In which Arthur seeks the aid of the wizard Merlin, and the Lady Guinevere warns him of new dangers he must now consider as a damsel.
The sound of Merlin’s snoring echoed through the crystal cave. Nimue lay next to him, sleeping blissfully, great tufts of cotton sticking out of her ears. The messenger Arthur had sent, a mere stableboy named Hoven, lingered outside the entrance to the cave, lantern in hand, nervously shuffling from foot to foot. He raised the lantern and peered into the darkness beyond the entrance, but he could see nothing. He could only hear the snoring, though he wondered if it was from a man or a grizzly. “Merlin?” He hissed. “Merlin?” His voice echoed back to him– Merlin… Merlin… Merlin..
A sliver of cold, spring moon hovered in the sky above him, visible through the still denuded trees, and he could also hear waves crashing on the distant shore. “Merlin?”
The boy’s knees knocked as he contemplated the threshold. The thought of entering the wizard’s cave terrified him. What if Merlin turned him into a toad? He did not like the thought of a toad’s life, what with the diet of flies and always sitting on logs. But the Queen had been clear and insistent, and Camelot aswirl with wild rumors and a growing sense of panic. This is my chance to prove myself, Hudor said to himself. In fact, he had ambitions to become a knight someday, and he could not fail at this task if he hoped to impress the Queen and– King, if that was still the right word.
He stepped into the cave, and then went further. His lantern lights caught sparkling stalactites and stalagmites, and deeper into the chamber he saw side caves filled with wonderous apparatus, as well as a raised area on which he could make out a bed. The cave was warm, no doubt heated by some unseen magic. Hudor crept closer and closer to the bed, his lamp hand shaking, throwing light around the cave, wild, threatening shadows rising up on the cave walls.
“Merlin! Merlin!” He shouted, his terror getting the best of him, and he ran up the steps onto the dias, stumbling and falling onto the bed and across the bodies of Merlin and Nimue. It is a little known fact that Nimue, as a nymph, had little use for what she considered the silly ways of the mortals, and she did sleep without a stitch of clothing. Consequently, Hudor landed with his face planted firmly in her soft bosom.
“W- what? Who dares?” Merlin shouted, rousing himself, seeing an assailant with his face in a place it ought not to be. “Scoundrel!” Grabbing Hudor by the scruff of neck, he yanked him off his still slumbering beloved and hurled him across the cave, sending Hudor’s lamp smashing to pieces against the rock– the light extinguished. The cave was now pitch black.
Hudor’s teeth chattered as he crawled in the direction of what he hoped was the entrance, all thought of his mission gone and replaced by his terror of the angry wizard. He had only made a few — what is the word? Crawls? Creeps? Moves? Well, forget it- he had made only a few movements, when his head bumped into something. “Oh, no.” He reached out and felt the coarse fabric of a robe, and then a calf.
“Oh, yes,” Merlin said, igniting the magic fire on the tip of his staff. Seeing it was just a boy and dressed in the Kings’ livery, Merlin held his hand. “What are you doing here?”
“First, let me say, I had no impure intentions toward your lady, and–”
“Never mind that!” Merlin roared. “No doubt the King sent you. And I suppose the message is he wants to see me.”
“Y-yes,” Hudor said. “Well, in fact, it was the queen, and you see–”
“Up! Let’s go, you prattling fool. The sooner I find out what new predicament Arthur has gotten himself into, the sooner I can go back to sleep.”
“I am not a lord,” Merlin said with disdain. “I am a wizard.”
Hudor followed Merlin toward the front of the cave. “Should I apologize you your lady?”
“Best she never knows what happened. Leave her to sleep.”
“Would she turn me into a toad?”
“No. Probably just trap you in a pillar of amber of all eternity.”
Seeing the boy’s face grow pale with fear made Merlin chuckle, in part because, well, he wasn’t joking.
Meanwhile, back at the castle, Arthur had his arms bent around his back and was turning in circles once more– this time trying to reach the laces at the back of his gown.
“Arthur, allow me to help,” Geuneviere said.
Arthur grinned. “I have taken more than a few dresses off you, my love! I know very well how to do it!”
Men! Guinevere thought to herself. Never wanting to ask for help. “Very well,” she said, sitting down and watching, amused, as Arthur struggled. He sat, bent over, tried rubbing the laces against the bed post. Once more reached back, straining, making frustrated little noises like a mouse. Finally, making a violent twist in an attempt to reach the tops of the laces, he stumbled and fell backward on his behind. His hair fell all in his face. Guinevere thought he looked rather fetching and ridiculous.
“Fine,” he said, trying to get back to his feet, finding it difficult with his feet tangled in his long gown. He plopped back down.
Guinevere offered a hand. Arthur took it and she helped him get back to his feet, “Your hand is so soft!” She couldn’t help but gushing. Indeed, it was perhaps the softest hand she’d ever held.
Arthur turned his back, looking back over his small shoulder. “Please.”
Guinevere, having overcome her shock, was now feeling playful, and she decided to tease Arthur a bit. “Do you wish your wife to help you out of your dress, my dear husband?”
Arthur knew what she was doing, and his eyes sparkled with amusement. “You’re loving this, aren’t you?”
“A little.” Guinevere untied the began to pull loose the silken laces. “Now you have some sense of what we women go through.”
Arthur started to argue, thinking to explain she had no idea what it was like to be weighted down by a suit of armor, but he thought better of it. Instead, once the laces had been loosed, he pulled the clasps off his shoulders and shimmied out of the dress, letting it fall to the floor to pool at his feet.
Guinevere caught a glimpse of his maidenly shape, naked, in the mirror. ‘Oh, Arthur! She thought. He was a vision. How could a man such as he’d been live with such a body?
Arthur stole a glance as well, confirming without any doubt that he now bore a fully female form. Being a Christian man and knowing it was a sin for him to gaze on the body of any woman other than his wife, even if he was that woman, he pulled his eyes away of the alluring female in the mirror. Shamed at what he had become, he went to his armoire and quickly pulled on britches and a tunic. The pants were too long, the tunic strained scandalously against his ample bosom. He did not need a look in the mirror to know he would not feel confident wearing a shirt that so displayed his bust., He added a cloak, pulling it closed over his body, hiding his womanly shape.
He sat, and while Guenivere slipped the dainty slippers from his tiny feet, he pulled his hair from the cloak and tossed it back over his shoulders. “I will need a haircut,” he said, “before my journey.”
But before he could elaborate, there was a knock on the door. “Merlin to see you,” the doorman called.
Arthur, feeling a bit more himself now that he wore a man’s garb, got up and unbolted the door. Merlin strode into the room as Arthur rebarred the door. Merlin gaped at Arthur, then his wife, then back to Arthur.
“You sent for me?” Merlin said, adopting a straight face.
“Yes. I did.”
“Is something amiss?”
Arthur rolled his eyes. “Yes, Merlin, something is a-miss. In fact, that is the issue. I am a miss.”
“I hadn’t noticed. Your disguise is so convincing.”
There was a moment of silence, then they all laughed. “It seems I sent for a wizard and a jester arrived instead.”
“Laughter, my lord, is the best medicine.”
They sat at Arthur’s table, and Arthur recounted the tale of how he had come to find himself a woman. When he finished, he got right to the point. “Can you dispel this magic?”
“I can try. Step back, my queen.”
Merlin spoke in ancient words, rife with magic. He waved and incanted, chanted and thrashed about Arthur’s form with his staff. Arthur, whose hopes had risen at the arrival of the wizard, felt his heart sink.
“Ceridwen,” Merlin mumbled.
“What sort of witch is she?” Arthur demanded.
“No witch,” Merlin said, his voice growing dark and dire. “But a goddess of the Celtic peoples. Such magic can only have come from a being of divine power. It is beyond my skill to remove this enchantment from you.”
“Then I must accept her challenge. I must find and tame a unicorn,” Arthur said.
Guinevere had returned to the table, and she now took Arthur’s hand. “You can’t mean it,” she said. “It is too dangerous.”
“I have been on many quests, faced many perils. I have not failed, and I will not fail in this.”
“But, you are only a girl now.”
Arthur, who, unused to the new weight, had been slumping, now straightened his back and raised his chin. “No. I may have a maiden’s form, but I am still a man. I am still Arthur.”
“Yes, we spoke of this, but you have a girl’s body. My husband, you do not know what it is like for women. There are dangers I dare not speak of that only a woman knows. You will not be safe.”
The comment shook Arthur. He knew what dangers she spoke of, and it did shake his nerve as he considered, for the first time in his life, what every girl was taught to dread. But Arthur pushed away this new, troubling womanly fear. “I am a warrior, still, no matter my body. If anyone should menace me, he will find he deals not with some helpless damsel, but a skilled swordsman.”
“Arthur! I do not doubt your courage, but your arms? They are– delicate. There are serving girls in this castle with more muscle.”
‘My arms?” Arthur said, suddenly self-conscious of how slender they seemed. “My arms are–”
“I will accompany Arthur,” Merlin said. “He will not quest alone.”
“And I shall carry great Excalibur, and– wait. My sword?” Arthur looked about the chamber, and then remembered that in his shock, he had left it in the Great Hall.
His men were sent to retrieve it, but when they returned they bore ill news: Excalibur was gone.
By the time Lancelot rode back through the gates of Camelot, Gawain at his side, the sun rose behind him, throwing a golden light across the silvery land. The air smelt of spring– freshly blooming flowers, budding trees. “Did we truly see what I think we saw?” Lancelot asked, recalling in his mind the image of Arthur, turning and turning in the air, turning and turning into a maiden fair.
“I do not know if I trust my eyes,” Gawain said. “For they seemed to tell me that our KIng is now– a girl.”
“Yes. That is what my eyes also told me.”
“What are we to do?” Gawain asked. “What does it mean?”
“I don’t know,” Lancelot said. “There is no map to guide us through these lands. I will see the King,” Lancelot finally decided. “Perhaps there I will find answers.”
“Do you wish me to join you?” Gawain asked. In truth, he had grown tired from the long night, and what’s more he found the idea of seeing the king in the shape of a woman disturbing. It unnerved him, the thought that man could be woman, woman man. He did not know why. And so he was relieved when Lancelot sent him on his way.
The Church of Saint Servanus stood at the end of a crooked, flagstone path near Legion’s Gate, in the old town section of Camelot. Few were the souls who visited Camelot without making time to see the chapel, considered one of the most marvelous buildings in all the isles, for the Romans had constructed it with a domed roof, an art which was then still unknown to the Britons and, indeed, most of the world. Many believed the building had been constructed using magic, but Mordred knew better. It was an art called Engineering.
Yet, wondrous as it may be, Mordred had not come to admire the building. He had a darker purpose. He pulled the door open and stalked among the pews, his steel shod boots ringing against the stone floor. “Friar Lowbottom!” Mordred called. “Friar!” Nothing, but Mordred knew where he must be. Bounding down the stone stairs to the crypt, he saw flickering torchlight and poked his head through the door. “There you are! Eating a healthy breakfast, I see.”
Friar Lowbottom peered over the top of his pewter mug, frothy foam from the ale he’d been sipping clinging to his mustache. “Care to join me?”
The honored dead from the Roman times now shared the crypt with mighty oaken casks. Mordred did have to admit the Irish had brought fine wines and ales along with their new religion. It was almost worth it. He grabbed a mug off a hook and, choosing a cask at random, pulled the stopper, letting the dark brew flow into the cup, the air filling with the tart smell of fermented grains.
Sitting, Mordred raised his cup. “To Christian Virtue,” he said.
“Amen,” Friar Lowbottom answered. They drank.
“Have you heard the news?” Mordred asked.
“If you are referring to that nonsense about the maiden king…”
“It is not nonsense, I witnessed it myself. The King now makes a most fetching lass. It was– remarkable.”
Lowbottom downed the rest of his ale. “This is shocking news.”
“Indeed. And, your grace, you have a vital role to play now. Girls, you know, they are so emotional. They can not think with reason, and are prone to the most foolish decisions. You would agree.”
“They need guidance, and the Lady Arthur is no different now than any other silly girl.”
“Well, I suppose that depends on–”
“She is just another flighty female, Friar. I am telling you. And she needs your guidance.”
“That is one of the requirements of my office.”
“Oh,” Mordred said, reaching into his cloak. “Before I forget.” He held out a small leather purse, then tossed it onto the wooden table. “A donation. For– your good work.”
Friar Lowbottom lifted the purse and held it in his palm. “Most generous.”
“Yes. I have a few thoughts on how you might council our fair king.” Mordred leaned forward, copper his hand to Lowbottom’s ear, and whispered.