She awoke hungry in the back of the cave where she had slept most of the cold seasons of the past decades. Her hair matted and short framed a face that didn’t seem rested, in spite of its sleep. No part of the cave was high enough for her to stand, so she crawled to a near wall where her sword leaned. She knelt before it, its haft forming a cross.

Aloud, she spoke, ‘Father in heaven, look after the king’s health, the souls of the knights on our quest, and grant me the patience and strength to see our quest to the end whoever may achieve it.’

She gave her devotions to this saint and that and to ‘Barren Mary made fertile by God, please bless this enterprise and shower this barren land.’ Her devotions had become rote too, as a prisoner’s routine, shake a shackle, drink the dirty water, drift in the snow.

idylls-of-the-king-9 She added a personal prayer for meat to thicken her gruel, thinking of a rat which had snuck several times recently into the cave. She remained, hands clasped in front of her mouth, eyes closed, for several minutes before offering a concluding, ‘Amen’.

Words came from her lips and to the front of her mind as they had every morning for as long as she had searched. She meditated in the same way on the chalice, passed between the disciples, the faces of each one coming clear to her mind in a dusty room over a Jerusalem in springtime flower.


Like an artisan who makes one thing over and over. And in my head, my meditations spin like a potter’s wheel as I form the goblet with my thoughts’ fingers, glaze and fire it, pass it to imaginary fellows, I become each one, each who touched, each who travelled, heard, told.

When it ceased to matter that the faces at the last supper all looked like young knights to her and that Judas always resembled Arthur and not Lancelot or Percival. Or herself.

But the point is the chalice itself, not the faces behind it. We should be as worthy as Simon, Peter, Mary, or even Judas were to sit at that table.

But these arguments were old and her thoughts of banishment as rote as the prayers themselves. She crept to the front of the cave to unbank the fire and to heat her gruel.

Of course the cave wasn’t her only home. She still engaged the quest. After each winter, she travelled hundreds of leagues in search. Wasn’t that what we’d all done? Gone off in search of that one thing that would heal us?

One year she crossed the narrow western sea, entrusting herself to the tides. Prayed, searched, but in the intervening years, all of this became rote. The prayers, the searching, even helping those who remained on the land. She thought once of crossing the eastern sea as well, but feared the temptation of a land that might still have seasons.

Late winter was giving way again to the barren autumn in the cycle the land still suffered. It was time again to go north, she figured. To search anew and see what signs the others might have left. Some years neither stone nor tree bore the marks of passing knights. Other years it seemed each tree of any size bore a recently carved sigil, each a new hope the quest persevered.

Sunlight reaches into the cave only at sunset, otherwise the only light comes from the fire. She can creep around the fire pit near the cave’s mouth if she hunches her shoulders low.

The rat had appeared at the mouth of her cave each night for six nights, attracted by the peat fire on which she boiled a thin gruel, the staple of her diet. She tried each night to catch it. She had seen it close in on her fire just after dusk, but was never fast enough to grab it. On this night, she sat more still and more silent than she could recall.

The rat’s muscles bound his limbs in place such that he seemed to her as though he could run off in any direction at the quietest crack of a twig. There was little meat on it, ‘But you’d find little on me worth eating, either,’ she considered, ‘until the maggots softened me anyhow.’ Years of privation had strung her muscles to wires and made twins of them, of sorts, her and the rat.

It settled on the opposite side of the fire from her.

She crouched beside the old pot. She stirred \into a position she could hold, slowly, as hair grows. ‘I’m a tall rock, that’s all.’ She moved only her eyes between the rat near her feet and the dying light outside. Her peat fire nearly embers warmed as the night took on its cold.

In her concentration, she mused on the state of the quest. Of her and the other knights, ‘Who was left?’ She knew only the signs she passed in the not winter – new marks, symbols carved into trees to indicate this one or that of the quest still travelled, still searched.

In the dead of a dying winter, though, hunger only sharpened prayers for food any more. At the start, we sought hunger – hunger brought the visions we were after, the goal shown us in extremis. Now? Hunger sharpened hunger for spring, even the barren springs of these, what, fifty years? Sixty? Nothing in the land changed enough for her to count.

But still I wake and I pray and I meditate. I kneel before my cross – devotion, defense, faith, and vengeance all in one.

The fire dimmed, she bent her knees some more, and no longer saw the embers reflected in the rat’s eyes. She crouched farther, praying, but only that the creaking of her joints not wake the rodent. And she waited some more.

The quest is the only youth we have and it saps us as it feeds. At least it saps me. I’ve seen no others on this quest in, what, a decade? Two?

How long this dry autumn, harvest barren. I can’t say ‘barren again’ because the autumn, when it’s not winter, hasn’t ever subsided.

She had given up regular calculations an age ago, before her chain mail had rusted through.

I was pure, but surely the decades don’t erode that too?

What is the routine of years – go out when the days are long and cross the land. Hibernate when the days are short.

Even the exercise of driving doubt from herself had become rote – the quest is valid, the land still thirsts.

When I go south or west, I see the evidence that others still go north and east. The scrub of the land provides, but not as it once did.

She saw the rat drop its concentration, sprang. As claws dug into one palm, she broke its neck with the other. Impatient now after her vigil, she stirred the embers, added a little fuel from the pile of peat she collected, and singed the rat’s fur in the growing fire. She took a dirk from a sheath at her hip, skinned it, tore its limbs, and dropped them into the simmering gruel.

 *          *          *

 Somewhat sated, she leaves the cave and gives thanks for prayers answered and prays again – prayers for the land, the king, the memories of those who live in the waste, of the dead. And she meditates on virtue and chivalry. ‘Still I give my sword for those in distress and fervently hope that my willingness does not diminish me in the eyes of heaven.’

As the stars appear, clouds gather at the horizon and she’s asleep before the first drops of rain in almost a hundred years fall on the land.