Riding the White Horse
The breeze sighed softly as it breathed caressingly over the grass, which rippled, changing colour slightly as it moved and as the light of the moon glimmered through scattered clouds and its shadows played over the smooth and silent earth. The breath of the Horse was in his nostrils; its blood pulsed through his veins. He was eager to run. His perspective shifted, no longer was he just a man seated on the back of that strangely flowing figure of great antiquity, known as the White Horse of Uffington, cut unknown ages ago into the chalk of the Berkshire Downs. Was it really meant to be a horse? Some considered it to depict a dragon. In either case, he felt that he was riding it, and had indeed become it as it flowed rather than strode through the magic of the night and merged into or traversed the paths of the inner land.
William the Rider was experienced in making these night journeys, although they were not easy nor were their courses entirely of his own volition. This night the feeling was unusually intense, and the vision strong. He felt drawn along at dizzying speed, his consciousness blurring, as if to an unknown destination where his presence was imperiously required.
“Halt Rider!” he heard as his mind cleared and he found himself in the presence of a great golden Wyvern outlined in fire, apparently within a large but dilapidated Hall, whose dimly seen furnishings seemed dirty and decayed. “I am the Voice of the Land of Wessex, within the House of Wessex. I summon the King. His Land has need of him. His kingdom is failing and it his task to restore it. Carry this message to him. Tell him to meet me at a beacon fire on Dragon Hill within the month; else neither he nor his kingdom may long survive. Go!”
Impelled even more rapidly and confusingly through the reverse of his previous journey, William found himself recovering his senses on the hillside as the sun rose over the serene fields and hills of Wessex.
He believed the Voice, but it would not be easy to obey its command. This was not the sort of story which many people would accept. They would rather laugh and sneer, call him a drunk, a fool, a lout in need of being taught better manners if he persisted in annoying his betters. A good beating would be the least he could expect if he tried to contact the King, and the King would be unlikely to even hear the message, let alone believe it. The command could not be disobeyed, however. He could not be the cause of the fall of his country. He must find a way.
Time out of mind, the people of this area had been involved with horses, and it was through this connection that a way was found. That evening, one of his wife’s cousins unexpectedly came to visit them. He worked for one of the stables which trained and looked after horses for the Royal family, and was on his way with a message to the Royal Court, escorting a riding horse for the king.
That young man is far too idle and dreamy thought Princess Matilda the King’s aunt, as she saw her nephew cross the courtyard below and go into the stables. He pays far too much attention to childish tales about King Arthur and Good King Harold. He should pay more attention to the advice of the Royal Council and attempt to get a grip on the country as well as improve the management and income from the Royal estates. A young king who was more interested in old tales, servants gossip and galloping around in pursuit of foxes or hares than in the accumulating pile of reports of debts, unpaid taxes, unpaid servants, riots, disturbances, bad weather, crop failure, disease and disobedience amongst the people and corruption and strife amongst their rulers, whilst his own lands no longer produced their old income, but their debts never seemed to diminish, was not what the Kingdom needed. Her own son John would make a far better King she was sure. There he was again, coming out of the stables leading a new white horse which he could not afford and listening to whatever a couple of stable hands were telling him, probably about the horse. It was a fine looking horse though.
At Dragon Hill
“Let the King stand forth. Repeat my words to him so that he understands me. Let him speak his replies aloud so that the Land may hear him.” William uttered the words as they arose in his mind whilst he gazed into the blaze where his inner vision saw the huge form of the Wyvern of Wessex embodied in the flames, its wings flapping and its tail writhing as the flames moved, his attention rapt by the intense power of its eyes.
The circle of men seated on the ground around the great fire on the top of the flat topped man made conical hill nestled just beneath the great form of the White Horse listened in silence as they gazed into the flames.
Slowly the King, who had been sitting beside William, stood and spoke. “I am Richard, King of Wessex. Who are you?”
“I am the Wyvern of Wessex, the Voice of the Land. The Land has need of a King. The Land has summoned you, Richard, to know whether you will be its True King.”
Puzzled, the King responded, “I am the true and only King of Wessex. I am the only son of my father King Henry, who died last year. I have been acknowledged and crowned as his lawful and undisputed successor.”
The Wyvern seemed to laugh in a crackle of flames. “Very well Your Majesty, King Richard. You have been accepted by your people as King; but are you a True King? This Land needs a True King and will serve no other. A fool may be King, and many have been, but no fool can be a True King. Nor any knave.”
Now irritated, King Richard glanced at William in case he was mocking him, but seeing his vacant face staring fixedly into the flames, as the words came from his mouth in a voice that was different from his usual speech, said merely “What is a True King?”
“One who is united with his Land as well as his people, and who serves them as they serve him. Of old it was said ‘The King and The Land are One’. Such is a True King. Arthur and Good King Harold were True Kings. It is a thing very hard to be a True King. In times of peace and prosperity an ordinary King suffices, and is soon forgotten. For too long we have had ordinary kings. What has been created by greater men, and more than men, decays. Your kingdom is passing. Wessex faces dissolution and destruction from within and without. It is your responsibility to save it. Only a True King can do so. You are not yet that King, but you may become so. Will you attempt it? ”
After a thoughtful pause, “Yes. How should I proceed?”
“A True King is willing to shed his blood for his Land. Are you?”
“In token thereof, take a knife and pass it through the flames to purify it. Make a slight cut in your arm and let some of your blood drip unto the ground and into the flames. As you do so make oath to your Land, saying ‘I, Richard King of Wessex, by my breath and by my blood, do swear that I will do my best to be a True King to Wessex and will give my life in service to my people and my Land.’ ”
Slowly the King did so, whilst all watched solemnly.
There was a pause whilst William continued to stare at the Wyvern in the flames and everyone else watched the King as he stood in front of the fire binding a cloth around his arm.
“Your people and your Land accept your oath King Richard. They will serve you as you serve them. You are linked and each must hold the others to the task. Your first task will be to make a sword. This will be an expression of your rule, a Sword of State, embodying a link between you and your Land. It is to be made of iron mined and forged and formed in Wessex. It must be the work of your mind and your hands. You will require assistance. You are not expected to do all the work yourself, but your effort and sweat as well as your care and planning must go into it. The materials are of the land, and the people of the land should have a part in the effort and skill required to make the sword which binds them to the King who will wield it and them, but it must clearly be the sword of King Richard.”
The Wyvern continued as everyone listened intently. “Your King and your Land need help. King Richard requires loyal service and assistance if he is to achieve the Quest of the Sword, and much more in service of his Land and people. Which of you will now follow the example of your King and pledge service to him and to your Land of Wessex? Let him likewise stand before all and make oath with his breath and his blood to serve them loyally.”
It was quite a mixed bunch which was gathered on this hill. The King had brought several of his friends and their guards and servants, and there was the small group of local ‘Horsemen’ of which William was the leader. Only the latter had much interest in the old ways or much aptitude for them. The King's friends were pleasure loving young men who had never had much interest in old tales and traditions, and were quite startled to feel some of the power of the Wyvern, although only William and a couple of his Horsemen could see and hear it in their minds. They were familiar with the commonplace symbol of Wessex, the form of dragon known as a Wyvern, but were astonished that it could be at least as real as they themselves were, and were much impressed by the effect it had on their friend. The servants were more familiar with old superstitions, loyal to their King and country, quite willing to follow the lead of their superiors, and pleased to have an impressive yarn to tell their friends. Thus, everyone followed the lead of their King, clockwise round to William.
Elated by the experience and the loyalty of the group the King had an inspiration. Calling for his servant to fetch something to drink and a big drinking vessel from their baggage, he announced, “I thank you all and name you Companions of the King’s Quest. Let us all drink together to mark this occasion, and then let us think how to make the sword.”
“Wait,” said the Wyvern. “Let all those who have shed their blood in loyalty to the Land, now mingle it in the vessel with the drink which they take together and then spill a little on the ground and into the fire as a libation to the powers of the Land of Wessex to seek their aid and participation in this Companionship and its Quest.”
When this had been done the King asked for suggestions as to how they should find the materials and make the sword. “I think most of the iron that we use comes from York and the swords as well” said one of his friends. “Excuse me sir,” said one of the guards, “there used to be iron mined in the Weald, long ago. Maybe there’s some left. Some of my relatives came from there, and they say that there were blacksmiths in that part of the country. ”
“There should be a royal estate somewhere near there. It’s time I paid a visit,” said the King. “Now what and who else do we need? Does anyone know anything about mining or a sword smith? How about the scabbard and the decorations? ’’ The discussion proceeded and plans were laid.
When they concluded and the fire was starting to burn low, the Wyvern had a final message for them. “It has been extremely unusual these days, and very difficult to achieve such clarity of communication, even at this site and through an accomplished Horseman. You will need his continued assistance and also a link with this fire to achieve anything like it again. Take some of the flames from this fire and keep them fed, so that you have small fires which continue this one. Do not let them go out. Then when you use them to light other fires you can imagine my presence in them and it may help to gain mental contact between us. This is particularly important for the King. He must light the forge from such a flame and keep it burning, for my presence and that of other Powers through me, is required in the forging of the blade. Now fare well.”
Taking and Making Trouble
“He’s obviously mad. Something must be done”, declared Princess Matilda to her son John. “If he continues to carry on in this way, he’ll get us all lynched, not just himself.”“You heard about the riot then?” replied her son. “What was he doing there anyway?” she asked.
“The Council were happy enough when he told us that he intended to visit and look into the management of some of the Royal estates in Kent. We thought he was beginning to take things seriously,” said John. However, it seems that after a cursory visit to a few places, he took to burrowing in some long abandoned mine workings. No one can explain why. Maybe the madness is intermittent, like that of George III. He’s not always mad; he even asked some quite sharp and pointed questions at the last Council meeting when that old fool Smithers was trying to explain his budget proposals. Somehow he got into dispute with a group of locals; perhaps they were bandits using the area as a hideout. I don’t think they knew who he was at first, but they saw a gentleman toiling amongst a group of more common people at a pointless task of excavation in an exhausted mine, and they mocked him. When they knew who he was, they mocked all the more. That’s how the fight started. He took a few bruises but his men had the better of the mockers, who departed dragging their injured and vowing vengeance and rebellion. Now Sheriff Bates has the task of tracking them down and hanging them, without enough men to maintain order in the rest of the county, and without sparking another uprising. He is not happy. One good thing seems to have come out of it though. Richard is now training very hard, and practising wrestling and the use of weapons every day with the Guard. They tell me he is becoming quite a good fighter. He’s courageous and determined. They like him.” After a moment John added, “He won’t be easy to put down.”
“Hmmph,” sniffed Matilda. “He’s also become an apprentice blacksmith I hear. Perhaps he’ll be better at that than at being King. It’s not just that it’s bad for the country when its King is a fool to be mocked by every low fellow, its mortifying for us, his relatives, to be associated with him and be laughed at or pitied by the people we meet. Yesterday Cecily was quite condescending in her sympathy to me on Richard’s sad state.” She added, apparently irrelevantly, “He spends all his time with labourers and guardsmen nowadays, and never seems to be interested in meeting any nice girls. I wonder is he... normal? ”
“Harder, harder, smite harder.” The words echoed and re-echoed in Richard’s mind as he wielded the hammer in the forge. Was he saying them aloud? Were they what the smith had said to him, or the Wyvern’s words which he heard in the roar of the flames and the hiss of the bellows?
“Harder, harder, strike harder. Careful there, be precise. Keep the rhythm.” The heat made him feel that he was being burned alive. His mind whirled, seemingly involved not only in the task of forming the blade on the anvil, amidst the heat which even the blacksmith declared to be unusually intense, but also in the droning, moaning, sighing, singing incantations which seemed to echo between William crouched in trance in a corner of the forge, and the living speaking flames which embodied the Wyvern in the furnace, at least in his imagination. “A good sword must be sung as well as struck into life. Sing. Let your soul sing .” His will and his hardened body kept him striking in relentless rhythm as his emotions poured out a babble of words and feelings which took on the patterns of song, and his spirit seemed to join both the Wyvern and the billet of glowing iron that he was striking. “Hard, precise, rhythmical; there is no soft or easy way to make a sword or mend a kingdom or rule it. This Land will not endure a soft or easy ruler. Strike! Feel each blow. It is yourself as well as your sword and your kingdom that you are shaping. The King and the Land must be One. You must drive out impurities from yourself and from your kingdom, and shape both to your will and to the needs of the Land. You free and shape and strengthen and wield your kingdom as you do your sword and yourself.”
The image of the Wyvern filled his vision as he toiled. Its gaze and its words filled his mind. “This Land needs a True King. It is too long since it had one. Think not that I and the Powers of the Land toil with you just to benefit you and your people. No! Together we forge and form a kingdom; that is true, but there is more. A True King needs the empowerment of the Land to rule justly and well, but the Land needs a True King to inspire or en-spirit it. Through the focal point of his trained and attuned mind may flow higher spiritual influences to the Land, bringing conscious awareness of higher states and the patterns of how things should be. It is the function of a True King to be that link between the three levels. Making a Sword is just the start. Few men or even Kings know this. They do not understand it. They despise it. It is the burden and glory of a True King. It is not all his doing, but if it is not done, not only will the kingdom fall and the people perish, but the inner foundations of the Land – laid so very, very long ago, by Beings greater than those of the present age, crumble and dissolve beyond consciousness and recall. Beasts die, men die, kingdoms fall, even Cosmos fades; and all the sooner from neglect. Is it not a fine jest that the greatest among men should be a janitor of Cosmos?”
So the toil proceeded for many days, more than the time usually required to make a sword, not as many sneered, because the King was a weak, clumsy and inadequate apprentice. Blacksmith and sword smith were pleased by his work. A novice could not do it all by himself, but they were impressed by his determination to do as much as he could, even if they were slightly unnerved by the mutterings of William in his corner and the subdued babbling and singing of the King. They admired his ability to withstand the unusually fierce heat of this furnace, and if they were disturbed by the fey atmosphere of the place and the rumours that swirled around the person of the King, they said nothing about it, well pleased by their remuneration to adhere to the oath of silence which the King had insisted upon.
At length the Wyvern spoke in the mind of the King that enough and more than enough had been done, and the smiths concurred. “As you serve the Land, the Land serves you,” the Wyvern told him. “It was said, with what truth I know not, that gods and men lived each other’s deaths. You have shown your intention to be a True King despite the cost. On the other side has been found one willing to meet and match your sacrifice. This spirit has been bound to you and embodied in the blade. This is not one of the dragon slaying blades of legend, but the confinement of the consciousness of such a being within these limitations is like death to it. Respect it and wield it well. Now you may quench and finish the sword and make its fittings.”
So the sword was quenched in water containing some of the blood and sweat of the King. Aided by a goldsmith, the King engraved two words upon the blade and inlaid them with gold, which many centuries before had been mined from his land. On one side was the word ‘Richard’ and on the other was the word ‘Wessex’. The goldsmith completed the ornamentation of the sword and other artisans completed the handle and the scabbard and sword belt to the directions of the king and made a traveling case in which it could be carried and upon which it could be stood.
When all the work had been done and the King had polished the sword brightly, the Wyvern spoke to him again. “You have done well, but the sword is not ready for use. It is not yet ‘alive’. These efforts are somewhat like pregnancy and birth. Not all succeed despite the best efforts of the parents. Bury it carefully in the earth of Dragon’s Hill, where the idea of it was conceived, and leave it to come to term, well guarded by William and a couple of your men. If and when it becomes ready to be ‘born’ we will tell you to unearth it, display it to your people and make use of its powers. None then will be able to doubt that you are a True King. If all goes well the sword should come to birth as winter gives way to spring. Until then look to your realm as best you can.”
“He’s no less mad,” sighed the Princess Matilda, “even if the madness has taken another form.” “Well”, said her son, “he seems to have lost interest in blacksmithing and sword making, and even to have lost or forgotten about that sword he went to so much trouble to make.” “Doesn’t that prove that he’s mad?” asked his querulous mother. “Can’t the doctors and the Council be persuaded to see that?” “Hardly,” said John. “A man, even a King, may have eccentric hobbies and sudden changes of interest, without being judged insane and tipped out of his house or off his throne. To most people he seems fairly normal, albeit rash and eccentric. He’d have to do something really outrageous and leave the ‘people who matter’ as a whole feeling endangered before usurpation would be tolerated. It’s not even as if we’re any more popular, and we certainly don’t have a lot of military force or the means to buy friends.”
“Until he marries and provides a son, although you’re his older cousin you’re still the Heir Apparent. I’d be the Mother of the King.”
Dear Mother, please stop playing Margaret Beaufort and trying to turn me into Henry VII he thought to himself in exasperation. Aloud he said, “Richard’s now promoting patriotism and presenting himself as a King of Justice. There’s certainly enough crime and dissatisfaction to keep him busy.”
“Huh! I thought it was some new religion he was setting up to worship the Wyvern. He put up those altars with little fires on them which the servants have to keep tended, under pictures and banners of the Wyvern. It must be a fire risk, besides being a nuisance and distraction from their other work. Some of the sillier maids are convinced that the Wyvern has spoken to them or that they’re seen it flying around.”
“It must have been flames flickering in dimness or draughts moving the banners,” suggested John. “He’s gone round all the local villages telling them to put up Wyvern images over their village halls or headman’s houses and to keep burning a fire dedicated to the Wyvern which he presented to them, and to offer it twigs and happy thoughts and to request the aid of the Wise Wyvern of Wessex when they need advice or to make a decision. The children love it. He’s also sent similar instructions to all the towns and counties as well as to the Royal estates. The Council liked the idea of promoting patriotism and distracting people from their grumbles. I don’t think that the sheriffs have found it helpful in reducing crime though. ”
Matilda’s eyes shone with malice. “They’ll soon get bored, and feel foolish. It’ll end by making him seem crazy, and they’ll blame him for making them feel foolish.”
Winter was bleak and cold and long. No word came from William or from the Wyvern. People continued to grumble and to starve. The King’s initiative had caused some revival of patriotism and participation in traditional practices. People talked of Good King Harold and told tales of the plentiful bounty of nature that had supposedly flourished in his days, when the crops grew just to please him, as some said. Others became more raucous and contemptuous in their rejection of all such things.
Good King Harold and his Iron Wyrm
One of the most popular tales about Good King Harold featured his Iron Wyrm. Travellers who had visited Winchester claimed to have seen it. It was kept in a shed, on a section of dual iron tracks, and carefully tended and kept clean by its guardians, who liked to display and talk about it to the pilgrims and curiosity seekers. It was taller than two men’s heights, and what was most impressive about it was that it seemed to be made almost entirely of iron. It stood on two rows of iron wheels on either side and was attached to a carriage on similar iron wheels for important passengers. Its vast belly was said to have contained a furnace which consumed black rocks, and issued piercing shrieks and plumes of smoke steam and fire. According to legend and the tales enthusiastically disseminated by its guardians, this was the famous steed of the legendary Good King Harold. Long ago it had ceased to function, perhaps because of a lack of black rocks, or because of the lack of a sufficiently good and powerful king, or for some other reason, but its guardians stoutly asserted that once upon a time it had roared and thundered across the land causing terror until confined to these iron tracks by the power and skill of the king and his mages. Their tales told that when tamed, the Wyrm, which indeed had manifestly once been a dragon, had been obliged to draw the king and his guests along this track, which had once extended across the face of the land, and even to burrow under hills at his command. Perhaps that was where it had found the black rocks upon which it had fed. Alas, the king had died, and so had his Wyrm. Awed visitors looked at the Wyrm and at the carriage containing comfortable seats and windows through which to view the passing scenery, and wondered what it must have felt like to have gone snorting and thundering across country, faster even than a horse could gallop if one believed the possibly exaggerated tales of its guardians. According to legend, it was Good King Harold who had tamed the dragons of the land and turned them from destructive monsters to beneficent protectors of the country and bestowers of fertility. The King’s Iron Wyrm was the only dragon which anyone had ever seen, and it was dead. So much for legend.
Prince John became irritated by his mother’s growing hatred of his cousin and her constant scheming and whispering against him. “I’m not able to turn into Good King Harold and make the winds warm and the crops grow to please me,” he had said after another of her tirades against Richard and her increasingly openly expressed wishes that the King should die and that John should replace him. “Even if I became King,” he snapped, “I couldn’t wave a wand and make everything right and everyone happy. I’d just become the one whom everyone blamed for everything they don’t like. In fact, if anything untoward happened to Richard, this country could fall apart, not just into civil war, but into anarchy. There’d be little enough loyalty to me or to you, especially if we were thought to have contrived or connived at the death or overthrow of Richard. He’s surprisingly popular, and unsurprisingly, we’re not. Most likely everyone who could attract the support of a few armed men would set up his own kingdom and fight all the others and pillage the unarmed until death or disease carried them all away.”
She wasn’t listening. “There’s so much crime and lawlessness these days,” she murmured to herself, “he could run into an arrow at any time.” Her son took her by the shoulders and shook her. “Mother! Stop talking and thinking like that. It’s foolish and dangerous. It doesn’t help anyone and if Richard gets to hear of it, he’d be quite justified in executing both of us for treason.”
Privately, he thought as he left his mother, that Richard was becoming quite a steely young monarch, not a man to cross and no longer the dreamy youth lost in romantic tales of ancient times, nor the callow young pleasure seeker. He attended closely and perceptively to Royal business and was paying attention to the better administration of Royal estates and offices. A couple of the Royal Councillors had been retired. Several Sheriffs and other officials had been shocked to receive surprise inspections by the King and his staff. Some might feel privileged still to be wearing rather than carrying their heads. Others were less fortunate.
One story was that Richard and his companions had helped to capture a band of outlaws. Rather than having them executed immediately or taken to town for a delayed trial and enhanced opportunities for bribery and escape, he had taken them to the nearest village, where a couple of them were said to have relatives. There he had summoned all the men from their work, empaneled them as a jury, set up the Wyvern standard and the flame that always accompanied him, and presided over the trial. It had been a brisk affair with little doubt of the rogues’ guilt. After sentencing them to death the King had called for a rope, made a noose at one end, placed it around the neck of the first felon, slung the other end over the branch of a convenient tree, and told the villagers to join him in hauling on the rope. And so it went for all of them. By mid afternoon the King and his party had left and the peasants were burying the corpses, much impressed by the King’s justice. This young man was becoming a leader, not squeamish about taking responsibility and participating in any action he ordered. He might not like executing his relatives, but if justice or necessity impelled him John was sure that he would do it. He worried about his foolish mother and felt a breeze on his own neck.
Spring was late and well advanced before word came from Dragon Hill. The King was beginning to lose hope of the sword. He was still determined to be as true a king as he could manage, even without the assistance of the Otherworld. He kept himself busy, learning the administrative complexities of kingship, presiding over courts of justice, visiting and inspecting his troops, officials and estates, making himself known and his presence felt across the land, assessing the personalities characters and capacities of those around him. No one knew where or when the King might appear, who he might talk to, nor what he might ask. He took an interest in the work of craftsmen and farmers and labourers as well as officials and landowners. He heard many complaints and often had to patiently explain why he could do little or nothing about most of them ...the crops would not grow to please him, although his interest took the edge from many grievances. People got used to seeing his cavalcade pass, or even stop to talk to them. Sometimes he and his entourage would share a drink with them, from his own supplies. He was not extravagant; so many people accepted that despite the difference in scale between his and their income and expenses, his budget was as tight as theirs and his tasks more arduous than their own. He became respected and even liked. However, he did not stray very far from the centre of his kingdom, seldom more than a day’s ride, in case word came for him.
One beautiful morning as his party was riding in the direction of Uffington, they were met by the long awaited messenger. William and the Wyvern had declared that the sword was awakening and that he should collect it at once. Hastening to Dragon Hill he met William and together they dug up and unwrapped the sword from where it had been hidden, at the top of the hill, directly under where the fire had been. It looked and felt no different. Holding the sword he sat with William, under his Wyvern banner in front of his portable altar bearing a fire lit from the flame he had taken from the original fire when the Wyvern had spoken to him through William. They communed with the Wyvern, seeking advice on how to use the sword. The wyvern explained that it would facilitate a meeting of minds when it was exposed in the presence of others and he held a question in his mind. It would get used to him and would demonstrate its power in front of an assembly of the leading people of Wessex which he should summon soon.
The Wyvern had some parting words for him. “This is the first stage of your quest for True Kingship, well concluded. Like Arthur you now have a Sword, drawn from the Land. Arthur was renowned for his cavalry. Those knights of quest did much to secure his rule and his fame. Who will be your Horsemen? A Sword is a great thing, and needful to a King, but do not rule solely by it. A King may rule by the sword, he may become great, honoured, feared and respected, but no man, not even a True King, may attain love at the point or edge of a blade. The Land may not be ruled without the sword, but without love it will not long remember even a True King. It is the love between the King and the Land and the people that will sustain them and enable them and their memory to endure. When the Sword, the vessel of knowledge, enables you to rule as a True King, your next task will be to find the Cup, the vessel of love. You will know the time for that quest. In that I cannot assist you. You must seek the aid of the Ladies of the Waters. Now I salute you and bid you farewell True King Richard.”
“He really is mad. This proves it.” Princess Matilda was talking to Lady Cecily Danvers, Countess of Salisbury and a group of her friends. “He’s summoned everyone who matters from across the land to display his toy sword to them. We thought he’d forgotten about it and buckled down to being King, but the madness seems to have come back. This time everyone will see it and will have to do something about it.”
“It would be too embarrassing not to,” agreed Cecily. “A Regency Council seems the obvious thing, unless John has enough support to be Prince Regent?”
“I’m very disappointed in John,” said Matilda. “He just doesn’t seem to care.”
There was much discussion and uncertainty as people took their places in the Great Hall and awaited the arrival of the King. Many had worries and conflicting concerns which they hoped to raise, and with the swirling rumours weakening the authority of the King there was little confidence that this meeting would achieve much, and considerable fear about what might happen if the King demonstrated that he was no longer a mentally capable ruler.
The King entered wearing the sword on his belt and strode to his throne, where he seated himself in front of his audience and with the Wyvern banner and its flame bearing altar behind him. William was crouched unobtrusively beside it ready to tend the flame.
“I have called you together,” began the King, “because the Land calls to all of us. For too long selfishness has prevailed. The links between the people of Wessex have weakened. The identity of Wessex is crumbling. The links joining the people and their Land have frayed as people have ignored it, seeking only material gain. Few any longer believe that there is anything else, that there is an even more important ‘inside’ to the ‘outside’ which they see and touch. But there is an inside to the Land just as there is to ourselves. I’ve called you here to show you.”
Gasps and murmurs arose. The King stood; drawing his blade, then knelt on one knee and struck the pommel sharply on the stone floor until the sword rang. “Awake! Attend! Serve!” he cried, and the sword sang.
As the people stared at it, the sword seemed to shine more brightly, its sounds ringing sweetly in their minds, drawing their fascinated attention. “We are Wessex,” said the King quietly, and they knew that this was true. “There is more to Wessex,” he added, and slowly they became aware of the growing form of the Wyvern embodied in the flames of the altar, which William was assiduously feeding. A consciousness of its majesty and their joint integrity grew amongst them as the King added, “This is the Wyvern of Wessex, the Voice of the Land. It unifies us, which is why it is our emblem. Its wisdom will assist our deliberations. You perceive it now because of the magnifying influence of this sword, whose virtue is awareness of truth. The Land calls us to attend and serve it, as it serves us. Who will serve Wessex? Who will not serve Wessex? Who has acted or will act against Wessex?”
Immediately everyone knew the true answers to these questions, and knew that all the others knew. Gaps seemed to open in the crowd as people shrank away from Princess Matilda and some others.
“What should be done?” Everyone knew the answer to that as well, and the answer to the next question, “Who should do it?
“Seize them, and fetch me an axe,” commanded the King. While waiting, he placed the sword upright on its stand beside his throne.
Princess Matilda had not died well. Wriggling and wailing, screaming out that she really was loyal to Wessex, which everyone knew to be a lie, and that she would be loyal in future, which everyone knew to be another lie, she had been forced to her knees and bent over a bench. With a heavy heart the King had performed his duty and dealt the heavy blow which ended his aunt’s life and her treachery. Most of the others died with more dignity.
In the case of Price John there was less certainty. Clearly he had been less than loyal to the King, but he had served Wessex to the best of his understanding. It was not clear how the death of his mother would affect him and how he would behave in future. The decision was left to the judgment of the King. John acknowledged his fault and submitted to that judgment without requesting mercy. Grim faced, the King beckoned him forward and he knelt in the gore and put his head on the bench. Was it better to be safe than sorry? Slowly, the King laid the edge of the axe across John’s neck and raised it, held it aloft and lowered it to his side. “Get up,” he said. “Wessex still has need of you.”
Afterwards there were hard years. No one could still the tempests or feed all of the hungry. Greater sensitivity to nature, prompted by inner sources, may have helped mitigate some of the harshness. Greater honesty of administration and patriotic fellow feeling prompting effort and sharing certainly helped. The spirit of Wessex, if not the bodies of its inhabitants was greatly strengthened. In the presence of the King and his sword and the Wyvern standard and fire, all knew themselves to be united and to be of Wessex. No falsehood could pass for truth in the presence of the sword of truth. Wyvern shrines became widespread and it was invoked at the opening of all public business, as well as privately by people who sought guidance and desired some inner contact or some means to serve their Land, King and people.
There were some who, even in the presence of the King, the Sword and the Wyvern, still could not perceive or accept that there was anything beyond material appearances. Most of the scoffers had learned the error of their ways, but the spiritual defectives were sub-human monsters that could not be permitted to pollute and pervert Wessex by their continued existence, so they had had to be slaughtered. Even plants and animals had their own connections to the Otherworld, and did not deny their natures. Humans who fell below that level were an abomination.
Some years passed in arduous activity before the King noticed that something had happened. Wessex, although it continued to experience difficulties, displayed now a strong sense of identity. Its people were loyal to each other, to him and to the Land. This was not the case in their neighbour Mercia. There similarly harsh conditions prevailed but the people had not grown stronger in battling them. They battled each other, worsened their situation and had almost lost their sense of identity and awareness of their Land. Refugees were unwelcome because there was nothing for them and they had no connection to the inner Wessex. Some of the communities and landowners bordering Wessex began to plead for protection and annexation. This worried the King for he had no desire for war with Mercia, nor to annex any of it. Rather than subvert and destroy their identity and absorb the people and territory into Wessex, he thought it would be better to reinforce the identity of Mercia and strengthen the people’s connection with their Land, as he had done for Wessex; and to seek some greater identity within the Land in which both Mercia and Wessex could participate without losing their own identities and inner connections. He remembered what the Wyvern had told him about love and loyalty, and thought it was time to begin the Quest of the Cup, but that is another tale.
Already the tales of True King Richard and his seer-sword are spreading, and will join the legends of Good King Harold. The crops still will not grow to please him, but there will be no more treason in his days, for Wessex is united. ‘What should they know of ‘Wessex’, who only Wessex know?’ ironically misquoted one who had delved into ancient poetry, but now they know. The inner or Otherworld and the outer have grown closer. Stranger chimaeras than the Wyvern have been perceived by the sensitive, and the King’s Horsemen have trodden regular paths between the worlds.
This has been the tale of a sword. Me. My name is Richard Wessex and this is the story of how I made a King and the King made me; for the True King and the Land are One.
For the true story of Good King Harold and his Iron Wyrm and the crops of his time see:The Sovereignty of Wessex http://ravenfiction.blogspot.co.uk/2014/04/the-sovereignty-of-wessex.htmlThe White Horse of Uffington and Dragon Hill: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Uffington_White_Horse