Stories by Colin Burke

Chronicles of
Arthur’s Heirs

One cold morning in a kingdom west of Logris, early a morning in September, the lady Alyson was stolen from her father’s castle by a strange knight who had been guest therein for one night only. And Merlin, who by chance (or ablings by design) had been there for some weeks, cast a spell upon her, at a distance, that no harm might come to her, nor would she age at all, until the last knight to seek her safety had either set her free or given up the quest.

And Merlin told how far a knight might go before he needed further rede, and told of how a man might know the place of the lady’s prisoning if he should come to it.

And many knights there were for years who sought the lady Alyson, and in the passing of that time there did befall the prisoning of Merlin by the Lady of the Lake and eke the woeful overthrow of Arthur’s reign, as other tales have told. (But loss of Arthur’s rule was foretold to be remedied by a return, though that indeed might be long delayed.) And thereafter for many years there were none who sought, yet the spell, no doubt, stayed strong upon the lady, for at least one more was still to seek her: Roland of Castlemere, a younger son of the lord of that domain.

Now by that time the story of the Quest of Alyson was deemed by many to be little more than tale for children and old wives. But a sage in her father’s kingdom still kept a scroll which held all that had been learned of those who sought her freedom. And Roland, who being a younger son had learned to read, studied well that scroll and gained the knowledge that had been written down.

And in the scroll he learned how Merlin had told of how the quest should start and of the place where it would end. And there were words which the sage told him were also Merlin’s, and those words upon the parchment said: “Fight for freedom of the lady. Dare not defeat of the Dark Tower.”

And others had added, from knowledge of the fate of those who failed, that the doom of that Dark Tower, near the end, lay in wait for those who took this quest. But whether those knights had sought rid the world of some great evil, or were lured by thoughts of peace and rest or by the promise of wealth for hiring of their swords, no one could say. Only this was written in the Lore of the Quest: that of those who rode not home again, leaving lady to what her weird might be, all who died not on the way had stopped at the Dark Tower their travelling and search. For none had heard of them thereafter, and of some was it said that they had forsaken the quest on which they had set out. And this at least was known, that these had asked, early or late, the way to the Dark Tower. Some, it may be, had asked from hope to find the lady Alyson nearby, but none who read the Scroll of Lore could doubt that all had found that journey’s end to which they had asked way. This Roland knew, who followed all.

He came first to crossroads Merlin told of, and there a couple kept an inn who told him, with smiling hidden behind their eyes, that old tales spoke of knights who went by there on quest of lady ever young, and they pointed out the way tradition said those knights were wont to follow. And that accorded well with the lore upon the parchment, and he rode blithely on.

From that first crossroad he wandered far, following one time the lead of knight who went astray and then retraced his steps; or, by good hap another time, staying but upon the early track of one who later rode amiss; or finding that the Scroll of Lore in parts was wrong. And there were mishaps and long delays, and partnerships in quarrels, and sometimes, he could almost swear, wanderings in and out of Faerie, along the way. Yet never did he forget his journey’s goal nor with intent turn aside.

For many years he sought the lady Alyson, until he came unto a village that had never seen its lord. And he was told that though his lands were wide it was not this that kept the lord from travelling oft to those who worked them for him. Rather was it courting of a lady that would not have his love, said tale folk told, in friendly mood at tavern fire.

“Nor his grandsire’s either,” said an old man once, and laughed behind his hand. But another looked at the old man sternly, and those who were there would say no more. So Roland rode from that village.

On the way he met a pedlar, who seemed to know his road within that lord’s domain, and he struck speech with him.

“Sir Pedlar,” said Roland as idly they talked while one shared bread for wine of other, “meseemeth I have heard that somewhere in this country a lord keepeth prisoner a lady who ageth not, and seeketh in vain to gain her love, as others strove before him.”

“‘Tis true enough,” the pedlar said. “Lord Osgern, back that way. If time ye have, ask lodging – ye might get a look at him, so pale and gaunt. They say the desire groweth worse from son to son, or so seemeth. ‘Tis wonder they have any sons, men say, yet somehow the family goeth on. Or hath, till Osgern.”

Thus talked the pedlar to Sir Roland blithely, for at five-and-forty years he seemed a knight no more. A man-at-arms for hire, he deemed he looked, and his cloak hid for him the crested pommel of his sword.

And so they finished eating, and Roland mounted again the last of many horses he had saddled in that quest. But before they parted, he turned his head and asked, “What have ye heard, Goodman, of the Dark Tower?”

Then turned the pedlar pale, and said, “By heaven, art one of those. Heed the old warnings, man, if ever thou heardst them – and thou must, or thou wouldst call the place by its common name. The Devil’s curse safeguardeth that stronghold. Men say the Devil built it.

“Go ask Lord Osgern for thy supper, man, and go thy way. Forget the Dark Tower.” And the pedlar shook his head.

“Which way to Osgern’s castle?” Roland asked him.

“Next road to the left,” quoth he, short now of speech, and he got upon his mule and rode his way.

And Roland rode his. He took the road upon the left, and came thus to another crossroad, where a crippled man sat begging. The road beneath lay straight ahead, and to the left a fair road lay. And to the right was faded path, whereon sunset seemed darkened early.

Sir Roland gave the crippled man a coin. “Goodman,” he said when the man had put it away, “I would know where dwelleth the lord who keepeth captive a lady ever young. Where might I find such man?” And the old man nodded his withered head, with grey eyes gleaming, toward the path upon the right. And Roland took it, though he saw not how a lord of holdings fair could bear to rule all these from such a stretch of land as this that lay before him. He did not wish to call the old man liar. Tempted, though, he was to say, “Such a lord is one to be avoided,” and go another way. But he had asked direction, and it seemed fitting then to follow it. But first he left his horse behind, as the land to travel now seemed no fit place for faithful beast.

Through a dreary land and grim his steps now took him, and as he trod the path he pondered what must be done if indeed they took him to the tower he must not seek. For if he found Dark Tower standing athwart the way of quest, then overthrowing lord of it might be but part of quest itself, to free the lady sought so long. Therefore himseemed that he might rightly and with full weight of Merlin’s wisdom take that tower’s lordship for himself.

Yet he felt somehow that if he gained the wardship of that fabled tower, and the wealth and power of it, then he would seek no more, by light of youthful dreams, to free the lady ever young. Thus he doubted, once in his whole lifetime, his soul’s weird.

And thus his journey brought him to a tower short and round, and builded of huge brown blocks of stone, with old signs of battle round about. He felt that there was no return from this, without combat with its lord. Yet he had not sought such battle, and therefore felt that he might live to overthrow that lord. Yet he pondered: Could he welcome battle now, or must he try at first to flee? But he had seen the landmarks and he knew, what no knight living now had ever seen, that the strange Dark Tower held the lady of the quest.

Glad was he. But one doubt he had yet. For he thought that it might be, in taking the road to the Dark Tower, that the ancient cripple pointed out, that his heart had forsaken quest. Ablings the lady could be harmed now and mayhap grow old in that frightful tower, with its lord. Or it might be that he, last knight with faith in this her quest, would fail, and she would be forever in her youth a prisoner, endlessly besieged. It might be mercy in him, therefore, to bend his heart upon the tower’s wardship. For if he won it, she would still be free.

From his head he shook away such doubting. For he knew that ladies imprisoned are meant for fighting over, and a knight must follow his quest. Thus, only the fighting remained for him to do. And so, he raised the horn he bore on tattered baldric, and winded high his challenge to the tower’s lord.

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