bowed, and blew out the candles. Once I’d undressed and got into bed, I imagined myself floating on a raft in the ocean, with the sun beating down on me. I was rocked gently to sleep by the rise and fall of the water.

Chapter 20

I am brought to consciousness by something hard knocking against my side. I open my eyes and am rewarded with a pungent blast of horse-breath in my face.

“Caval!” I mutter ruefully, pushing his hoof away from my ribs. “That’s a rude way to rouse a man!”

I pull myself to my feet, aching all over, and peer about me. I’m still in the small clearing where I encountered the hideous harridan. There is no sign of her, and ashes are all that remain of the fire that tempted me here.

I groan as I realise I’ve returned to the forest in which I had been trapped for endless days. The path I had found that had led me out was a dead end; the road it delivered me onto went only in a wide loop. I had ridden it up into the mountains, down to the river, and finally across the open land and back to where I had started.

I am tempted to try and find the path again, ride once more into those mountains, and confront the hermit, king, or whoever he is, and get to the truth of the matter regarding the Holy Grail.

But, somehow, I know that I will not be able to find him again. And I have been given a task; to ride to King Arthur’s court and tell him of my adventure, and my failure.

I have no idea what direction to head in, and I am sick of trees; sick of being hemmed in, unable to see the horizon, to travel in a straight line, or even ride on horseback. I sit down on a log and put my head in my hands; lost and helpless.

Caval snorts, drawing my attention, and I look up.

At the edge of the clearing, watching me, is the largest rabbit I’ve ever seen. Its fur is white, apart from that covering its ears, which is bright green. It sniffs the air, and puts its head on one side, regarding me with curiosity.

“What is thy desire, my furry friend?” I ask. “Hast thou come to gloat at my misfortune, or dost thou offer aid to this weary traveller?”

The rabbit ducks its head slightly, as if flinching at my question, but then hops toward me. It approaches within an arm’s reach, then retreats again.

“What is thy game? Shouldst I follow thee?”

The rabbit nods its head, and scampers forward and back.

I shrug, and stand. “Well, Caval, there is nought else to do. Let us see where this fluffy fellow wants us to go.”

The rabbit sets off and I march in pursuit, with Caval trailing after.

The sun rises, spreading its warmth and light through the air, and lifting my mood.

We travel through the forest, and I’m encouraged that we seem to be heading in a particular direction, rather than wandering at random. In a short while, we break through the trees and come to a wide, well-used road, cobbled and clear of vegetation.

“Marry, and thank goodness!” I cry in relief, then address the rabbit. “And bless thee, my emerald-eared guide!”

The rabbit runs in a circle, stops briefly to look at me and, satisfied that he’s done his duty, dashes into the undergrowth on the other side of the road.

I lean briefly against Caval. “Come on, old friend,” I say to him. “We must hie us to Camelot.” I climb into the saddle, and we set off at a trot.

After riding for an hour or so I hear the sound of people ahead, and I see a small crowd of common-folk by the roadside. They are engaged in a rowdy debate, and fail to notice me.

As I draw nearer, I spot what I assume must be the reason for their gathering – a girl of around ten years of age, standing upon the stump of a tree trunk. Her hands have been tied together, and there is a rope around her neck, which passes over a hefty branch a few feet above her head. Despite her unfortunate predicament she displays no indication of alarm, and, noticing my attention, she smiles warmly at me. Her demeanour is wholly ingenuous, and I wonder if she is simple of mind.

I draw my sword and spur Caval into a short gallop before pulling sharply on the reigns so that he rears up and neighs. His hooves thud down heavily on the road, and abruptly the chattering stops and all eyes turn to me.

“Tell me,” I shout, my gaze sweeping back and forth, my blade held aloft. “What takes place here? Why dost that young lady wear a noose?”

I look down on the startled, fearful faces, and for a moment there is no answer. Then a solitary, wavering voice replies; “She’s a witch, sire, and we means to ‘ang ‘er – as the good book commands.”

“Art thou wode? She’s but a girl; how could one so young hath come to learn the dark arts?”

“Satan cares not for age, sire; anyone as can speak, can swear an oath. And who knows if she’s really a girl? Perhaps she’s just used her magic to appear so.”

There’s a muttering here and there in support of this statement. I’m aware of an air of unease, of suppressed violence. I do not wish to harm any of these people, but I will not allow them to murder a girl out of sheer suspicion and superstitious fear.

I look at her again. She is a willowy thing, slender and pale. Her curly, shoulder-length hair is somewhere between red and brown, and her bright eyes sparkle. She wears a fine dress, the lower-half of which is green, the top half blue, and is embroidered with a white and purple floral pattern. She has the appearance and bearing of a nobleman’s daughter, and clearly does not belong amongst her current company. Perhaps that is the real reason they’ve decided to kill her; because of an envious and surly aggression towards those who are more fortunate than they.

“Where art her parents?” I demand.

“She‘s none that we know of, sire,” the self-elected spokesperson for the villagers informs me. “She just appeared one day, out of the mist. Made ‘ersen at ‘ome in an old, empty cottage. That’s not natural, is it, sire? A wee thing like ‘er, all by ‘ersen, with no ma or pa, nor aunt or uncle, nor sister or brother.”

“That may be unusual, but hardly maketh her a witch. Doth thou hath any evidence for thine accusation?” I ask, then add sarcastically, “Hath she, for example, turned anyone into an ewt?”

There’s more muttering, and a restless shifting and shuffling in the crowd, but nobody speaks up.

“It seems ye have no proof,” I tell them. “So I offer ye this; I will take the girl with me to Camelot, and there she can be judged – Merlin will be able to tell, one way or another, whether she is a witch.”

A few faces show relief at this suggestion, but more express discontent and mistrust, and I get the impression they wish to settle this themselves. I am vexed that my word is not taken as a final resolution of the matter – I am, after all, a knight, part of the nobility, and they are mere peasants. I grip my sword, ready to force my way through them to the girl’s side.

“Good Sir Knight, hold!” the girl suddenly cries to me; her voice is dulcet and, unexpectedly, has a strong Hibernian accent. “Put away thy sword! I am in no danger.” And with that she steps to the edge of the tree-stump and leaps forward.

My breath catches, and there are gasps and exclamations from the mob. Those standing nearest try to move away, seeking to distance themselves from what is happening, while those behind try to get closer, to get a better view.

I watch as the girl seems to float for an instant in the air; then she drops, landing lightly on her feet. The rope, I see, did not halt her descent as its other end had not yet been secured to anything.

I take advantage of the momentary confusion and charge through the throng to her. Taking hold of the rope, I slice through it with my sword, then cut through the twine binding the girl’s hands. I sheath my blade and reach down, she grabs hold of my arm, and I pull her up onto the saddle in front of me, shifting backward to accommodate her.

There are some oaths and curses from the crowd, but nobody lifts a hand to stop me. Without a further word, I direct Caval back to the road, and we ride off.

When we have travelled a little distance, the young girl turns and addresses me. “Thank thee for my deliverance!” she says.

“Thou art welcome. ‘Twas nothing,” I reply distantly; I am distracted by her fascinating hair – I see now, up close, that it is not a reddish brown, but rather contains strands of many different hues: gold and ginger, ochre and umber, vermilion and russet, chestnut and fawn, hazel and auburn.

“So, what is thy name?” she asks expectantly. “And that of thy fine steed?”

“I am Sir Timotheus, Knight Errant, and my warhorse hight Caval.”

She exultantly whispers my name to herself, before addressing me with a question. “Well, Sir Timotheus, my Champion, wilt thou stop a second to rid me of this irksome noose? ”

“Forsooth!” I exclaim. “Where hath my manners gone? Please forgive me, young lady – in the heat of the moment I appear to have forgotten all courtesy! ‘Tis unusual to get the chance to rescue a damsel in distress so early in the day!” I halt Caval and rid her of the rope around her throat.

The introductions unfinished, I ask her, “And what, fair child, is thy name?”

She giggles. “I doubt thou couldst say my real name properly, so please, I pray thee, call me Maiden Meara.”

“Well then, Maiden Meara, what am I to do with thee? And where art thy family? Art thou an orphan?”

“Nay, Sir Timotheus, my family are safe and sound, I assure thee. I was sent here in order to accompany thee; to give thee guidance on thy quest. As to what thou shouldst do with me, I thought that that had been decided – thou art going to take me to Camelot with thee, art thou not? Is that not what thou didst tell the people back there?”

“Yes,” I concede, unsure whether she is being serious. “That I did. But there’s really no need – I believe that thou art no witch, so why should I force thee to travel all the way to Camelot?”

“Isn’t a knight supposed to be honest? Once he’s given a promise to someone, shouldn’t he keep it?”

“Of course he should, under normal circumstances. But I swore no oath, and, in any event, that rabble hardly deserves the honour of my word.”

“Shame on thee!” Meara scolds, laughing. “A good knight should always be honest, and try and keep his word no matter to whom he has given it. As it happens, it would please me to visit Camelot, and thereto shall I guide thee. We shall arrive on the third day of travel.”

“Very well, Maiden Meara; to Camelot we both shall go. But I can hardly believe that we are as near to Camelot as that we shall reach it in three days, even if we rode at full gallop – and I see no reason to risk Caval so. Unless there is a particular reason to make haste?”

“Oh no, there’s no need to hurry. But we shall be at Camelot three days hence.”

She sounds very certain of herself, and I decide to change the subject. “Tell me, Maiden Meara; what were the villagers arguing about when I arrived? Didst some of them have second thoughts about what they planned to do to thee?”

“Yes, they were some that did – they weren’t sure whether hanging me would be sufficient, so they were wanting to burn me instead. Others thought that a waste of good firewood.”

“Such savages!” I remark. “It’s just as well I arrived when I did! If they had harmed thee, I would have been full wroth with them, and may have deemed it meet to chastise them with my sword.”

Meara sighs. “Thou art too hasty with that weapon, Sir Timotheus! And such a sentiment is itself ignorant and misguided, showing that thou art barely more civilised than they. As a knight it is thy duty to serve and protect the common people, not boss them about or herd them like sheep! Beside which, it was me that put the thought into their heads – I needed some way to delay things until thine arrival.”

For one so young, thou art very confident and wise, and seemest very sure as to the manner in which a knight should behave!”

Appearances can be deceptive and, though I am exactly as thou seest me, I am far older than thou wouldst think. The crossing of our paths was no accident, Sir Timotheus, and I have been given clear instructions as to how to advise thee, for it is my task not just to guide thee safely to Camelot, but to instruct thee, so that thou mayest complete the quest for the Holy Grail.”

Maiden Meara, thou art a marvel,” I tell her, “though I find some of what thou sayest taxing to my sense! For one so short, thou seemest to hath a fondness for tall tales!”

“I can assure thee, Sir Timotheus,” she responds in a tone that is both haughty and playful, “that I have not said a single dishonest word to thee. And it ill-beseems thee to cast aspersions on the integrity and good name of maidens such as myself! Especially as thou art my Champion – for the nonce, at least.”

“Maiden Meara, please accept my apology. I did not mean to cause offence!”

She giggles. “Apology accepted. Now, if thou couldst stop a moment by that oak there, that would be grand.”

“As thou desireth, my lady. Dost thou wish to relieve thyself?”

She laughs fit to burst. “Sir Timotheus! While it behoves a Grail Seeker to inquire about things he fails to understand, thy question is most impertinent!”

We reach the indicated tree and Meara slides down from Caval’s back and disappears into the foliage, then returns carrying a bulky basket. I dismount to assist her.

The basket appears to contain the contents of a small pantry. There are loaves of bread, a block of cheese, some apples, a pot of honey, another of oil, a flask full of clear liquid, a bag of flour and a small sack of oats. There’s also a change of clothes for Meara, a couple of large, colourful blankets, a saucepan, and a satchel.

“Whither hath all this come?” I ask.

“Oh, I put it here yesterday; I knew we’d be passing this way, and imagined we wouldst be needful of supplies.” Meara replies. She reaches into the basket and pulls out the satchel. Slipping its strap over her head, she rummages within. “Ah!” she exclaims, producing a ring. She holds it out to me; “Here, Sir Timotheus, a gift for thee, to repay my rescue. Wear it proudly!”

I lean forward to inspect the ring. It is silver, and adorned with three jewels; the first red, the middle one white, the last green. The third of the gemstones seems to gleam and glimmer with its own light.

“This is a fine and precious thing,” I say, shaking my head. “Far too rich a reward for my meagre efforts.”

“Nay, Sir Timotheus;” she says, her tone amused but serious, “I have chosen to give this ring to thee. To refuse it would be ungracious, and give me insult. Art thou not my Champion?”

I hold up my hands to indicate surrender. “Once again, my lady, I apologise. ‘Tis an honour to be thy Champion.” I doff my gauntlet and hold out my hand for the ring, but Meara closes her fist around it.

“Now, all joking aside, dost thou truly swear to be my Champion, to serve and respect me, and follow mine advice?”

I hesitate. I had never imagined I would one day swear myself to a child, but this is clearly no ordinary girl. She knew to expect me, knew that it was my aim to seek the Holy Grail, and claims she can help me achieve that task. Perhaps I am being tricked; perhaps Meara is a witch after all. But I cannot believe she is evil, and although I have only just met her, I feel a kindly affection toward her already.

I sigh, kneel before her, and offer my finger. “Maiden Meara, I doth swear to serve, respect and protect thee. I shall do thy bidding, and follow thine advice. I am thy Champion.”

Meara slips the ring on, claps loudly and then clasps me in a brief hug, before returning her attention back to the basket. “Hast thou breakfasted yet, Sir Timotheus?”

“Nay, Maiden Meara – my provisions are exhausted.”

“Well, let us eat now. It will also be easier to talk while sitting by the roadside, rather than sharing Caval’s back.”

The matter decided, we sit down on one of the blankets to share a light meal of bread, cheese and apples.

My curiosity about this uncannily canny young lass, and my incredulity at some of her assertions, prompts me to question her. “Maiden, I am puzzled by some of the things thou hast told me. If thou were sent to guide me, then how is it that thou didst not know my name? How canst thou be sure it was not some other knight thou wert supposed to encounter?”

Meara finishes chewing a mouthful of food before answering. “I know that thou art the knight I should guide because thou appeared at the right time. It was not necessary for me to know thy name beforehand, and sometimes such prior knowledge can be more of a hindrance than a help. It is also better to get somebody’s name from their own mouth rather than from another’s.”

I’m not sure what she means by her final remark, but see no sense pursuing it. “Thou also said that thou art to advise me how to complete the quest for the Holy Grail. Is it my fate, then, to do this – to restore that hallowed object, and heal the land? I have but recently seen Kind Pelham and the Holy Grail, though I recognised them not. If thou had advised me prior to then, I may have succeeded in the quest. But now? Surely, another such opportunity will not present itself.”

“Wherefore? If it rains today, dost that mean it will not rain tomorrow? Nay, say I; that which hath happened once before can surely happen once again. And everyone deserves a second chance.”

“I hope thou art right, Maiden Meara. And, if thou hast wisdom to share, I would be grateful to hear it.”

“Realising that one is ignorant, and desiring to escape that condition, is itself a sign of wisdom.” She pauses for a moment. “Tell me, Sir Timotheus: why dost thou wish to join the quest for the Holy Grail?”

“Because King Arthur deems it to be of the utmost importance, and almost all the Knights of the Round Table have set off to find it. I aspire to join their ranks, so it seems the right thing to do – to take up the quest. Should I succeed, I am sure to be offered a place in that august order.”

“Oh, Sir Timotheus, if thou wishes to achieve the Grail, thou needest a better reason than that! Only someone with a pure heart, who seeks selflessly, diligently and devotedly, can complete the quest. The wrong motive – whether it is a desire for fame, wealth, status or success – will lead one only to disaster.”

I nod my head. “Putting it that way, Maiden Meara, maketh perfect sense. How could someone impure of heart, and searching with selfish aims, hope to satisfy such a sacred undertaking? Now, if it pleaseth thee, kindly instruct me how to purify my heart, and to find the proper motive.”

“The motive thou must find thyself. As to the purification of thine heart, all thou must do is rid thyself of evil; all selfishness, meanness, conceit, hatred, anger and greed, all ignorance and arrogance. Let go of darkness and embrace the light; then will the quest for the Holy Grail be realised.”

“That is easy to say, but hard to do, I wager. How am I to proceed? How does one go about purging oneself of selfishness, meanness, and the rest of them?”

“The first thing thou needeth to address is thine anger, which stems in part from thine hatred of evil, but also from thine arrogance. Both these attitudes have their origin in ignorance.”

“But is it not right to hate evil, to seek to destroy that which opposes the good?”

“Nay, my Champion, for hatred is evil in its truest form. Evil cannot be vanquished by evil – for then one evil just supplants another. One does not put out a fire by feeding it more fuel.”

“Tell me, then, what I must do, to purge anger, hatred, arrogance and ignorance from my heart.”

“In order to leave darkness behind thee, thou must first cease to do evil unto thyself. Too easily do those who seek to become good judge themselves ill, and treat themselves harshly, endlessly whipping and chastising themselves. Such behaviour does not lead to goodness; it more frequently leads to bitterness, resentment, and, finally, disgust for one’s self and all living things. That is not the way. Instead, thou shouldst be a friend unto thyself; treat thyself kindly, acknowledging thine own efforts and resources, thy triumphs, and thy good qualities. This does not mean being self-indulgent, conceited or lazy, rather thou shouldst be honest and respectful with thyself. Just as thou wouldst be supportive and helpful to a friend, offering comfort and encouragement rather than injury and damnation, be so to thyself. Learn from thine errors, but forgive thyself them also. This is the manner in which thou shouldst proceed.”

“I shall try to follow this instruction, though I must say it seems counter to much of what I have been told in the past. The priests, particularly, are fond of encouraging self-castigation, and remembering one’s wretchedness and sinful nature, as a means of promoting virtue.”

“’Tis true; many would think that kindness to others is dependent upon unkindness to one’s self, and so they practice self-flagellation. But causing suffering to any living being is wrong, no matter what being it is – thyself or another. By promoting the happiness of all, so is happiness increased.”

“I shall meditate on thy words and the wisdom therein.”

“As thou shouldst,” Meara says. She stands up and brushes crumbs from her dress. “Come, ’tis time we were on our way.” She starts emptying the remaining items from the basket and passing them to me. I distribute them amongst my packs and saddle-bags.

Soon, we are back on the road and continuing our journey. I consider the advice Meara has given me, while she amuses herself by singing little songs to Caval, stroking his neck, and plaiting his mane.

Late in the afternoon the road passes beside a lake fringed by grass and ferns; a bright oasis standing out from the forest’s gloom.

“Oh, what a delightful spot – let’s stop here awhile!” says Meara, and then adds with a laugh, “It’s a pleasant enough place if one wishes to relieve thyself!”

I do not argue, nor respond to her gibe, and Caval is more than happy to step off the road and onto the lush grass, which he immediately starts to eat.

Meara and I dismount. She frolics along the lake’s shore, while I start to remove my armour – the day is pleasantly warm, and it has been some time since I last bathed.

I have stripped down to my undergarments, and am preparing to wade into the water, when I hear a sound echoing faintly through the trees; a distant commotion, coming closer. I see that Meara has heard it too, and is heading to investigate.

“Careful, Meara!” I cry. I grab up my sword by the hilt, leaving its sheath on the ground behind me as I rush after her.

The volume of the noise increases, resolving itself into the baying of a pack of hounds. I assume they are part of a hunting party, but I cannot hear the horns which the huntsmen should be blowing.

I am still some distance from Meara, and call to her again. “Meara – come here, young lady! Thou art putting thyself in danger! Whatever animal is being hunted might trample over thee, or the dogs in their excitement might attack thee.”

She glances over at me, and says, “Don’t be silly, Sir Timotheus! Put down thy sword; there is no peril here.”

I have no time to reply: something has suddenly emerged from the forest’s edge. It is the size of a pony, has the head and neck of a serpent, the body of a leopard, and the hooves of a deer. When it sees Meara stood in its path, it stops – its attitude seemingly one of surprise rather than anything else. But then it catches sight of me, approaching with my sword, and it crouches; ready either to leap to the attack or recede back into the trees. The noise of the dogs is loud, but also muffled somehow, as if they were howling from within a heavy sack.

Meara quickly steps between the two of us, making soft, encouraging sounds to the monster. Out of the corner of her mouth she hisses at me, “Put down thy sword!”

The way between the trees and the lake now clear, the beast steps hesitantly forward, then trots quickly past Meara down to the water. Astonishingly, the sound of the hounds goes with it – but then starts to diminish as the creature lowers its head and starts to drink thirstily.

“Maiden,” I whisper. “What is that thing? Are you sure it offers us no threat?”

“That is Glatisant, the Barking Beast,” she replies. “He will not harm anyone. Watch.” She approaches it careful, all the while murmuring subtle syllables in a liquid language I cannot comprehend. She reaches its side and gently strokes its feline flank as it gulps down mouthful after mouthful of water. I see now that it has the tail of a lion, which twitches happily as Meara pets it.

I cautiously join Meara. Glatisant seems unperturbed by the two of us. I have to admit that, despite its chimerical form, it is a fine animal: well-proportioned, sleek and healthy. I run my hand down its back; its fur is soft.

It takes a few minutes for Glatisant to drink his fill, by which time the yelping noise has ceased completely. He raises his head and looks in all directions; flicks out his snake’s tongue to taste the air. He turns to depart, and I step back, but Meara throws her arms around his long neck and hugs him. He responds by resting his head on hers; they stay like this a moment, then Meara lets him go. He walks a few paces, then pauses, gazing back on the girl with an almost mournful expression on his ophidian face. A second later, he sets off – moving at an incredible speed, he bounds along the lake’s edge, then disappears into the forest.

Meara is wiping tears from her eyes. I am about to ask her why she has become upset by the encounter, when we’re distracted by the sound of something else coming through the trees, from the same direction in which Glatisant had arrived.

A man on horseback rides into view. Apart from lacking a helmet, he is fully armoured, though like me he rides with his shield slung on his back, robbing me of the chance to identify him by his heraldry. He is going on in years, and looks worn and haggard by his travails. I’m sure I’ve never met him before, but yet there is something very familiar about him.

He catches sight of the pair of us, and promptly draws his sword and spurs his horse forward.

“Villain!” he shouts at me. “Drop they blade and step away from the maid!”

I realise that I am stood beside Meara on the lake’s bank, wearing only underwear, and holding my sword. It is not difficult to understand how the situation could be misinterpreted.

Meara puts herself between the two of us, and curtsies to the new arrival.

“Thou must be King Pellinore, and thou art well met. Glad am I to see thee! But things here are not as they might seem – this man here is my Champion. He is Sir Timotheus; a good knight and true.”

King Pellinore reins in his horse, but regards me suspiciously. I realise now why he seems familiar – he bears a striking similarity to the hermit I meet in the mountains. And so he should: King Pelham and King Pellinore are brothers.

I drop to one knee, putting my sword’s point in the earth and resting my hands on its pommel. “Hail, King Pellinore!” I say. “It is as the maiden said. I was just about to bathe in the lake when I heard the noise of hounds approaching through the forest. Uncertain if danger was on its way, I armed myself, ready to protect this young lady if need be.”

“Ahh,” he says and nods. “And did a strange beast appear?”

Meara answers his question; “Iwis, he did! Glatisant stopped for a drink at this lake, then departed through the trees over there.” She points across the lake to where we last saw the Barking Beast.

“Hmmm, is that so?” King Pellinore muses. He remains sitting on his horse, pondering.

Meara turns to me. “If thou doth not object, I would suggest we stay here tonight and invite King Pellinore to join us. It will not delay our journey.”

“As thou wishes;” I reply, then address King Pellinore. “Your highness, Maiden Meara and I are to camp here for this evening; wilt thou join us?”

“Aye, gramercy for the offer. As Glatisant has filled his belly with water, he’ll stop his noise for some time, and will be almost impossible to follow – for he moves as silently as a shadow, and as swiftly as a swallow. Best that I rest and pick up the chase on the morrow.”

I nod. “Now, if ye wilt both pardon me, I shall return to my forestalled ablutions.”

As I bathe, Meara goes into the forest to collect firewood, and Pellinore dismounts from his horse and removes his armour.

I come out of the water and dry myself; Meara returns from the forest, laden with sticks, and goes for a swim while I prepare the fire. Pellinore has produced a makeshift fishing rod and is selecting a spot on the bank from which to cast.

Half an hour later, the fire is blazing and, on a simple spit Pellinore and I have constructed, roast two good-sized fishes.

“King Pellinore,” I say as our dinner cooks. “It behoves me to tell thee that I recently met with thy brother – King Pelham.”

He gives me a sharp look. “And didst thou…?”

I understand his half-question. “Nay, King, I did not. He seemed to me only a hermit, living in a cave. I had no idea of his true identity, and he was content not to disillusion me. In any case, I am still uncertain as to what I needed, exactly, to do to complete the quest; I was told that I had failed to ask a question – but what question? To that question, I know not the answer.”

Pellinore shrugs. “Ahh, well, ‘tis the way it goes. How was he?”

“His health was not so good; he coughed a lot. He also seemed somewhat disturbed in his mind; anxious, fearful, even.”

“Hmm; but he had the Grail with him? Did thou see it?”

“He had with him a metal bowl, varnished black. I learned later that it was the Holy Grail – though I’ve not previously heard it described as such.”

“When it was shown to me, it appeared to be made of beaten tin – I thought it an unremarkable and homely thing. My brother, on the other hand, was much impressed by it; to him, it was fashioned from silver, and decorated with many images and symbols.”

“King Pellinore, what canst thou tell me about the Holy Grail? About its history, and why thy brother chose to take it into the wilderness?”

“I know but little. The Grail was once the possession of a great holy man, who lived hundreds of years ago in a far distant land. For some reason, it was brought to this island, and served a small community of monks for a while, but then – due to the Roman invasion – it was removed to the realm of the gods. There it stayed until Merlin fetched it hither, and was given into the care of my father, until the time came for it to be passed to King Arthur. Alas, the Grey Emissary, a servant of the Enemy, found out where the Grail was, and has done all he can to destroy my family and obtain it for his master. Because of him my younger brother and sister were vilely slain, and my father grievously injured. I can only think that Pelham feared that he would find a way to enter our castle and steal the Grail; that is why he fled with it, to keep it out of the Enemy’s hands. Whether he acted wisely, or rashly, it is not for me to say. As for myself, I saw my sister die as the Barking Beast tore itself from her womb – and I swore that I would hunt down that devilish abomination and kill it. That was close to a dozen years ago, and a merry dance it has led me since…” He pauses for a moment, and his expression changes from one of bitterness to one of wonder. “Ahh, but the things I have seen, the places I have visited, the encounters I have had, during those years! I’ve chased that beast from one end of the country to the other; it has even led me to other realms, to strange and fantastic lands, the likes of which thou couldst barely imagine!” He stops and stares raptly into the distance, no doubt recalling one of his many adventures.

I speak, to try and keep him focused. “Truly, King Pellinore, I am sorry to hear of the deaths of thy brother and sister, and the harm done to thy father. I hope that thy fortunes and those of thy family improve. Should I get another chance to solve the Grail Quest, I will do my utmost to achieve it.”

“I’m sure thou wilt, though it seems a most difficult task. Rescuing damsels, slaying giants – these are not always easy to accomplish, but at least they are straightforward!”

Meara, wrapped in a blanket, comes and join us. After warming herself by the fire for a few minutes, she slips away and returns fully dressed and bearing the saucepan we’d recovered earlier from the basket, which she’s filled with water. She rests this on the fire’s edge, then busies herself making cakes.

We eat the fish as the cakes bake on a flat rock close to the fire.

Meara carefully removes the saucepan from beside the flames, adds a handful of herbs, stirs, and returns it to the fire’s side.

Before long we are tucking into the cakes – which are delicious – and passing around the saucepan, sipping the hot, herbal infusion.

I’ve not eaten so well since I left home for Camelot.

We talk for a little while but are all tired and we soon settle down to sleep for the night, our bodies making a triangle around the fire.

* * * * * *

I woke up on Saturday morning full of excitement at the continuation of Sir Timoetheus’s adventures, and thrilled by his finding a guide and companion in the shape of Meara, the merry maiden. She was obviously another reflection of Ellie, but rather than being a rueful and angry manifestation, she evidently represented her in a pure and innocent form; one that was full of wisdom, understanding, compassion and kindness.

I reviewed the episodes of which the dream had consisted: awakening in the forest; being guided by the rabbit; coming upon the lynch mob and Meara with the rope around her neck; the discussion Meara and I had had as we ate by the roadside; and stopping by the lake and encountering Glatisant and King Pellinore.

I was disturbed by the manner in which I had met Meara; that she should have been on the point of being hanged. Although Ellie had not killed herself by this method, it was still a very unsettling scene – especially when Meara had jumped off the tree-stump, which had appeared to be a suicidal action.

I decided not to think about it. Instead, I called to mind the lesson Meara had given; the instructions regarding how to purify one’s heart. Her teaching could not have been more relevant: be a friend unto thyself; treat thyself kindly, acknowledging thine own efforts and resources. She had also confirmed that which I had realised; that to berate and punish one’s self due to a sense of unworthiness was wholly misguided: causing suffering to any living being is wrong, no matter what being it is – thyself or another. By promoting the happiness of all, so is happiness increased.

There were more things she had said and done that set me pondering. I was particularly intrigued by the ring she had bestowed upon me. She had said; a gift for thee, to repay my rescue. Wear it proudly! ‘Tis the Ring of the Champion.

What did it represent? All I could think of was some kind of commitment, like an engagement. Ellie Had told me that she would be with me, for as long as I needed her, and I had now given her my oath that I would serve and praise her for the rest of my life. The attempt to return the ring was perhaps a reflection of my ill-advised plan of ignoring her, of turning away from her love, to try and get her to leave. Art thou not my Champion? Dost thou spurn me? I winced at the recollection. I had wanted her to go for her own good, I had thought, but then I remembered what Ellie had told me herself, about how she had come to the decision to take her own life: I’d convinced myself that whatever it was that I was doing, it was for the best, for everyone. Depression can make even murder and suicide seem reasonable, even honourable, and I would have to be extremely wary if I fell into one of these states again. The dark ideas and twisted plans that arose during such periods were not to be trusted.

There was another comment she had made, that set me thinking: I have not said a single dishonest word to thee. Was this referring to my belief that Ellie had lied to me? That she had, with kindness, tried to deceive me? Was it possible that I had been mistaken – that, in some sense, she did need me, that I did make a difference to her?

I could have spent the whole day lying there, thinking about the dream and what messages there were hidden in it. But I had things to do, and it was time to get up.

* * * * * *

I did a few household chores, and then went for a walk into town. I needed to get some more tea-lights and some fresh flowers, but I also wanted to find something to add to Ellie’s shrine; something fitting and beautiful.

I trawled through the charity shops and although I saw many nice things, none of them seemed quite appropriate. A little disappointed, I headed for a store I knew did a good deal on tea-lights. On my route I came across a shop I’d walked past many times but never entered; Evolution – which seemed to me another of those new-age places which sold all kinds of statuettes, picture-frames, candles, incense, cushions, dream-catchers, jewellery, and other odds and ends. I went inside and spent almost half-an-hour browsing the range of wares: eventually I bought a small glass globe on top of which an angel knelt; a diminutive metal figurine of a faerie, brightly painted (which reminded me of Meara); and a little green statue of the Buddha.

After that I went and got the tea-lights, and finally picked up some flowers from my local florists on my way home.

I got in and eagerly set to work, replacing the flowers on Ellie’s shrine, and seeing where best to put the new items I’d purchased. I decided to put the faerie and the Buddha in front of Ellie’s picture, one on each side. The angel on the globe went in the very centre of the shrine.

Pleased with my efforts, I had a bath, ate some brunch, and meditated for a while. As evening came I turned to reading; I finished The Power of Now but didn’t then start another of the volumes I’d borrowed from the library; instead I went and searched through my own stacks of books.

I assumed that the dream I’d had the previous night was the first of three, and that the following two would continue Sir Timotheus’s quest for the Holy Grail. I therefore thought it a good idea to re-read some of the works I’d collected on the subject many years before. The first I found was King Arthur & The Grail: The Arthurian Legends and their Meaning by Richard Cavendish. I sat down with a coffee and started to read, only stopping a couple of hours later when I became too hungry to concentrate.

There was a fair measure of curry left over from the night before, so all I needed to do was re-heat it and cook some fresh rice.

After dinner I popped out and got a bottle of red wine. I sat in my living room, sipping wine and turning things over in my mind, until the time came to worship my angel.

I completed the opening ritual of lighting the candles and kneeling, crossing and bowing, then said; “My dearest, my Ellie, thank you for all the happiness you’ve brought me this day, and I hope you like the additions I’ve made to your shrine.” The flames of the tea-lights twinkled and danced in the glass globe, while the Buddha and the faerie sat in their places, one radiating a supreme serenity, the other, a softly mischievous sweetness. They all seemed to fit, and gave a broader picture of the meaning and symbolism I associated with Ellie. Although Christian, she had not been bigoted nor sectarian in her faith, and now she represented to me an all-embracing spirituality, beyond any particular creed or ideology. She supported any tradition that preached universal love, forgiveness, kindness, compassion and wisdom.

“I’m really looking forward to adventuring again in my dreams with the delightful and fearless Meara. She’s an utter joy – so jolly and wise! I wonder what she’ll teach me tonight? I just hope that I can get to sleep okay, that my excitement doesn’t keep me awake!” I laughed, then lapsed into silence. For a few minutes I simply knelt there, with a contented heart and a mind at peace, before uttering the series of words that had come to be the closing ritual of my worship; “Mine angel; I praise thee, I thank thee, I love thee.”

Despite my apprehension that I wouldn’t find it easy to fall asleep, it wasn’t long before I drifted off. With a smile on my lips, I slept.

Chapter 21

The sun is shining strongly when I wake. As I get up and dress I notice that King Pelinore, his equipment and his horse, are gone, and Meara’s bedroll is empty. For a horrified moment I fear he has taken her with him, but then I see her – my eye drawn by her hair, which blazes like fire in the brilliant sunshine. She is stood some distance away in the shallows of the lake, talking to a woman waist-deep in the water.

The woman moves towards Meara, and abruptly she is not wading through the water, but walking upon it. She starts to sing. I am too far away to make out any words; I hear only a rising and falling sound that tugs at me strangely. Meara adds her voice to the woman’s, although I get the peculiar impression that they are not singing the same song.

She reaches Meara’s side, then turns around. They both stand facing across the length of the lake, a pure note flowing from them across the water, spreading out through the air.

I look in the direction they are facing, wondering if they have seen something. There’s nothing there, so I start to turn back to them, then notice a movement on the water’s surface. There is a swell, a growing wave, which is travelling from the far end of the lake toward the pair.

The wave rears up as it approaches the shore, becomes concentrated, and then breaks. Meara and the woman step away from each other as something emerges from the crashing water; a white pony, with sapphire blue points, strides from the surf to stand between the two.

The pony shakes its head, shedding droplets of water. Meara produces something from her satchel and offers it up; the pony takes a cursory sniff before eating it.

Maiden Meara and the woman exchange a few words and a sisterly embrace, then the woman walks back into the water. Deeper and deeper she goes, until her head disappears beneath the rippling surface.

Meara hugs the pony, before leading it to our camp.

“Morning, sleepyhead!” she greets me.

“Good morning, Meara,” I reply. “And who’s this with thee?”

“This is Tonn,” she says proudly. “The Lady of the Lake was kind enough to allow me his service.”

“That was good of her, and I’m sure Caval will be pleased that he doesn’t have to carry us both any more.”

“Yes, and it’s more seemly that we ride separately, dost thou not think?”

“Iwis, I do.”

“Then let us get packed up and off; we hath some distance to travel today.”

The two of us put everything away, aside from one of the loaves and some of the honey, which we share for breakfast, and one of the blankets, which Meara uses in lieu of a saddle.

It is a glorious morning; warm and clear, and we ride through a region of grassland and gentle hills.

Well, Sir Timotheus, my Champion – didst thou learn much from King Pellinore yesternight?”

“Aye; he gave me an outline of the Grail’s story – where it came from and why it was taken into the wilderness. I wonder if it would hath been better if it had never come to this country, for woe seems to follow in its wake. Much suffering has been visited upon King Pellinore and his family, due to their guardianship of the Grail. Now I have a question for thee, Meara; what dost thou wit of Glatisant, and why were thou upset yesterday to see him? Plainly, thou hast some affection for the creature, but that doesn’t explain why he should sadden thee.”

“Because he suffers. He may have the body of a monster, and in his birth he may have slain his mother, but still he is an innocent being. He means no harm, and he is not to blame for any of the sorry events that have surrounded his life, yet he has been cast out by his kith and kin, and hunted all his days. I do not know how one could know his story, and not feel sympathy for him.”

I am moved by the account. “If that is so, why didst thou not tell King Pellinore to stop chasing him, to let him be?”

“Because King Pellinore has no more choice in hunting Glatisant than Glatisant had in being born in the first place. It is their weird. Nobody knows what will happen for sure, but the resolution of their story rests on whether the quest for the Holy Grail is achieved. If thou canst finish the quest, thou canst put an end to Glatisant’s misery.”

“Then tell me how.”

Meara laughs. “I can give you guidance, Sir Timotheus, but if thou art to complete the quest, thou must look inside thyself. Knowledge cannot unlock the mystery of the Grail, only wisdom and experience can. I can point the way, but thou must walk the path.”

There is something familiar about Meara’s words, though I cannot recall ever having had such a conversation before.

She continues. “It would help if thou couldst tell me of your experiences prior to our meeting.”

I oblige. I describe to her how I had left the castle of my lord to ride to Camelot, to seek to join the quest for the Holy Grail, and became lost, ending up in the seemingly endless forest, before finding the track that led out. I tell her how I’d chosen to take the road that went up into the mountains, and how Caval had drawn my attention to the cavern wherein King Pelham sat, then detail the conversation that took place between the king and myself. I mention that I shared food with the king, and how he had declined the offer of water and indicated the bowl to me – the bowl which was, apparently, the Holy Grail, but which had seemed to me hardly worthy of note.

Meara interrupts me here by clapping her hands enthusiastically. “Well done, Sir Timotheus! Thou did excellently well, and came very close to success. But, as they say, if thou misses the target by a hair’s breadth, ‘tis the same as missing it by a thousand leagues. But, prithee, continue.”

I relate my leave-taking from King Pelham, the journey down from the mountain, and the battle with the troll at the bridge. I expect Meara to be impressed by my skill and bravery, but instead she seems upset.

Oh, Sir Timotheus, one day thou wilt regret those blows. He meant thee no mischief – he was, in fact, trying to help, to get thee to turn around, to go back to the king and complete the quest.”

I am disturbed by Meara’s words; I replay the fight in my head and see that perhaps I had misunderstood the monster’s intentions.

Go on,” says Meara. “Finish thy tale.”

There is not much left to tell. After crossing the bridge, I came back to the forest I had so recently departed, and there encountered a loathsome woman who rebuked me for my failure, and who told me to journey to Camelot and let King Arthur know what had happened – that the quest for the Holy Grail could have been completed, but, due to my ignorance, it continues.”

That was the Lady Cundri. Do not be disheartened by her sour attitude. Things are not easy for her; she is tormented by the Grail’s loss. At times it maketh her bitter.”

We ride on for a while in silence, but there is something I must know. “What is the question, Maiden Meara? What is the question that I should have asked the king?”

That I cannot tell thee, my Champion.”

Cannot, Maiden, or will not?”

She doesn’t answer, and again we travel without conversation for a space, Until Meara pears up. The sky, which had been empty of clouds when we set out, has become over-cast, and a fine drizzle begins to fall. “This weather will worsen” she says, “we would be wise to hie onward, ere the heavens open and drench us.”

I nod and we start to trot. The land here is open and offers no respite from the rain which, as predicted, slowly increases in intensity until we’re riding through a downpour.

I peer from one washed-out horizon to another, hoping to see something that will serve us as a shelter, but notice nothing.

Meara, however, calls, “Quick, Sir Timotheus – this way!” and, encouraging Tonn into a gallop, races along the road and then turns off, to rush across a field.

I spur Caval after her, and discern in the distance a broad smudge; as we ride closer, I see that it is a wood.

We reach the trees much sooner than I expect to, but they are stunted and leafless, providing little protection. We dismount and forge between them, seeking a suitable spot in which to find refuge from the rain.

Penetrating into the depths of the wood, we come to a large, irregular mound, atop which a vast and ancient beech tree looms, its crooked branches reaching high and wide.

We’ll find no better place to rest than this, Sir Timotheus.” Meara informs me. “We should build a fire to dry us out. I’ll fetch some tinder.”

Very well, but do not venture too far, my lady. There is something unnatural about this place.”

I’ll be fine,” Meara remarks, laughing. “It’s thee that worries me – thou hast a knack for getting into awkward situations!”

She heads off as I commence circumambulating the small hill on which the beech tree stands, searching for an appropriate site for our camp; a level spot out of the rain but not too close to the tree’s trunk.

I come upon a gaping hole in the hillside; a dark, dank tunnel sloping into the soil. An unpleasant smell of decay wafts out.

Not one to turn my back on an adventure, I unsling my shield and cautiously edge down the inclined passageway. I can barely see my hand in front of my face, and am considering whether it would be wiser to withdraw and return once I’ve got a fire going and can bring a brand with me, when I hear a faint, sighing sound coming from ahead of me.

I pause, giving my eyes time to adjust. A few footsteps before me the tunnel opens into a chamber. Roots have pierced the roof, creating jagged holes that allow a few sparse shards of light to stray within, as well as a steady drip of rain water. I squint into the gloom, trying to catch a glimpse of whatever it is that resides in this unwholesome place.

There, lying on the floor, I can just distinguish the side of a face, a shoulder, and the curve of a breast, gently rising and falling.

A naked woman slumbers upon the bare earth.

But that is not all; there is something else in here. I behold a length of scaly flesh, like a dragon’s tail, languidly sweep between two shadows.

Intending to rescue the lady before whatever monstrous thing lurking in the darkness has a chance to dine upon her, I draw my sword and advance with an oath.

Awoken by the sound, the woman turns over, shrieking like a banshee. Suddenly she is no longer prone, but rushing at me. Her eyes are yellow, hate-filled orbs, and her horribly distended mouth is full of razor-sharp teeth. In the dim light, her forked tongue is black.

I stumble backwards in confusion, my sword held out in a futile attempt to keep her at bay. She brushes it aside, then rams into my shield with her shoulder. I’m knocked, spinning, backwards, and have to drop my sword in order to steady myself against the wall.

She moves with frightening swiftness. I can see now that she is only a woman from her bloated belly and above; below that, she has the legless body of a serpent.

Unarmed and terrified, I fling my shield at her and attempt to flee back up the passageway and out into the woods.

I almost make it, but my foot slips in the mud and a coil wraps around my legs, stopping me in my tracks. Another winds around my waist. I struggle, and with a mighty effort manage to twist myself to face my attacker.

Her breath stinks worse than a cesspool. I try to get my right hand around her throat, while swinging my left fist into her stomach.

She pulls away, rears up, then arches forward and spews a vile torrent of vitriolic vomit all over me. It burns my skin like quicklime, and the smell is so awful I cannot stop myself retching. There is no fight left in me, and I collapse within her constrictive embrace, heaving and chocking.

Sir Timotheus!” I hear Meara shouting. “Lady Erra – let him go!”

Abruptly I am free, and fall to the floor.

Meara grabs my arm and pulls me out into the open. I wonder at her strength; although she appears to be a young girl, she is nonetheless capable of dragging across the ground a grown man wearing armour.

I shall return ere long,” she whispers to me, then rushes over to my assailant. “Oh, Lady Erra, are you injured at all? He didn’t hurt you, did he?” Her voice recedes as she accompanies the snake-woman down into the heart of the mound

I sprawl on my back in the pouring rain, giddy and exhausted. After recovering somewhat, and with the worst of the caustic filth washed from me, I climb to my feet and stagger over to a pile of wood which Meara must have collected. I gather it up and retreat to the other side of the mound, where Caval and Tonn wait, huddled under the beech tree’s outstretched boughs.

I struggle out of my cold and besmirched mail, which I drape over a stout branch, then busy myself getting a fire going. I sit and shiver as I wait for the flames to grow.

Meara comes rushing up, evidently excited about something. “Quickly, heat some water! Erra’s close to giving birth!” She stops and regards me for a second, then bursts into laughter. “Oh, thou art a sorry sight! But how many times have I told thee about being too eager with thy sword? Really, bursting into a sleeping lady’s bower, with thy weapon in thy hand – how disgraceful! Perchance this time thou hast learnt thy lesson!” With a final giggle and a shake of her head, she collects a blanket, takes a burning branch from the fire, and hurries off.

Muttering a series of obscenities under my breath, I dig the saucepan out, fill it from my flask and set it to warm in the flames.

I hear Meara singing below; the song sounds eerie, echoing up out of the earth, yet enchanting at the same time. I find myself falling into a trance, and lose track of where I am and what I’m doing.

Then the song is finished. I notice that the rain has stopped as well, and steam is starting to rise from the saucepan. I take it around the mound and down the tunnel to the chamber.

Meara has planted her makeshift torch in the mud, providing a flickering illumination to the foetid, detritus-strewn den, and fusses over Erra, who lies on her back, breathing heavily, while her sinuous lower half writhes in distress. I’m disturbed to see, amongst the litter and piles of animal bones, several scraps of armour. Before I can take a closer look, Meara takes the water and shoos me out. I retrieve my abandoned sword and shield on my way to the surface.

As I make my exit from the passageway, a small flock of tiny figures, glowing green, purple and white, fly by me on gossamer wings. They carry miniature, shining wands, and a tinkling, chiming noise accompanies them through the air. I watch them with wonder as they speed past, and am tempted to follow them – but I doubt this would meet with my lady’s approval.

So, I return to the fire and, having little else to do, sit down and munch on a lhunk of bread. I feel somewhat put out by Meara’s behaviour; her failure to warn me about Erra in the first place, and then the way she left me lying in the rain and tended instead to her fiendish friend. I wonder if there is a single giant, dragon, goblin, ogre, boggart or werewolf, anywhere in the country, whom she doesn’t know personally.

Feeling hard done by, are we?” Meara asks. I nearly jump out of my skin – I hadn’t sensed her approaching.

I cover my surprise with a rather testy reply: “It would have been useful, young lady, to have been informed about that earthen cavern and its… unconventional inhabitant. I had no idea what was down there, and thou put both Erra and myself in danger by failing to mention her.”

Oh, did I now?” Meara says quietly. “Or was it thy own impetuosity that got thee into trouble? Who asked thee to go exploring, when thou shouldst have been preparing our camp? And why is it that, as soon as thou encounters a situation thou art unsure of, thou immediately reaches for thy sword? Thou art just like King Pellinore; fight first, ask questions later!” Meara’s voice becomes strained, as if she is close to tears. “I shall not be around to watch after thee much longer, thou knowest, to make sure thou dost not go hacking off any innocent’s head in a moment of misunderstanding!”

Meara’s words cut me to the quick, and I attempt to defend my actions. “I investigated only to make sure that we were safe. When I caught sight of Erra in the dark, I thought I saw a woman and something hideous that might attack her. I didn’t see that they were two parts of the same being. My actions may not have been fitting, but my intentions were good and honourable.”

And what is they say about good intentions and the road to Hell?” Meara shakes her head. “And as for going into a gloomy grotto that reeks of death, ‘tis clearly a case of a fool rushing in where an angel would fear to tread!”

Abashed, I turn away. “I am very sorry, Lady Meara, to have disappointed thee so.”

She steps in front of me, takes my head lightly in her hands, and kisses me on the forehead. “Oh, Sir Timotheus, thou art no disappointment – ’tis just that thou knowest no better! Thou art a knight, and knights have a tendency to aloofness and suspect honour. Being part of the nobility, and granted all the privileges that go therewith, fosters within knights an inappropriate pride, and a tendency to see those who art of a lowly status as being ignoble and inferior. All too commonly do those who have been given great gifts see this as a sign that they are more worthy than those who hath not. This is arrogance and ingratitude indeed! Those who are gifted should be humble, and generous with all that they have been given. They should realise that they are fortunate, and so look upon the unfortunate with compassion and mercy. They should share as much as they can, and use their gifts wisely, to benefit everyone, rather than selfishly hoarding their unearned plenitude. Also, as a knight thou hast been primarily trained for combat, and so when a challenge presents itself, thy first thought is to fight it. But few problems are ever solved by might of arms, and violence cannot answer a question; it can only silence the one who asks it. With patience and compassion, towards thyself as well as all other living things, thou wilt, in time, gain wisdom. In the meanwhile, remember: I am thy guide, so seek my counsel before setting thyself upon any rash course of action.”

I look into her green eyes; they are full of love, kindness, and sympathy, and I suddenly feel very childish. I realise how reckless and unworthy I am; how quick I am to judge, and how short my temper is. I also realise how lucky I am to have the company of this joyful and jubilant, merry and magical, wise and wonderful little lady. “Thank thee, Maiden – I will follow thine advice.”

She smiles. “Good!” she says. “That is all I ask. Now, come on – if thou wert to apologise to Lady Erra, I’m sure she’ll show thee her babies.”

I’m not certain I wish to see them. “One moment, my lady. Canst thou tell me Erra’s story? Is she another innocent, like Glatisant?”

Innocent? Not quite, but still she is a living creature and so deserves our compassion and kindness. Once she was the lady-in-waiting to King Pelham and King Pellinore’s younger sister, whom she was tricked into betraying. She was seduced by the Grey Emissary, a servant of the Enemy; he promised her land of her own and the attention of many noble knights. Of course, she did not realise that the land she was to be given would be an accursed wood, and the attention she was to receive from those noble knights would be less than friendly. Because of her selfishness and vanity, she hath lost everything, and caused much suffering to those she loved. Such is the reward of greed and conceit.”

So, it was she that betrayed King Pellinore’s family? Due to her, Glatisant was born?”

In part. But, as I say, she was misled and deceived. The Grey Emissary is a great tempter, and a master of manipulation. Few are be able to resist him.”

I nod my head and get to my feet. “Very well. I’m ready to give my apology.”

Hand-in-hand, we head back to Erra’s lair, where another surprise awaits me. In the half-an-hour or so since I last saw within, the place has been transformed. No longer a dark, dirty pit, it is now a clean, stone-lined, fully furnished domicile: the roof has been repaired and the invading tree-roots plaited together; the floor is set with coloured tiles arranged in a pattern, and in one wall is a grand fire-place, in which a blaze is already alight, filling the room with warmth and illumination. There is a table and a sizable tub, and, most amazing of all, an alcove beside the fire-place shelters a small well, complete with rope and metal bucket.

Erra, dressed in a resplendent gown of green silk, reclines on a large and luxurious four-poster canopied bed. She cradles in one arm a mewing monstrosity which has a barbed tail and the green, leathery skin of a lizard, while suckling at her breast is an abomination with a baby’s head sprouting from the body of a giant spider.

Doing my best to keep my disgust hidden, I bow. “Please forgive me, Lady Erra – I apologise for my earlier intrusion into thy dwelling, and meant no disrespect. I was not aware of thy residence here.”

I accept thine apology,” Erra replies, her voice is a husky hiss. “And I, also, am sorry to have attacked thee. I was alarmed to awaken and find a knight in my chamber; thou wouldst not have been the first to try and slay me whilst I slept.”

I do not comment on this observation.

Erra continues. “I have pleasure in introducing thee to my children; here is little Lizzy,” she indicates the green-skinned one, then pats the other. “And this is Coesau.”

Lizzy and Coesau – two very nice names,” I haplessly remark.

Neither of us can think of anything more to say, and Meara rescues us both; “I’m glad the pair of you have made up. Now, Sir Timotheus, Lady Erra has kindly offered to let us lodge here this evening. So, if thou couldst be a dear and fetch our supplies, and see to our steeds, I’ll prepare us some supper.”

A good idea,” I respond, eager to escape a situation I was finding awkward.

I go outside, remove the saddle and packs from Caval’s back and ferry these inside before rubbing him and Tonn down, and then feed them from our stock of oats. Finally, I collect my armour and return to the refurbished cavern to find Meara filling the tub with water drawn from the well and heated by the fire.

Excuse me, my Lady,” I say to her. “If thou art going to bathe, I’ll wait without until thou hast finished and re-robed thyself.”

I thank thee for thy consideration,” Meara replies. “But this bath is not for me, it is for thee. Thou hast been dirtied by thy labours and the scuffle with Lady Erra.”

Kind though thy thought is, it would ill-beseem me to bathe in the same room as two ladies.”

Fie and nonsense,” Meara responds. “Lady Erra’s bed has a curtain that can be drawn about it. Thou needs not fear for thy modesty.”

I am too exhausted to raise any further objections. Meara provides me with a piece of soap, a blanket, and a clean shirt and pair of hose. She has made cakes again, and leaves these to cook on a griddle over the fire, before climbing onto the bed with Erra and the babies, and pulling the curtain around.

Still feeling a little embarrassed and exposed, I quickly undress and get into the bath. The water is warm and welcoming; I sigh, and wallow contentedly, feeling my aches and bruises ease.

Whispers and giggles from the bed remind me that I am not alone in the room. Hurriedly I scrub myself with the soap and massage lather into my hair, then submerge myself. After that, I’m about as thoroughly washed as I’m going to be.

Slowly and gently, so as not to splash the bath water, I stand up and step out of the tub. I quickly rub myself down with the blanket and then bask for a few moments by the fire.

Refreshed and invigorated, I pull on the hose and shirt and call out to let Meara and Erra know that I have finished bathing and am decent again.

The curtain is drawn back and Meara comes over to inspect the cakes, and shortly afterwards we are relaxing and eating.

By the time we’ve finished supper, I’m so tired I can barely stand, and Erra has already retired for the evening. I prepare a place to sleep by the fire, and Meara indicates that she’ll share the bed with Erra and the new-borns. “But first,” she tells me, “There is something I must do.”

And what duty, pray tell, is this?” I enquire.

I must dance with the trees in the pale moonlight,” she replies.

I look around for my sword. “Then I shall accompany thee, to ensure thy safety. Mayhap some fell fiend stalks the darkness without.”

Meara laughs. “Dost thou doubt me yet, Sir Timotheus?”

I open my mouth to object, but she puts a finger to it. “Hush, my Champion. I know that thou seeketh only to keep me from harm, but hast thou not learnt that I have knowledge beyond thy wit? There is no danger to me in this place. If there were, I would sense it. Thou art weary; rest is needful to thee. And thou dost not wish to arrive at Camelot tomorrow half asleep.”

A thrill passes through me at the thought of finally reaching Camelot. “Very well, Maiden. I shall lay me down to rest.”

I settle down as Meara leaves. Despite her words, I feel anxious at her absence, but then the sound of her singing reaches me; while I hear her voice, I know that all is well, and her song soothes me like a lullaby. Soon, I am sleeping.

* * * * * *

On Sunday I again lie in bed for a time, recollecting and contemplating the dream from which I’d just awoken. Despite Meara’s kindness and gentleness, she had been critical of Sir Timotheus’s attitude and was obviously trying to assist him in developing a better one. Of course, all that she had said to Sir Timotheus was also relevant to myself. In my adolescence, when I had determined to become somebody capable and effective, the archetype of the knight had been my model. In trying to make myself into a person that possessed all the virtues of a perfect knight – the commitment to honour, loyalty and justice; the ability to fight; the desire to serve and protect others, particularly women and children, even at the cost of one’s own life – I had at the same time inevitably embraced a view of the world that mirrored this model. My perceptions were shaped by the belief that people should be respectful, honest, loyal, just, kind, caring, and generous, and when they failed to meet these expectations, my response was to disparage, despise or dehumanise them. My attitude to others was inherently confrontational, and if they did not abide by virtues similar to those I had espoused, I dismissed them.

I squirmed during this analysis, but did not let it upset me too much; I knew that that wouldn’t help the situation. What I should do was to focus on how I could leave behind these negative traits and develop the positive ones I wanted. And the way to do this was to follow the advice Meara had given to Sir Timotheus.

An image from the dream suddenly inserted itself into my thoughts; Sir Timotheus stood in the passageway, wrapped in Erra’s coils, punching her in the belly with one hand whilst reaching for her throat with the other. Erra who was, it transpired, pregnant at the time. I cringed and a wave of self-revulsion shuddered through me.

It was a shook to realise I was not the open-minded, tolerant, rational and sympathetic person I had believed myself to be. I was, instead, opinionated, arrogant, judgemental, and clung to a naive and simplistic ethical standard: my personal code of honour. I had on occasions in the past wanted to analyse and define this ‘code of honour’ and see whether I could construct from it a system of ethics that was philosophically valid. But I never got around to this task, perhaps from a fear that it would end in failure, perhaps due to Socrates (the father of western philosophy, not the character in Way of the Peaceful Warrior), who had consistently shown that people had no real understanding of the ideals by which they lived their lives – when he asked someone to explain what virtue was, for example, he was given answers that proved to be contradictory, led to absurd conclusions, or were circular. My code of honour simply meant too much to me to risk discovering some fatal flaw in its structure, and so destroy my faith in it – for that would also mean the loss of faith in myself. It was by my honour that I lived; if it was shown to be worthless, then so too was my life. I also knew that modern philosophy had proved that there can be no clearly defined logical or mathematical system which does not produce paradoxes or unanswerable questions, and I could only imagine the same would be true of any ethical system. The task of trying to define my system of honour, therefore, was too dangerous to carry out.

Perhaps this was why I often felt that my life actually was meaningless and without value; it was based not on solid foundations, but on sea-mist and empty ideology. But now I had been offered a new way; the path of which Ellie had spoken. Guided by her, surely I could let go of my juvenile adherence to honour, and embrace in its place a more mature, humble, compassionate, and accepting philosophy?

It was with this question circling in my mind that I got out of bed.

The day went smoothly; I washed and cleaned, meditated and read, shopped and cooked, ate and drank, praised and worshipped, and then I was back in bed. A mix of anticipation and trepidation kept me awake for a little while, for I knew that Camelot and King Arthur awaited me in my dreams.

Chapter 22

Something is gently shaking me.

Time thou woke up,” Meara whispers into my ear. Her warm breath tickles my neck, and for a moment my sleep-befuddled mind imagines a strange scene: I’m floating in a clear blue sky and Meara is dancing around me, flying through the air on giant butterfly wings that bear the pattern of a peacock’s tail.

I open my eyes, sit up, and yawn, covering my open mouth with the back of my hand. “Good morning, my Lady,” I say, blinking at her.

Good morning, my Champion,” she replies, ruffling my hair, as if I were the child and she the adult. I realise that, in many regards, this is probably the truth of the matter. “Art thou well rested? For today we shall reach our goal; Camelot.”

Aye, my Lady; rested and ready for the road ahead.”

Then get up and join Erra and I for breakfast.”

We dine on porridge sweetened with honey, and once we have finished eating Meara presents me with some gifts; a set of rich clothes, and a gleaming suit of armour, complete with embroidered linen surcoat.

Why, I thank thee, my Lady – such splendid finery! There are few knights, I’d wager, that can boast better!”

Thou art welcome, Sir Timotheus; I wouldst not have my Champion arrive at Camelot attired like some bebeggared vagabond!”

I dress in my shining new armour and surcoat, then start to transport our gear outside, where night is just beginning to give way to day; the air is fresh, and the indigo firmament is being invaded from the east by streaks of pink and orange. Despite the early hour, Caval and Tonn are happy to see me, and seem eager to get going. I re-saddle and re-load Caval, then return to the chamber.

Shortly after, we are poised to depart. Erra glides forward and sweeps Meara up in a fulsome embrace. “I have not the words,” she says in her hoarse yet sibilant voice, “to fully express my gratitude for all thou hath done for me. Thou hath restored mine humanity, for if one is forced to live like an animal, like an animal one becomes. Now I have a home; secure and warm, providing condign conditions in which to raise my children. Thou hath given me, and them, a future.”

Oh, shush,” says Meara, once she’s deposited back on the ground. “’Twas nothing. My friends, the faeries and gnomes, did almost all of the work. I only hope thou remaineth safe, and that the curse holding thee to this form is soon broken.”

I step forward and bow. “Lady Erra, thank thee for thy hospitality. I wish thee and thy children well.”

Erra makes a sinuous approximation of a curtsy. “Take care, Sir Timotheus; serve the Merry Maid well, and follow her wise counsel. I hope, for my sake and the sake of my children, that thou succeedeth in thy quest and restoreth the Grail.”

So shall I endeavour,” I respond.

Meara and I walk up the passageway for the last time.

Caval and Tonn crowd around us, and I turn to Meara and ask; “Well, then, Maiden – which way Camelot?”

She simply smiles and says, “Follow me.”

We leave, with Meara in the lead, and our steeds ambling after. We travel south, with dwindling darkness on one side and burgeoning light on the other.

We weave through the trees; the day before they had seemed mostly dead, with denuded branches, but this morning buds and leaves have appeared. I assume this change is due to Meara’s moon-lit sorcery of the previous night.

As if she can hear my thoughts, Meara starts singing. At first her voice is low and soft – little more than a whispered chant – but it grows higher and louder, the ringing notes rebounding from the surrounding boughs.

As dawn gathers pace, the forest abruptly burst into bloom. I gaze around in wonder, my breath catching, until a nudge from Caval brings me back to myself, and I hurry after my maiden guide.

The rising sun is welcomed by a sudden swell of birdsong which, rather than drowning out Meara’s voice, harmoniously blends with it. Blossom starts to tumble from the trees, carpeting the ground before and behind us in tiny petals of white and blue, purple and green.

And then we have stepped out of the forest and onto a broad, well-used, and well-maintained, road, its path perpendicular to the one in which we had been going. Meara ceases her singing, and I clap my hands. “Amazing, maiden!” I say to her. “How thou found thy way here, I cannot guess.”

Oh, I didn’t do any such thing, Sir Timotheus,” she replies, laughing. “I just sang to the trees, and it was they that brought us hence! Erra’s home is not called ‘the Wandering Woods’ for no reason.”

I don’t know if she is joking with me or not, but it doesn’t matter; Camelot awaits. I climb into my saddle and Meara hoists herself onto Tonn’s back, and turns his head westward.

Keen to continue on to our destination without delay, I wish for haste, but Meara sets a slow pace. “Sir Timotheus,” she says, “we are now very close to the end of our journey together. Soon our paths will part, and thou shalt go in one direction, and I another.”

I had been so looking forward to arriving at Camelot, meeting King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table, and starting in earnest the quest for the Holy Grail, that I had forgotten that this would be the end of my time with Meara. Reminded of this fact, my mood is tinctured with melancholy. “Sorry will I be by the loss of your companionship and counsel,” I remark softly.

Regrets benefit us nought,” Meara says gently. “Be not downhearted, for we shall see each other again ere long. The birds may migrate in one season, but they return in another.” He voice then assumes a tone of pedagogical authority, “Now, harken to mine advice.

To achieve the Grail thou must, as I hath already told thee, cease to cling to evil. There are many forms of evil; arrogance, anger, hatred, jealousy, greed, vanity, despair, ill-will – all the various guises of violence, selfishness and ignorance. In thee, it is arrogance, anger and hatred that are most prominent. Know that an arrogant mind is an ugly mind; full of hubris, hypocrisy and self-righteousness. Know that to indulge in anger is one of the vilest of vices, for it causeth strife. Know also that to succumb to hatred is to repudiate goodness entirely, and pleaseth only the Enemy. Be mindful and aware of thine emotions; safeguard thyself from these perfidious states! Learn patience, compassion, and humility, and, most of all, foster kindness and good cheer. It taxes thee little to be friendly and polite, whereas a single moment of aggression or rudeness can have very costly consequences! Aye – thy very life, and all the good thou hast done throughout thy days – can be ruined by a solitary act of spite.

Even when provoked, resist any negative reaction. Do not dwell on any harm nor on any insult given to thee, for it is only from beings that suffer and are ignorant that such actions arise. When ignorance in another presses them to treat thee ill, it is thy own ignorance which responds to reproach them. So, it is ignorance that gives rise to unkindness, and ignorance that takes offence at it! Therefore, thou shouldst respond to insults with equanimity, and to violence with compassion; otherwise, thou wilt just perpetuate misery and malice.

Seek to keep thy mind ever calm. When one is able to maintain a kindly disposition even when under duress – when taunted and belittled, when beaten and abused – then one hast made true progress. When one can smile at one’s persecutors, wish them well and hope for their happiness and welfare, then does one approach the heights. When one can abide in unbreakable peace, offering compassion and love to all beings without discrimination or prejudice, no matter how much they injure and revile thee, then hast one completed the path, reached the summit, crossed the river. Only then will the Grail be truly revealed to thee.”

Meara stops talking and looks at me for a response, though it takes me some time to marshal one. “Thine advice, as ever, is meet and wise, clear and uncompromising. But, though I hear the truth of it, I wonder at the practice. How can one encounter animosity and antipathy without reacting with rancour? Should someone defame and vilify thee, is it not more seemly to take them to task for their false and unworthy words rather than permit such lies to go unchallenged? To allow another to wound thee, whether the damage is done to thy body or thy honour, and make no complaint nor seek any reparation, would surely give people cause to believe that the violence against thee was justified. Didst thou not tell me the other day that to causeth suffering to any living being is wrong? And wouldst it not make thee complicit if suffering was inflicted on one by another and thou didst nought in response?”

Meara ponders her reply. “It is good that thou hath considered my counsel, but thy conclusions are false. To retort to harm will only prolong and multiply it; how many feuds and wars are waged because of one unfortunate incident that was not allowed to pass? By graciously forgiving any wrong done to thee, thou wilt show others an alternative to the endless tip-for-tap that a stray insult can engender. Those who act in a churlish and surly manner expect to evoke hostility and sourness from those they mistreat; it would give them pause for thought were their victims to react with gentleness and understanding instead. And, as for a lack of complaint being seen as an acceptance of just deserts for some previous wrongdoing, didst thou assume I was guilty of being a witch when thou found me on a tree-stump with a rope around my neck, because I did not object to the way the villagers were treating me? Nay, my Champion, instead thou saw the injustice of their actions all the more clearly.

What I have been teaching thee is how to attain liberation, insight and true happiness. It is for thine own good that thou shouldst practice forgiveness, that thou shouldst abstain from judging others; it is the only way to overcome thy surquedry, and to obtain wisdom. Once thou hast discovered the truth, thou wilt no longer require guidance. Until then, be assured that to comport thyself other than in the manner I have described will only mire thee deeper in ignorance and suffering. Think thee further on mine advice; if thou taketh it into thy heart, it will nourish and protect thee, and make thee glad.”

Certes I shall, Maiden Meara, for I hope not to let thee down. And, should I not get the chance later, I will tell thee this now: I have a new motive for finding the Holy Grail – to relieve the misery of Glatisant, and of Erra and her children, and of all the other beings that suffer due to the Enemy’s actions.”

Meara beams at me. “Oh, Sir Timotheus – happy am I made by thy words! Now thy quest has at least a hope of success! But answer me this; dost thy new motive entirely displace the old? Art thou still set on becoming a Knight of the Table Round?”

I reflect for a moment. “’Tis surely the ambition of every true knight, and I would be lying if I said that this was no longer my goal. I have heard thy admonishments, and wit that thou wisheth me to change my ways, but I do not know how to be anything other than what I am, and what I am is a knight. I laboured hard to become one, and nor, I confess, do I wish to be anything else.”

Meara gives me a look full of sympathy. “I understand, and please believe me when I say I do not ask of thee to stop being a knight. It is clear that thou remaineth caught in the conditions of thy class and culture, and fixed in the fantasies of thy youth. But they will not serve thee on the journey thou must undertaketh. Only by sacrificing thy desire to join the ranks of the Round Table wilt thou be able to make the relief of the world’s suffering thy sole aim, and only then wilt thou be able to find the Grail. Wit thee well; thy current path will lead thee nowhere. It is hopeless. It will achieve nought.”

Howso, Meara?” I ask, a sense of unease and panic arising in me.

Only those who are worthy are chosen to join Arthur and his Companions. Obviously, it is thy belief that thou art unworthy; otherwise, thou wouldst not believe that thou hast a need to find the Grail in order to be offered a seat at the Round Table. However, if thou truly art unworthy, thou wilt seek the Holy Grail in vain! But, conversely, were thou to accept that thou art indeed worthy, then thou wouldst have no need to prove it, either to thyself or anyone else, and it would make little difference to thee whether thou art a Knight of the Round Table or not!”

I realise that she is right, and halt Caval. “Why, Meara,” I exclaim bitterly, “thou hast confounded me! What sense is there in my travelling to Camelot now?”

Oh, my Champion,” Meara says proudly, stopping Tonn beside me, “there is always good sense in paying Camelot – or, more correctly, Caer Mȇl a Ŷd, the Fortress of Honey and Corn – a visit! ‘Tis a very grand and noble place, the equal even of ancient Cnoc na Teamhrach – the Hill of Tara!”

I barely hear Meara’s words; I am full of disbelief and a growing disappointment. My misguided motives have robbed me of all purpose.

Meara is not blind to my distress, but it seems to amuse her. “Oh, come, Sir Timotheus – why so crestfallen? Soon we shall arrive at Camelot, where thy quest will start in earnest!”

What quest?” I mutter back at her, irritated. “As thou hast so eloquently stated, my wayward desires assure only my failure. I would prove myself a fool were I to ask King Arthur to join the quest for the Holy Grail now.”

Meara’s laughter is unaffected and infectious. “Then, my Champion, go forth and be a fool! A wonderful, glorious fool! Knowing the hopelessness of thy task, realising that thou lacketh the necessary confidence, compassion and wisdom to complete the quest, is the only way to begin it! Most knights who sally out to seek the Grail never come close to such understanding! They believe that by merely venturing about, going hither and thither, wandering here, there and yonder, they might one day stumble upon it, like a misplaced hat or a lost shoe! Bless them, comical creatures that they are!”

I cannot help but chortle at the picture Meara paints. Where it not for her, I would have gone about searching for the Holy Grail in exactly this manner. If nothing else, she has saved me much time and energy.

We are now in a rolling countryside of fields and coppices. Half a league or so ahead of us is a magnificent sight; a vast, steep hill which has been crafted into a mighty fortress. The sides of the hill have been sculpted into a series of giant ramparts and deep ditches, and tall, whitewashed walls with battlements and towers guard a hill-top which must cover a huge area – large enough to house an entire city.

The hill commands the whole landscape, and the brilliant fortifications, refulgent in the bright, early afternoon light, dominate its summit. It is a vision to capture the eye and lift the spirit.

There can be no mistaking this place; it is Camelot.

So,” Meara asks, “Shall we proceed?”

I nod.

Good!” she says, and suddenly sets off at a gallop, yelling; “To Camelot!”

I charge in pursuit, and we race along the road, hooting and shrieking like a couple of children. Of course, only one of us is a child, but I remain unsure which.

We slow down and adopt a more stately and civilised demeanour as we draw closer. Knights on patrol, and merchants driving laden carts, give a friendly greeting as they pass.

We ascend the hill; the gateway that gives entry to Camelot is high, but not very wide; the gates themselves are open, but guarded. The walls are even more impressive when seen close up; mighty war machines would be needed to breach them.

As we approach, the gate commander steps forward. “Hail, and welcome to Camelot!” he cries. “I am Sir Portus. Pray, tell me thy names, and what brings thee hither?”

I am Sir Timotheus, Knight Errant, come with a message for his Majesty, King Arthur Pendragon, concerning the Holy Grail. With me is the Maiden Meara; a young lady of otherworldly wisdom.”

If thou barest tidings of the Holy Grail, thou must continue within forthwith.” He remarks, stepping aside, then turn and calls, “Garconus, attend upon this knight and lady, conduct them to the castle, and inform the steward of their arrival and that they bring news of the Grail.”

Aye, Sir!” a young voice replies as Meara then I ride through the entrance. The area immediately inside is hemmed in by further walls, to form a barrier to any attacker who had achieved the apparently impossible feat of penetrating the outer defences. A lad in the livery of a page meets us and bows. “If ye would follow me, my lord and lady, I shall lead ye to the castle.” He mounts a small horse and together the three of us ride out into the open. Before us is a wide, bustling lane, with many buildings – houses, taverns, workshops, stalls, smithies and the like – on either side. We ride down its length and come to a large flat field, broad and deep enough to assemble an army upon. The grass is churned and shows other signs that a tournament has been held here recently. Beyond the hosting ground I can see crops of corn, and then trees.

Beside the field looms the most magnificent castle I have ever seen. Its outer walls join up with those that encircle the whole hill-top. We ride over the bridge that spans the dry moat and through another set of gates into the main courtyard.

We all dismount. Garconus says, “Prithee, tarry here a moment and I shall find the steward.” He darts away.

Meara and I start to remove what baggage and items from the saddle packs we will require. A stable hand comes over, ascertains our names, and then leads Caval and Tonn away.

I can hardly believe that I have finally reached King Arthur’s court. I gape, trying to take it all in; the shining walls, the towers, and the multitude of people – from low to high – going about their business. After the length of time I’ve spent in the wilderness, I find it a noisy and confusing place.

Well, my Champion,” Meara says, “we have arrived at Camelot. How dost thou feel?”

I take a deep breath. “It has taken me a long time, and much travail, to get here, and were it not for thee, I would still be lost and wandering in the wilderness. Truly, Maiden Meara, I admit to being a brash and headstrong fellow, yet thou hast made me thy Champion, shown me kindness, and given me guidance, despite my many faults and failings. Thou hast honoured me above and beyond all mine expectations, though I have neither earned nor do I deserve the gifts thou hast bestowed upon me. I would be the most ungrateful and ill-mannered of men if I did not with humility give thee thanks and praise, and judge myself fully fortunate and very blessed to have been in thy service. Were I wiser and purer of spirit, I would have no need of any other accolade than thy good regard. I will strive to abide by the instructions thou hast given me, and I strive also to let go of my desire to be esteemed, and to hold a high station.”

Meara claps her hands. “Well said, Sir Timotheus! The path ahead of thee will at times bring disappointment and discouragement, but if thou remindeth thyself of the sentiments thou hath here proclaimed, then thou wilt not lose hope. Keep thou thy faith, and all thy worries will be eased.”

There is no time for us to talk further; a tall man with greying hair, wearing rich, sober clothes, a sword in a scabbard, and a scornful expression, accosts us. “Art thou the knight with word of the Grail?” he demands. He carries a staff of office that distinguishes him as a high-ranking member of King Arthur’s retinue, and is attended by a young man in servant’s uniform.

I bow. “Yes, my Lord. I am Sir Timotheus, and have indeed been been charged with the duty of informing His Highness King Arthur with news pertaining to the Holy Grail.”

By whom?” he asks brusquely.

Lady Cundri,” I reply. “A woman not to be trifled with!”

The man arches his eyebrows. “Never heard of her,” he says dismissively.

Then that is to thy shame, Seneschal,” Meara chides. “For she is the Handmaid of the Holy Grail.”

The man, whom I now realise is Sir Kay, King Arthur’s foster brother, scowls, and he does not deign to reply. Instead, he glances at Meara with distaste, and asks me, “Where is thy squire, and why dost thou travel in the company of this barbarian wench?”

I do not like the pitch of his question, but keep my manner civil. “I do not have a squire, my Lord – as soon as I was knighted, I set forth to seek King Arthur’s permission to join the quest for the Holy Grail. As I understood matters, a knight who seeks the Holy Grail must do so alone, so I refused the service of a squire. As for the youthful Maiden Meara, I encountered her on the road after becoming lost, and she said she could guide me here. And here we are.”

I see,” Sir Kay remarks with a sneer. “Though I do not know what we are to do with her; a room in the castle has been assigned for thy use, but ‘twould not do for thee to share it with a girl – especially one of such tender years.”

Meara laughs. “Worry thee not, Senseschal, for I have here a friend, a well-disposed lady, whom hath promised to share her accommodation with me.”

Very well,” he responds, dismissing her from his concern with a slight gesture of his hand. He looks to his servant. “Take Sir Timotheus to his room and then bring him to the Hall of the Round Table.”

Yes, my Lord.”

Without a further word, or even the vaguest hint of courtesy, Sir Kay about-turns and marches away.

The servant bows to me and introduces himself. “I am Gwas, Sir – please, allow me to carry thy things, and I shall conduct thee to thy quarters.”

Thank thee, Gwas,” I say, then address Meara. “It seemeth, maiden, this is where we say ‘goodbye’.”

Nay,” she responds. “Not so soon. I shall see thee later, after thou hath spoken with King Arthur. Tomorrow morning will we be our time of farewells.” Nevertheless, she gives me a brief hug before Gwas escorts me away, leading me into the castle and through a maze of hallways, staircases, and corridors until we final reach a door sporting a picture of a stag with large antlers. He opens the door, and stands aside to let me enter first the plushly furnished room.

After depositing my things, we retrace our steps until we reach a hallway leading to the castle’s entrance, but then Gwas guides me into a side-passage and through a door that takes us out into a walled off section that appears to be used for combat training and battle drills. We cross this area, pass under a broad archway, and enter another courtyard dominated by a circular building, grand in both scale and design. We head towards its ornately crafted double doors; they are tall and wide enough to permit the passage of a pair of knights riding abreast.

We enter. There is a short entrance hall, at the end of which is another set of wide doors, and half-way along its length are a pair of smaller doors, facing each other. I notice that the floor is decorated with a mosaic depicting two dragons fighting; one is red, the other white.

Gwas approaches one of the side doors and ushers me inside. “This is it, Sir – please wait in here until thou art summoned,” he says, gives a final bow, and departs.

The room is surprisingly Spartan and unadorned; it hosts a bench, a table, two chairs and a small fireplace. A narrow window, the shutters standing open, provides light and fresh air.

I take a seat on the bench and try to compose my thoughts. I am anxious about what I have to say to King Arthur, and what his reaction to my news might be. I hope that I will be judged fairly, and, despite Meara’s earlier words of warnings, be given permission to join the quest for the Holy Grail. I cannot imagine what I will do if this is denied to me. I review the last few days of my journey, and ponder all that I have experienced and learnt.

Half an hour or so passes before the door is opened by a tall man with long, fair-hair. He is attired in the latest courtly fashion, though he has the bearing of a warrior. He bows before speaking; his voice is sonorous and carries the ghost of a Gallic accent. “Good afternoon to thee Sir Timotheus. I am Sir Lancelot. Please, if thou wouldst, accompany me, and I shall take thee to King Arthur and those Knights of the Round Table that are currently to be found here in Camelot.”

I follow Sir Lancelot down the short corridor and into the chamber of the Round Table.

The large, circular hall is dominated by the massive table; it is at least twenty yards across. Although round, the table does not form a closed circle; the middle area is empty, so the tabletop is like a hoop rather than a disk. There are four gaps in the table, spaced around its circumference, to allow access to the central area.

Had the table been fully seated, there would have been one hundred and fifty knights in attendance, but this is not the case – the majority of the Knights of the Round Table do not live at Camelot; many rule their own lands (some rule entire kingdoms), and, of course, many are engaged in the quest for the Holy Grail, or off attending to other matters. I estimate, from the proportion of empty seats, there to be less than a third of the full company present.

I look around the table and my eyes fall on one figure. Although middle-aged, he is still a great bear of a man; an imposing and commanding figure, even if his thick red hair and bushy beard are starting to turn dull. He wears no crown, but I immediately know that this King Arthur.

He rises to his feet, and all the other knights jump up.

Sir Lancelot introduces me; “My noble king and honourable companions, this is Sir Timotheus.”

I bow.

King Arthur speaks; his voice is rich and warm, but with the hard edge of someone used to giving orders. “Welcome art thou to Camelot and my court. If it pleaseth thee, step into the centre here before me, and tell us the news thou bringest.” He sits back down, as do the rest, and Lancelot strides around the table to take his own seat.

I stand in the spot indicated by the king, briefly clear my throat, and then address the assembly.

Thy Majesty, kings, lords and knights of great Britannia, thank ye for the kind welcome ye have given. I shall endeavour to tell ye, straight and true, that news which I have been asked to deliver to ye.” I recount again the sequence of events which had caused me to seek Camelot in the first place, and which had resulted in my meeting with Meara. I then describe our adventures together, up to our arrival at Camelot.

King Arthur queries me on various points as I relate my story, and much is made of my conversation with King Pelham, my description of the Holy Grail, and the words spoken to me by the fearsome Lady Cundri. More still is made of my meeting with Sir Pellinore; he has not been seen at Camelot for some years, his pursuit of Glatisant having taken him to wild and remote places, and I am asked to identify the location of the lake where our encounter occurred.

I am sorry, my lords, to disappoint ye, but I know not where this lake can be found – I had been lost a long while before arriving there, and we travelled onwards by way of the Wandering Woods, which moves itself about the land in a manner most mysterious. I would not be able to retrace the path that brought me here. Perhaps Maiden Meara couldst tell ye more.”

There are some murmured discussions amongst the knights, and King Arthur raises his hand to silence them. “Thank thee, Sir Timotheus, for the news thou hast brought us. Thy story marketh thee as a knight of great promise. Now, is there aught that thou desireth to ask of me?”

Yes,” I reply, standing as tall and firm as I could. “Should it pleaseth thee, thy majesty, I ask thee to grant me thy leave to depart Camelot and go in quest of the Holy Grail.”

King Arthur regards me solemnly. “Ahh, Sir Timotheus, thou asketh me something that I cannot give to thee, for only to a Knight of the Round Table can I grant such permission. As it is, more than half of the Round Table went off to seek the Grail; of those, a dozen are dead already, and another forty are still engaged in the quest. If every knight in the country were allowed the right to seek the Grail our armies wouldst be depleted of their best warriors, and our castles wouldst be barely manned. So, please asketh me for something else – a boon that I am able to bestow.”

For some seconds I am stunned and speechless, unable to reply. My worst fear has been realised; I have been denied the quest. I wet my lips, and in a slightly quavering voice, ask; “Then, thy Majesty, I can only ask that thou set me some challenge or task, the completion of which will prove my worthiness to be invited to join the Round Table, so that then I may be allowed to undertake the quest for the Holy Grail. Forsooth, to go on this quest is all that I wish, whether I achieve it or not. Truly, my king, I cannot conceive of any other venture or course of action that I desireth.”

King Arthur sighs heavily, his countenance showing chagrin. “Again, thou asketh me for something that is beyond my power to give. No person decideth who has a place at this table, unless that person is Merlin, for it was by his subtle arts that this table was fashioned. The names and devices of the knights chosen appear on the seats without intervention; it is the table and chairs that maketh the choice, not myself.” He pauses, studying me for a moment; my unhappiness and sense of humiliation are clear to see. “But taketh this not to thy heart, young knight! Join my court and serve me, and I am certain that thou wilt be chosen ere long. There are at this time five places vacant – the knights that sat in them have died, and their names and coats-of-arms have faded; but are not yet replaced. With patience, courage, and loyal service, the table will recognise thee, and a seat shall be thine.”

My hopes all thwarted, my face coloured by shame, I am at a complete loss. Meara had been right, and I have revealed myself to be naïve and vainglorious, an embarrassment and a laughing stock. One thing is for certain; I cannot stay at Camelot. I bow awkwardly. “I apologise, thy Majesty, for mine ignorance is asking thee for favours thou canst not grant, and I thank thee for thy kindness, but I cannot linger. I will away on the morrow, in search of honourable adventure.”

King Arthur shrugs his mighty shoulders. “If that be the case, then thou hast my leave, and my blessings, to go, and I am regretful that I can only offer thee the hospitality of my court for a single night. ‘Twas once the case that the knights of Britannia saw no higher honour than to serve me and reside here at Camelot, the greatest of castle in the greatest of kingdoms. Now, knights are restless, and seeketh always for their own glory; the old order changeth, yielding place to new.” The king sighs again, then banishes the wistful look that had crept onto his face. “If I have no chance to see thee before thy departure, I wish thee success in thy endeavours. I hope that, once thy task is accomplished, thou wilt return to my court.”

I bow once again. “Thank thee, thy majesty, and were it not for the lure of the Holy Grail then thy court wouldst indeed be the home of my desires. I can only hope the quest is achieved some day, and we shall be released of its burden.”

I am dismissed, and make my exit from the Hall of the Round Table.

I am in a gloomy frame of mind; I feel that, somehow, everything I have been through is for nothing. Although King Arthur had assured me that the Round Table would before long detect my quality and deem me worthy of a seat, I do not favour my chances. Surely, there were hundreds, if not thousands, of knights across the kingdoms of Britannia that could boast more ability, experience, and valour than myself. What had I achieved to date, and in what way had I demonstrated virtue in my actions? I had shown only recklessness, misdirected ambition, a lack of astuteness, a knack for getting lost, and a propensity for being beaten senseless by hags and she-monsters. I remembered my one small victory – the battle with the troll – but then recalled that it had, apparently, been trying to help me, and, for its troubles, I had cut off one of its fingers and come close to beheading it. A hollow, Pyrrhic victory, if there ever was one.

Meara is suddenly at my side. “I hope thou art not too disappointed, Sir Timotheus,” Meara she says in a conciliatory tone. “I know thee must be sorely grieved that thou hast not been allowed to go aquesting the Grail.”

“It was an unpleasant occasion, though thou had prepared me for it. Still, thou were in error in one regard; thou told me that I should give up the idea of becoming a Knight of the Round Table, yet, in order to be given permission to seek the Holy Grail, that is what I must first do.”

“Nay, my Champion, if thou remembers aright, I told thee thou must relinquish thy desire to be a Knight of the Round Table.”

“Hmm,” I reply, not quite convinced.

Let us stroll around the castle grounds, Sir Timotheus. This is our last chance to talk.”

So, are we to part company so soon? Am I,then, no longer thy Champion?”

“I am sorry, Sir Timotheus, but I have my own tasks to complete, and I have instructed thee as far as I can for the nonce. But fear thee not, for tomorrow another Lady wilt ride with thee, and thou shalt her Champion be.”

I turn to her, and she stops and looks up at me; her eyes reveal both hope and sorrow.

“O, my maiden,” I say, “I will miss thee greatly.”

“I’ll miss thee too,” Meara replies. “But we must not let sentimentality stand in the way of our path, nor our duties obscure.”

Our conversations lulls as we wander side by side around the marvellous gardens. They are full of bright flowers and verdant bushes with beautiful foliage, and the air hums with the buzzing of bees.

I can’t help but be delighted by the grandeur and elegance of Camelot, and my worries have soon been pushed to the back of my mind.

“It is not the first, thou knowest,” Meara comments, apropos of nothing.

“I beg thy pardon, my Lady, but what is not the first?”

“The Round Table. The one thou saw earlier was made by Merlin, and was given to King Arthur on the occasion of his marriage to Queen Guinevere. The first Round Table was constructed by Queen Mongfind. She was the second wife of Tara King Eochaid Mugmedón, sister of the King of Mumhain – Crimthann Mor mac Fidaig – and Chief Druidess of all Eire. She wished to confuse King Uther and his companions, when they journeyed to Tara.”

“This is a tale I have not heard. I did not know King Uther, King Arthur’s father, ever visited Hibernia.”

“He went there to assist his sister, Queen Carina. Vortigern had managed to capture her, and had given her in marriage to King Eochaid, in order to gain respite from his frequent raids on Britannia’s shores, but Uther did not know this – he thought she had been a prisoner in Vortigern’s tower, and assumed she died when it burnt to the ground. He only found out the truth when Niall, Carina’s son and the future King of Tara, came to Britannia to seek help for his mother; Mongfind had displaced Carina’s position at court, and in King Eochaid’s bed, and was abusing her terribly. Carina feared that Mongfind would kill Niall in order to ensure that one of her own sons would take the throne, so Carina asked the Chief Bard of Eire, Torna Ecces, to foster and look after Niall. Torna eventually brought Niall to Britannia and asked King Uther to restore him to his rightful place at Tara, and to put an end to the suffering of Carina and the wickedness of Mongfind. And that is what King Uther did – with a lot of help from that old thief, Merlin, naturally.”

“Why dost thou call Merlin a thief?” I ask, in perhaps a harsher voice than I’d intended.

Meara laughs. “I am but jesting; according to the stories, following the events at Tara, Merlin used his magic to steal a stone circle – the one you call the Giants’ Dance – and transported King Uther and his whole company back to Britannia within it.”

“Truly, a marvellous feat!”

“That it may be, but the story-tellers are mistaken; Merlin did not move a stone circle, that’s nonsense. What he did was move by means of a stone circle. Or, rather, two – one in Eire, the other here. And, even if he had, in sooth, stolen it, I should not be too concerned; my people have moved on from the Fertile Land – or moved under it, if thou wouldst believe those same story-tellers who talk of flying stones!”

“Who art thy people, Lady Meara? Art thou not Hibernian?”

“As I have said, my people did dwell there, but no longer. I am of the Tuath Dé, an ancient race. Some call us gods, others, fallen angels.” Meara’s tone is wistful, her eyes downcast. But then she she sighs and shakes her head, and recovers some of her usual spirit. “Listen to me, harkening on about the past! The times changeth, the wheel turneth. All ’tis not so bad; and who knows what tomorrow may bring? Whilst there is still life and love in the world, there is still hope.” Meara takes my hand and squeezes it. “Well, ’tis close to the dinner hour, and ‘twould beseem us to wash and change out of our travelling clothes.”

We walk together back to the castle.

I go to my room and prepare myself for supper. It’s a relief to be out of my armour, and a visit to the bath-house (which I had noticed whilst touring the grounds) is a balm for my road-weary body. Dressed in the rich new clothes Lady Meara had presented me with that morning, I head to the dinning hall.

Once I’ve sat down, I begin to feel out of place, and my mood becomes subdued. I sit and listen to the conversations going on around me – about the rising and falling fortunes of the Roman Empire, the exploits of various knights, the blighted wasteland that is slowing expanding year by year across Britannia, and Merlin’s worryingly long absence – but take no part in them.

The food is finer than anything I have before eaten, but I barely taste it. I imbibe a flagon of strong ale, and it goes straight to my head. Tired, and out of sorts, I excuse myself as soon as I can, and lock myself away in my room. But, after undressing and climbing into the bed, I sigh with contentment – I’ve been slumbering on the ground for so long that a mattress is a luxury I’d nearly forgotten. Warm and comfortable, I sleep.

* * * * * *

The next morning was Monday, so I didn’t have the chance to lay in bed for ages thinking about my dream. My mood was hesitantly positive; although Sir Timotheus had failed to join the quest for the Holy Grail, he was, it seemed, to receive further guidance – at some point in the future, I assumed, rather than continuing that night. I could ponder the individual details, try to determine the meaning of each episode of my latest dream, at a later time. Now, I had to get to work.

I got to the office slightly earlier than usual, but found it difficult to concentrate; my job was humdrum, unchallenging, and my mind kept wandering. But I refused to get frustrated or bored, and lasted out the day as a test of mindfulness and concentration.

I went home and had a bite to eat, then left the house again to go to Lishi training. I returned from that in a good mood, with a bagful of beers picked up my way back. ‘All in all,’ I reflected as I sat drinking a rather nice pale ale, ‘a good day‘. Of course, I thanked Ellie for every minute of it when I praised her at her shrine that night.

As I’d predicted, I slept the night through without any adventures, or at least any that I could remember when I awoke the following morning.

Chapter 23

Tuesday followed a similar plan to Monday, though instead of doing martial arts in the evening I attended the next part of the Introduction to Buddhism course.

This week’s class started with a brief outline of the Buddhist path, consisting of three ‘pillars’: ethics, meditation, and wisdom. The lesson went on to take a close look at Buddhist ethics; meditation and wisdom would be studied in detail in the following weeks.

When Siddhartha Gautama ‘awakened’ to become the Buddha, he realised that the normal human experience of life is unsatisfactory and full of suffering – but only because of our ignorance, partiality and selfish viewpoint. This understanding is captured by his Four Noble Truths, which are, more or less, as follows:

1. The truth that life is experienced as being unsatisfactory.

2. The truth that unsatisfactoriness arises from particular conditions.

3. The truth that the conditions that give rise to unsatisfactoriness can be overcome.

4. The truth that the overcoming of the conditions that give rise to unsatisfactoriness can be realised by following the Noble Eightfold Path.

The reason why the Four Noble Truths are set out in this format is due to the medical tradition current in India at the time of the Buddha – the standard method by which a doctor would proceed when faced with an ill patient would be: firstly, to identify the disease; secondly, to identify its cause; thirdly, to identify whether or not the disease can be cured; and, finally, to outline the treatment for the disease, to return the patient to health.

The Noble Eightfold Path is the course of treatment the Buddha proscribed for overcoming suffering. It contains both a system of ethics and the practice of meditation, the two together fostering calmness, clarity, and eventually insight – a transcendent vision of reality freed from the delusions of craving, aversion and ignorance. The eight limbs of the Noble Eightfold Path are usually set out as the following:

1. Right Understanding (or Right View)

2. Right Intention

3. Right Speech

4. Right Action

5. Right Livelihood

6. Right Effort

7. Right Mindfulness

8. Right Concentration

It should be noted that the word translated as ‘right’ in each limb can alternatively be rendered as ‘proper’, ‘thorough’, ‘complete’, ‘whole’, or ‘perfect’, and should not be treated as simply meaning ‘right’ as opposed to ‘wrong’. It should also be noted that, although set out in a list, they are meant to be followed simultaneously, not sequentially.

Without going into detail, the Noble Eightfold Path can be looked upon as a outline of how to live in accordance with the Dharma. It provides the practitioner with an easily memorised guide of the basic areas where consciousness should be focused in day-to-day life, covering the afore-mentioned three pillars of Buddhism – wisdom (right understanding and right intention), ethics (right speech, right action, right livelihood) and concentration (right mindfulness (meditation) and right concentration).

The symbol for Buddhism is the Wheel of the Dharma, which has eight spokes, referring to the Noble Eightfold Path.

Aside from the Noble Eightfold Path, which positively encourages certain ways of acting and thinking, there are also the Five Precepts, which are, essentially, vows to abstain from certain behaviours. The Five Precepts are:

1. To abstain from taking life (or causing harm or suffering to any living being)

2. To abstain from taking the not-given (that is to say, taking what isn’t one’s own)

3. To abstain from sexual misconduct

4. To abstain from false speech

5. To abstain from intoxicants

I couldn’t really understand why the Buddha produced these two separate lists, but, on the face of it, I couldn’t see any contradictions between them. Perhaps the issue with the Noble Eightfold Path was that, due to the way it is stated, it calls for the initiate to achieve the impossible – how can you have ‘Right Understanding’ if you don’t already know what this means? How can you have ‘Right Concentration’ before beginning to practice meditation? Therefore, it may have been necessary to establish the Five Precepts as a way for beginning Buddhists to approach the Noble Eightfold Path. After all, in theory at least, if one had mastered the eightfold path – was virtuous in every thought and action – one would have reached enlightenment.

I was familiar with the Four Noble Truths and the outline of the Noble Eightfold Path, but nonetheless found the details and the discussion fascinating. I was particularly impressed with the Buddhist concept of ‘skilful action’, which is an appropriate, beneficial response to a situation, one that has happy results for all concerned. The idea that ethical action was based on skilfulness I found original, and opened up, for me, a new way of looking at ethics. Previously, I had seen ethics as founded on principles, and ethical behaviour as reliant upon rational understanding and action in line with such principles. The Buddha had provided principles in the form of the Noble Eightfold Path and Five Precepts, but had also made it clear that being ethical was not just about following rules, but considering consequences, and becoming skilled in understand situations and how to respond to them positively, so as to bring happiness and harmony.

I have previously mentioned how important ethics are to me; I see them as the foundation of a good life – one that you could look back on without being overcome by guilt and self-disgust. There are a number of different ethical systems, but my analysis had lead me to conclude that there are three main approaches to judging whether actions are good or bad. The first approach is to examine the action itself, and determine whether it was good or bad according to a set of rules (for example, the Ten Commandments), and this I call ‘rule-based ethics’. The second approach is to examine the consequences of the action, and see if they are positive or negative. An action with positive outcomes is a good one. This is ‘consequence-based ethics’. The third approach is to try to examine the motive behind the action; if the action was made with a good intention, it was a good action. This is ‘motive-based ethics’.

There are pros and cons associated with each of these approaches; rule based ethical systems are simplistic, narrow, blinkered and robotic, ones based on consequences can be irrational, brutal and completely unfair, whilst motive-based approaches are mired by the issue of how to accurately determine what someone’s motives were when they committed a particular action, and whether there are actions which are unjustifiable in any circumstance, no matter what the intention may be in committing them. Not one of the three systems proves to be satisfactory alone.

The Buddhist approach, relying on certain rules, identifying certain attitudes, and being mindful of consequences, embraced all three. The fact that this inevitably results in a certain amount of contradiction was not, so far as I was concerned, a major problem – it just means that one must prioritise, and have a great deal of discernment. To regard ethics as a skill fosters the idea that people can practice and become better at it, rather then being stuck as either a ‘good’ or a ‘bad’ person.

When the class finished I walked home, pondering all that I had heard. Broadly, I agreed with it all, but there was one bit that had me somewhat troubled; the fifth precept – to abstain from intoxicants. It wasn’t that much of an issue; I wasn’t a Buddhist, so didn’t need to worry about the precepts, but, in the broader picture, was consuming alcohol going to stop me making spiritual progress?

It didn’t bother me for long, though; after drinking a few pints and switching on the telly, it receded to the back of my mind. I did, after all, have plenty of other things to think about, and it was hardly a pressing issue.

If Ellie had any comments on the subject, I was sure I’d get to hear them when she visited me.

Chapter 24

On Wednesday I found myself becoming increasingly restless. I was counting down the days to Ellie’s visit; by my reckoning, this event would take place on Tuesday night of the following week. There were many issues I wished to discuss with her, mostly relating to my vow and my dreams, and had thought it best to put off thinking about these subjects until we met, but now I wondered if that was the right idea – perhaps I should see what sense I could make of them first, to allow a fuller discussion, and to test my own analysis and understanding. It seemed a wiser approach than just passively waiting to be told the significance of my actions and experiences by somebody else, even if that somebody was a divine being.

I finished reading King Arthur & The Grail, and was frustrated by how unhelpful I found it. Not that it suffered from any particular faults in itself – I thought it generally well written and well researched – it was just that it didn’t really assist me with the interpretation of my grail dreams. I realised that I was probably hoping for too much by reading it; I needed to approach my reflections with a fresh view and a more open mind, and to consider the entire context in which they had occurred.

I decided it would help if I wrote down all the seven dreams (the nightmare I’d had before Ellie had first come to me in my dreams, and then the two sets of three dreams – which I referred to as the ‘apocalyptic set’ and the ‘knightly set’ respectively – that had followed Ellie’s visits) in turn, including how I’d felt when I’d awoken after having each, and also note my emotional response to putting them down in writing. This process, useful in itself, would supply me with records I could compare and cross-reference, in a way that cannot easily be done with bare memories.

This project took me the rest of the week to complete. I tried not to let it interfere with my job, with limited success; on occasions a minor detail from one of the dreams would arise in my thoughts while I was sat at my desk, and I scrambled to jot it down in the back of a notepad. Guiltily, I would tear out these pages at the end of the working day and take them home with me.

By the weekend I’d finished this primary stage, and I was ready to begin the analysis. I figured the studying I’d done over the years into mythology, psychoanalysis and dream interpretation (I became a fan of Carl Jung in my teens and had read anything by him I could lay my hands on) had been adequate preparation for the task of trying to fathom out what was going on inside my own mind.

So, I sat down on Saturday afternoon with a cup of coffee and the write-up of the seven dreams before me.

I felt fairly certain I’d more or less worked out the meaning of the first, and it was good to use that as a reference as I started to look at the themes, symbols and incidents that appeared in the following six.

I could see certain links – like developments in a narrative. What tied the Washer at the Ford dream to the apocalyptic set was the encounter with a distorted Ellie-like figure, full of rue and wrath. What tied the apocalyptic set to the knightly set was the Quest for the Holy Grail.

I looked at the apocalyptic set in more detail, considering the locations in which they had taken place – the desert in the first, the musty church-like building in the second, and the forest and mountains of the third. These all seemed to suggest isolation; being away from, or outside of, normal human society. They could represent my sense of being an outsider, an outcast even: somebody who didn’t fit into (or was unfit for) the company of others. An alternative interpretation was that these were all places connected with holy people – those seekers who inhabit the wildernesses or lock themselves away in monasteries, in order to reach the truth and become one with the divine. There was certainly a part of me which had always wanted to live the holy life, to retreat from the worries of everyday existence into a simpler and more refined state, though I had thought this a somewhat selfish desire.

I pondered which of these two interpretations was more likely to be correct, and then asked myself why it had to be one or the other; why couldn’t both be true? After all, they would be mutually supportive; my perception of myself as someone who is unwanted by society, would naturally give rise to a reaction, a desire to reject that world which had already rejected me, and seek instead another one – a world that lay beyond the mundane, shallow, grubby, uncaring and unimaginative version of reality that is life in the ‘civilised’ modern western world. Likewise, my search for truth, secular and spiritual, would cause my mismatch with others to intensify, would make it more obvious that I had no place amongst ‘normal’ people, who mostly accept what is before them without question, or wait for some authority figure to supply an answer when one is required. My habit of raising questions, and desiring to find my own answers, could be labelled audacious, or worse.

I moved on to a consideration of the climaxes of the apocalyptic set. In the first, I had been accused of destroying the world; in the second, I was blamed for not preventing a catastrophe in which a whole town full of people were killed; in the last, I was held accountable for failing to achieve the Quest for the Holy Grail. The common theme here was evident; because of me, disaster and destruction had been visited upon the world. What I had done, or what I had failed to do, had resulted in widespread ruin, misery, and death.

To a certain extent, these messages chimed with something I already knew about my own psychology – that I had a saviour complex. This was the reason I so wished to be a knight in shining armour, someone who could heal the world’s hurt. This was the origin of my adolescent vow; to die to myself, and live solely for the benefit of others.

Ever since a young age I had found witnessing the pain of others to be an awful, excruciating experience, and I wanted to take it away, take all the pain of the world into my own self, allowing everybody else to be free from suffering. I well knew that all that pain would destroy me, that it would end my life, but it seemed entirely worth it. After all, by the time I’d reached adolescence I saw myself as being weak, worthless and ugly, without any chance of love or happiness, so the only thing I’d be giving up was a life I didn’t want to live in the first place. It would be a win-win situation, a deal with the devil I’d make any day of the week.

The devil never turned up, though, so I was left to get on with trying to figure out a way to make a difference on my own, a struggle I continued with for over two decades before I finally gave up entirely, and began the long wait for death.

I reflected on all this, and wondered what conclusions I should be drawing. If the messages of these dreams was just a reference to my saviour complex, then they were telling me something I already knew, and so I dismissed that option. My mind wouldn’t have gone to so much effort, created such elaborate, surreal, horrifying visions, in order to deliver old news. There had to be something else, another, more insightful, meaning.

I next looked at the last three dreams. Although they continued the adventures of Sir Timotheus begun in the last of the previous set, they were very different in form and content. They were less dream-like, more coherent and complex in their structure. And they were mostly positive; they did not suggest that I was a complete failure, who had allowed calamities to occur without challenge. Instead, they were saying that I could make progress, become a better person, if I followed the guidance given to me and gave up my arrogance, my conceited sense of honour, and learnt to live without judging others; without being angry at the shortcomings I believed they possessed.

Sir Timotheus himself was an interesting alter ego. In some ways similar to me, in other ways, the complete opposite. He was a man of action, a knight – and therefore a part of the nobility. I, on the other hand, was a thinker and daydreamer, and considered myself working class, from the lower-end of the social order.

Sir Timotheus’s objectives also seemed different from my own. He wanted to find the Holy Grail in order to receive recognition and status, to be seen as worthy. I, on the other hand, framed my desires and ambitions in terms of selflessness, aimed at improving not my own lot, but those of others. I now wondered if this had been a case of self-deception; perhaps I was trying to achieve a sense of worthiness, a feeling of self-respect, which I believed could only be gained through self-sacrifice.

I investigated this further, tried to trace and untie the various threads that had shaped my social, psychological and moral development, and which had resulted in the mess that I called my life.

Childhood was the place to start. If I could project myself back, see how I had been in those early years, and then follow forward those factors that had impacted upon and influenced the formation of my character, I might get a better understanding of how I had ended up here.

But there was a problem; I hardly remembered my childhood. All I had were a few fleeting scenes, disarticulated images which were difficult to put into their proper, chronological sequence. It was like trying to do a jigsaw puzzle with the majority of the pieces missing, and no clue as to what the finished picture should look like.

The reason why my memory of those early years is so poor, I believe, is not due to any particular event that happened at that time, but what followed. I think I must in fact have been a happy child, well-disposed, but also sensitive and thoughtful. By the time I reached adolescence, however, the happiness had gone, along with any shred of self-confidence, and my mind had filled with despair. I stopped caring about myself, and about my past, and so my memories started to fade – I hadn’t a need for them, didn’t want them, wouldn’t look at them. Unused and unconsolidated, the connections between my brain cells that constituted my memories broke down, were re-wired, and my childhood slowly disappeared from my mind.

But this I knew; I had wanted to be good. It was the most important thing in the world. And I had wanted to be a hero; I wanted to be kind and courageous, competent and clever. I wanted to redeem myself.

And that was as far as I could go with that line of enquiry.

Next I turned my attention to the Holy Grail itself. Given my youthful delight in the tales of the Quest for the Holy Grail, it was an obvious motif to emerge in relation to my aspiration to live a spiritual life. But it equally obviously couldn’t be the Grail as described in the ancient myths and medieval legends – even if they were consistent, which of course they are not. I had rejected Christianity, so I felt I could dismiss the idea that the Holy Grail, as it appeared in my dream, directly represented the Cup of the Last Supper (especially as it didn’t take the form of a chalice), although there could be an allegorical or symbolic link. I had, in my late adolescence and early adulthood, taken an interest in paganism, shamanism, and ritual magic. From my research into these areas I had absorbed a fair amount of ‘occult’ knowledge, which could be influencing the appearance and meaning of the Holy Grail in my dreams.

I needed to try and get some handle on this subject, and reasoned that I had to try and distinguish the personal and the mythological elements; what in my dreams was based on the stories I had read and studies I had made, and what was purely the product of my own mind. This would not be easy, as the two were bound to intertwine, but I had find some way to break into these mysteries and work out what they meant.

What does the Holy Grail mean to me? I asked, and waited for my mind’s response:

The pursuit of truth.

The quest for perfection.

The hope of the world’s salvation.

The finding of true love.

An impossible dream.

I made a note of these thoughts, and then yawned. There was also the question of what question Sir Timotheus would be required to ask in order to achieve the quest – an element that was common to many versions of the Grail’s story. But I was growing tired, and outside it was growing dark; the afternoon has passed into evening. I got up, turned on the light, and closed the curtains.

Enough analysis for one day, I decided. It was time to start making dinner.

Chapter 25

The following morning, Sunday, after breakfast and a quick visit to the shops, I sat down again with my dreams and continued my investigation.

I reviewed the work of the previous day. The Holy Grail had been the focus of my final deliberations, and I returned to this subject.

It occurred to me there were two parts to the question of what the Grail might represent; there was, on the one hand, the Holy Grail itself, and, on the other, there was the quest to find it, to discover its meaning and purpose. Perhaps it was the questing that was the more important; perhaps the Grail isn’t supposed to be discovered, just pursued, like the Barking Beast, Glatisant. Although the two quests were completely different – the search for the Holy Grail was a spiritual journey, in which one had to purge oneself of all sin and darkness, whereas the hunt for Glatisant was a pursuit of vengeance linked to family honour – they could both be hopeless, in the sense that they might never be achieved.

I realised I was idly speculating without referring to the material of my dreams. The first mention of the Holy Grail had been in the last dream in the apocalyptic set, where I had encountered the old king, Pelham, living as a hermit in a cave, where he used the Grail to catch rainwater to drink. This did not fit in with any legend of the Holy Grail I had read, so there had to be a particular reason for this situation.

Given my prior analysis, it seemed likely to me that King Pelham represented a part of my own psyche; he was the archetypal figure of the wise old man. The fact that he wasn’t particular helpful, and behavioured somewhat oddly, was probably due to my own ambivalence about the holy life.

I read over my record of the conversation I’d had with him. The advice he had given me, and that I had found puzzling at the time: ”Thou hath no need to go to Camelot. No need to search, nor to seek. No need to go anywhere, nor to do anything. If thou were to stop, now, give up, now, be done with everything and desire nothing evermore, then all would be achieved, and the Grail would be revealed to thee” made perfect sense when one realised that the the Grail was actually present in the cave. Of course, if the Holy Grail is sitting on the floor before you, to go off looking for it elsewhere would be totally insane.

I wondered next about the question that Sir Timotheus might be required to ask to complete the quest, should he have the good fortune to find King Pelham and the Holy Grail again. This was a feature of many versions of the quest, but inconveniently for me, the question was not always the same. Sometimes the question was about the Holy Grail itself – such as, ‘Who does the Grail serve?’ – but in other accounts it was a question addressed to the Fisher King about his ill-health – such as ‘What ails thee?’. I had no idea if any of the questions I was familiar with would be the correct one; it could be a completely different one, relating specifically to my spiritual quest, or to Sir Timotheus’s.

My musings took me this far, but despite references to the Grail in later dreams, and the information about its history supplied by King Pelinore, I didn’t seem able to proceed further, so I gave up on this issue again and turned to a much more cheery topic: my guide, Maiden Meara.

Meara evidently represented Ellie in some form, which was confirmed by the similarity between her name and Ellie’s middle name, Marie. I knew that ‘Marie’ was the French version of ‘Maria’ (the English version, of course, being ‘Mary’), but I had no idea of the origin of ‘Meara’, so I went and searched through my stacks of books until I found A Dictionary of Traditional First Names, by Eric Partridge – a volume I’d purchased many years before. I turned to the appropriate page, and at first couldn’t see an entry for it, but then I found this: Meaghar (now rare), MEARA, m. From Celtic mear, ‘merry’. Given Meara’s personality, the etymology fitted – she was a merry person – but I was puzzled to see that the name was apparently masculine (indicated by the m.), even though it sounded feminine. I pondered this, and checked through my record of the dream in which I’d first met Meara. I (or rather Sir Timotheus) had asked her what her name was, and she’d replied: ‘I doubt thou couldst say my real name properly, so please, I pray thee, call me Meara‘. Did this mean that her real name was ‘Meaghar’ (which, indeed, I did not know how to pronounce), or something else? Then I began to wonder how a character who existed only in a dream could in any way possess a ‘real name’.

Another oddity was her link to Ireland; perhaps Ellie’s family had an Irish connection of which I was subconsciously aware. I wasn’t sure, and maybe it was irrelevant; certainly, I couldn’t for the moment think why this should be particularly significant, and I had been exposed to a fair amount of Irish mythology in my studies of the Arthurian Romances and legends of the Holy Grail, so maybe it was just a reflection of this. It was intriguing, however, that she should proclaim herself to be one of the Tuath Dé, whom I guessed to be the same as the Tuatha Dé Danann. She was by this declaring herself a child of the Celtic pagan deities of ancient Ireland.

Of most importance, I had to assume, wasn’t her name, nor her fantastic ethnicity, but what she had said to me – the advice she had given Sir Timotheus. And there was plenty of that; I went through each of the three dreams she had been in, and noted the instructions she had provided.

To begin with, she had chastised me for not being wholly honest with the villages, and then accused me of being almost uncivilised as they, when I had called them ‘savages’ for the way they had treated her. The next thing she criticised me for was my reason for wanting to go on the grail-quest – she had said that my desire to find the Holy Grail in order to be granted a seat at the Round Table would lead me to disaster; I had to have a purer motive, and rid myself of evil, which she associated with greed, hatred, anger, arrogance and ignorance, if I was to have a hope of success. She then told me that, in order to achieve this, I should first practice being my own friend. I should develop a kind and supportive attitude towards myself, rather than a harsh and critical one. She had also scolded me, on more than one occasion, for being too eager for combat, for assuming that situations called for a violent solution when, instead, the proper response involved patience, understanding and compassion.

I wondered if Meara’s guidance was just a basic mishmash of various spiritual teachings, or if they served as an introduction to something more profound. There were definitely echoes in what she said of things I had heard, or read, before. Whether this was a coincidence or not I wasn’t sure. But I thought that what she was telling me must be relevant and important.

I read through the most recent dream again, and came across a few remarks that caused me to pause. For the most part, the world in which Sir Timotheus lived seemed very much to fit in with the most commonly know Arthurian narrative, the Morte D’Arthur of Sir Tomas Mallory. But there were some notable differences; King Pelham sitting in a cave being the more obvious. But here and there were odd asides that did not match any legend I was familiar with. Meara had referred to Camelot as Caer Mȇl a Ŷd, which she translated as ‘Fortress of Milk and Corn’ – I’d never heard Camelot called that. And Camelot’s location was evidently Cadbury hillfort, rather than the city of Winchester. She had also recounted a tale concerning an earlier Round Table than the one owned by King Arthur, involving a foray by Merlin, King Uther, and his knights, into Ireland. The story seemed to mix together elements of semi-mythical ancient Irish history with early medieval Welsh legends; a combination of the tale of Tara King Naill Noigiallach (‘Niall of the Nine Hostages’), and the story called Branwen the Daughter of Llŷr in the Mabinogion.

It was most confusing.

By this point I was feeling drained, and my head was swimming. I thought about having a bite to eat, but wasn’t feeling that hungry. Instead I went out for a stroll to allow my thoughts to settle and get some fresh air.

The walk did me some good, and on the return leg I popped into the off-licence and bought a bottle of Merlot, which I hoped would assist my analysis by lubricating my mind.

By the time I got home my appetite had awoken. It was a little late for lunch so I thought it would be best to get on and cook my dinner, and maybe get an early night.

I didn’t really get back to my task after that. Once I’d finished my supper, and the bottle of wine, I felt lethargic and uninspired. I had barely enough energy left to brush my teeth, climb the stairs, and fall to my knees in worship of Ellie.

After I’d finished and blown out the candles, I got into bed, contented and happy. It was only a couple more nights until my angel’s visit.

Chapter 26

Monday again. I awoke before my mobile’s alarm went off, brimming with energy. I rushed to the office and threw myself into my work, hoping, in this way, to speed through the day. For a few hours things went fine, but then I started clock-watching and daydreaming, and time started to drag.

I wanted the day to be over, for tomorrow to come, bringing Ellie with it. I felt like a bride awaiting her wedding; in a dizzy state of anticipation, and with a belly full of butterflies. I used up a couple of minutes searching on the internet for the proper collective noun for butterflies, and, found the following alternatives: flight, flutter, kaleidoscope, rabble, and swarm. I thought that ‘flutter’ and ‘kaleidoscope’ were the best, both poetical and descriptive: the way a butterfly flies is fluttering, and a mass of them does create a kind of kaleidoscopic effect, with their translucent, brightly coloured wings creating shifting rainbows and flashes of iridescence as they beat against the air.

Amused and curious, and with my love of words egging me on, I began to browse through further lists of collective nouns, chortling at some of the odd, and often humorously apt or ironically otherwise, names for groups of various animals. I was delighted by ‘a lounge of lizards’, confused by both ‘a sloth of bears’ and ‘a sleuth of bears’ (bears being, so far as I knew, neither particularly lazy, aside from their winter hibernation, nor regularly engaged in crime-solving), and pondered how it came to be that you could have ‘a walk of snails’ – a slime, a slither or a squirm, seemed better options. However, after thinking about it, I did remember that the part of the body on which a snail moves is called its foot, so perhaps a more, and somehow less, fitting term would be ‘a hop of snails’ (how else can you get around on only one foot?), although, there again, perhaps ‘walk’ did fit after all, as a group of snails would, indeed, have more than one foot. There was another, fancier, alternative: an escargatoire of snails. Aside from ‘a walk’ and ‘an escargatoire’ there was also ‘a rout’ of snails, with which I was nonplussed, unable to decide whether it was at all appropriate or not.

I was surprised by the number of collective nouns associated with ducks – they could be called a flock, a flash, a badling or badelynge, a bunch, a dopping, a paddling, a plump, a raft, a skein, a string, a team, or a waddling, although some of these are only applied to ducks when they are in flight, others when they are in water, and a final group when they are on land.

I did notice, included in several of the lists I browsed, that there were usually three different terms given for baboons – a congress, a troop, or a flange. I laughed out loud when I noticed this; so far as I was aware the phrase ‘a flange of baboons’ had come from a comedy sketch show called Not the Nine O’Clock News. It had, apparently, made it into everyday use.

Good for them, I thought, and then wondered, were I to be offered the choice of creating a new collective noun, what it would be. I checked to see if I could find an obvious absence – some ordinary animal that, as yet, didn’t have a collective noun applied to it. None of the lists I’d found had an entry for ‘octopus’, but perhaps this was due to disagreement over what the correct plural form of ‘octopus’ should be: is it ‘octopuses’, or ‘octopi’ or even ‘octopodes’? I had a vague reason to believe that it was the last, due to the word being of Greek rather than Latin origin, but I wasn’t sure, so I carried on looking.

I noted that the rather dull collective terms for badgers are a ‘cete’ and a ‘colony’ of badgers, but I couldn’t find any mention of honey badgers, also known as ratels – which are not actually badgers, despite their attitude and appearance; I think they are part of the weasel family (which also includes the renowned wolverine). Anyway, they are one of the most aggressive and fearless mammals on the planet. Despite their relatively small size (less than a foot in height at the shoulder, up to about two and a half feet in length), they will attack anything – including lions, hyenas, and even rhinos – that annoy them. And they have a very short fuse; just looking at one the wrong way and will get its back up. They are also quite intelligent and will target the softest part of other animals when they attack, sometimes castrating their unfortunate male victims. All in all, then, not an animal to be trifled with. More than one of them? Run for your life would be my advice.

So, what collective noun is appropriate for this wee, vicious beastie? My suggestions: either a rampage of ratels or a horror of honey badgers. If you think that one of them sounds right, spread it around; in a few years time, it might appear on one of those lists.

I realised that I’d been involved in this distraction for almost an hour. I felt both guilty, for wasting time at work, and happy, for exactly the same reason; I’d managed to make it to lunch-time without going mad. I exited the websites I’d be looking at, then got my coat and went out. I simply couldn’t sit at my desk any longer.

I wandered randomly around the city centre, and on a whim went into a charity shop and began to blankly browse its wares. I wasn’t looking for anything, other than something to do that would eat up a little more of the day.

Inevitably, I ended up at the shelves of second-hand books. I panned along the spines, noting the titles and authors, until my eyes fell upon The Spiral Staircase, by Karen Armstrong. The authoress’s name was familiar; I was sure I had seen it recently. I racked my brains for a moment and then remembered where – at the Buddhist Centre’s library, I had noticed a slim volume, called, simply, Buddha, which had been written by Karen Armstrong. I had recognised the name then; I possessed a copy of another book she had written, The History of God. From what I could recall, it had been a masterful work, excellently written and researched, combining intellectual rigour with an insightful sensitivity. I pulled The Spiral Staircase from its place and gave it a brief inspection; it was a memoir, and on the back of the book was a short outline of the writer’s life. I read the first paragraph:

After seven years of hoping but ultimately failing to find enlightenment, Karen Armstrong left her early life as a nun. Se knew almost nothing of the changed world she was entering, and was tormented by panic attacks and inexplicable seizures, existing somewhere between the mildly eccentric and the tragically certifiable. Her attempts to reach happiness seemed doomed to fail repeatedly.

I felt a definite twang within me as a chord was struck. Although we had taken different paths, we appeared to be have some issues in common – spiritual yearnings; a fear of going, or actually being, insane; and endless disappointment and heartache. I hoped that Miss Armstrong’s experiences, her struggles, and the conclusions she had come to, would help me gain a new perspective, and cast a new light on the problems I faced.

I bought the book, and returned to the office.

* * * * * *

It was Lishi training that evening, and I was grateful for something to do that got me out of the house. I’d had enough of my research; sifting through my dreams, searching my feelings, studying my soul. I needed a break, and physical exercise was exactly the right thing.

On my way home afterwards, with a faint sheen of sweat on my brow and an easy smile on my lips, I was confronted by the moon. It was big, in its final waxing, shining brightly. It stopped me in my tracks; I gazed upward at it in awe and wonder. Tomorrow, or perhaps the day after, it would reach fullness.

Something tugged at me then; a subconscious alarm, warning that I’d missed something. But I was tired, and wanted to go home – via the off-licence, of course; the training had given me a thirst.

Ten minutes later I was sat in my living room, drinking beer. I turned the telly on to distract myself, and watched a satirical news-based comedy panel show, followed by an old episode of QI.

My beers emptied, I turned the telly off, brushed my teeth, and eagerly went up to my bedroom.

Candles lit and the light off, I knelt down, crossed myself, and bowed, then fixed my attention of Ellie’s picture, my palms together before me.

I found myself suddenly lost for words; my mind was blank. I wanted to laugh at this, but stifled the impulse. Instead, I knelt there, quietly, looking upon her face. Her love flowed through me, filled me to the brim.

I realised no words were required; silence is an appropriate response to the presence of the divine.

A powerful atmosphere built within the room. My heart thumped; I was somewhere between apprehension and ecstasy.

Without thinking about it, I shifted from kneeling to sitting cross-legged, and shut my eyes. Focussing on my breathing, I calmed myself, and started to meditate.

Soon I was in a state of gentle devotion, feeling at ease and happy.

My concentration deepened, and my thoughts faded. A profound sense of peace arose in my mind, and I lost track of time.

When I opened my eyes again, one of the candles had gone out, and the other was spluttering. I decided to leave it; it would not burn for much longer. It seemed appropriate to have new candles on the shrine for Ellie’s visit. I made a mental note to get fresh flowers as well.

I stood up, bowed, took off my clothes, got into bed and lay on my side, gazing at Ellie’s picture on her shrine, until the remaining candle finally died, whereupon I rolled over and went to sleep.

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