I’ve never had much luck with writing contest. The most I’ve ever accomplished was third place in my high school writing contest, winning myself a whole whopping five bucks. But today I took it as a sign from the celestial bodies up above when I saw a post regarding an international writing competition geared towards humorous writers. When I discovered it raises funds for the Mark Twain House and Museum in Connecticut I was sold.
After some consideration, I decided to submit the prologue from my Arthurian parody, The Quest for the Holy Something or Other. This section introduces the main theme of my work which deals with change and several pivotal characters who either drive or oppose change. The prologue can easily be enjoyed on its own but entices readers to read on with its originality and whit. Hopefully, the judges enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
Here’s my entry for those of you who are curious:
From his throne atop the raised dais, King Arthur observed the Great Hall with all the smug satisfaction of a cat on a high perch. Below him, servants bustled about, clearing the Round Table and cleaning up after the knights, who had feasted with Arthur earlier that night. Dinners in the Great Hall were raucous affairs, and it was never an easy task putting the room back in order. Arthur grimaced as the last of the dishes were removed from the table, revealing a new stain. A servant took a rag to it, but it was no use. The stain had already set in. She was about to give it a spit shine when Arthur told them all to leave.
Alone, Arthur considered the table. But rather than face it head-on, he angled his body away and scrutinized it from the corner of his eye. The Round Table had seen better days. The oak surface, once polished and smooth, was now dull and covered in scratches and stains. He dared assume if the seats were ever moved, the knights would still be able to find their prior places by the rings left from their drinking glasses. But worse were the gouges in the wood as though the knights had used the table for weapon practice or for a demonstration of proper wood chopping techniques, practices not fitting the famed table of legend. A giant chunk of wood was missing from one side of the table. His brother Sr. Kay liked to whittle—perhaps he was the culprit.
Arthur closed his eyes against the sight of the table, but its creaking served as a constant reminder that it was, in its own way, suffering. He almost believed the table could feel pain the way it carried on some nights.
He reopened his eyes and dared another glimpse at the table. There was no denying it was in desperate need of repair. Minor rigging kept the table standing, and coasters had been wedged under several of the legs to stop it from wobbling. Still, the chairs squeaked, parts came loose, and bugs continued to eat away at it. Soon there would be nothing left of the once glorious symbol of Camelot’s pride. The very thought made him as cold as a corpse’s kiss.
He had addressed the issue with his wizard, Merlin, on several occasions, because it was the duty of the wizard to advise the king; however, Merlin kept insisting he replace the table with a newer and, dare he say, “better” one. Once he had even recommended removing the table all together. When asked where the knights would sit, Merlin had suggested there be no knights to dine with the king. Disband the knights? Ridiculous, Arthur scoffed. Sometimes he believed his wizard truly was insane.
On cue, Merlin entered the Great Hall and made his way to Arthur’s throne. Even from the other end of the room, Arthur recognized his wizard; there was no mistaking him for anyone else. Merlin was the only one foolish enough to cavort himself in wizard garments, complete with conical hat and fake beard. In one arm, he carried his crooked staff, in the other—Arthur narrowed his eyes—a carryout bag that left a trail of dripped grease in its wake. The stench of fried meat reached Arthur before Merlin did. It was all he could do to keep his supper down when Merlin came before him and bowed.
“Welcome back, Wizard Merlin,” he said between clenched teeth. “Did you just now return? Tell me, how was your trip? I pray you found everything you set out for.” He stifled his laughter behind his velvet sleeve, already knowing the answer. Two weeks ago, he had approved Merlin’s travel request to Cornwall to see the supposed wall made of corn, for which Merlin had assumed the city had been named.* Arthur knew the wizard would only be met with disappointment but had sent him anyway.
“The title of the city was somewhat misleading. Not worth the blisters on my tired feet,” Merlin replied. “I did find time to stop at the Deep Fat Friar before my return. I was told it was the local favorite.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Arthur remarked with a smirk as his eyes followed the meandering trail of dark stains across his newly swept floor. “Hopefully you were able to come away from the experience with more than just a carryout bag.”
“I did actually,” said Merlin eagerly. “At the restaurant, whilst eating my meal, I overheard the man at the table next to me inquire on directions to Camelot. Of course, none of the other patrons knew the way or could point him in the right direction. Then inspiration struck me like an iron skillet to the back of the head—I would solve the conundrum myself!” He made a grand gesture, splattering grease every which way. “So, using the only materials available to me, I created this!” Merlin set aside his staff and carryout bag to produce a rolled up parchment from his satchel. He presented it to Arthur, who took it with much hesitation.
Slowly, he unrolled it. At once his eyes were affronted by hand-drawn illustrations of snakes, cows, and what appeared to be an eight-armed sea monster named Steve. All of these things were difficult to make out around the soiled spots, but it appeared as though Merlin had incorporated them into the drawing with the appropriate labels. A large coffee ring in the upper right corner of the page became a sunspot, and a streak of meat sauce was transformed into a murky rainbow. One spot of grease near the bottom of the page caught Arthur’s attention. The shape reminded him of a squirrel. He leaned down to inspect the stain more closely, and sure enough, Merlin had scribbled on the eyes, nose, whiskers, and tail.
Where did you get this parchment?” Arthur finally asked, a little uneasy.
“The waitresses laid them out at each table setting.”
“I see,” said Arthur absentmindedly. “But what is it?”
Merlin chuckled. “It’s a map, or ‘placemap’ according to the waitresses.”
Arthur looked more closely at it. All he could decipher were a few animals, the location of the first Deep Fat Friar, and the words “my favorite spot in the world” scribbled beside a large red dot. “A map to what?”
“A map to Camelot.”
Arthur shook his head.
“Allow me,” said Merlin as he stepped up onto the dais directly left of where Arthur sat. Leaning over the arm of the throne, he planted one gnarled finger near the center of the map and led Arthur’s eyes to a large circle. To the side of the circle, he had made a note. Arthur read it aloud, “Camelot: somewhere and nowhere in particular.”
“The trouble with trying to map a legendary kingdom is that it is so elusive,” Merlin explained. “Not to mention, the task of creating a map in a busy diner proved to be more challenging than I had anticipated. First, there were the frequent interruptions of the waitresses asking me if I wanted more to drink or condiments, or what have you. It also didn’t help that dishes were constantly being placed upon and removed from the map. But worse! Worse was when the contents of the dishes sloshed over onto the map, muddling my work.”
“I see.” Arthur stared blankly at the map as he searched for the right words to say, finding it increasingly difficult. At last he rolled up the map and handed it back to Merlin, saying, “Well done.”
“Thank you, my king.” Merlin bowed and backed off the dais, tripping as he did so. Arthur tried again to hide his amusement behind his sleeve. There was no need for a court jester as long as he had this lunatic in his charge. Yet, he hired them anyway. After all, Merlin was not there to amuse him; he was there to provide council, and council he did—even when it was unwelcome.
Creak. Crack. Snap.
Both men turned just as one of the Round Table’s chairs collapsed into a pile of splinters on the cold stone floor.
Arthur narrowed his eyes. It was easy to dismiss a chair breaking beneath the weight of a full-grown man, but there was no excuse for one to collapse without provocation. This would only fuel Merlin’s argument to replace the table.
Sure enough, Merlin turned to face him, one eyebrow raised knowingly.
Arthur swallowed. “It seems there are ghosts among us, wouldn’t you say, Wizard Merlin?”
“I would say the table is on its last leg so to speak,” said Merlin, chuckling. Then he became deadly serious. “Your majesty, have pity on it. It begs to be made into firewood. That is how tables pass on, you see.”
And here it began. Arthur sighed and said, “How many times do I have to tell you, wizard? The table will not be replaced.”
“It is past its prime. Its glory days are over,” Merlin pressed. “It is time for a new table. It is time for change.”
Change. Arthur recoiled. He hated that word. Glowering at Merlin, he said, “I cannot simply change the table when it serves as the very symbol of chivalric code.”
“If that’s the problem, then maybe we need to get rid of the code.” Merlin met Arthur’s challenging gaze. For several minutes they stared at one another, neither man moving a muscle. Merlin, of course, could not remain still for long, and to Arthur’s annoyance, began pulling faces, all the while, never breaking eye contact. At last Merlin’s eyes began to stray, wandering in opposite directions until Arthur could no longer hold.
“The code stays, and the table stays,” said Arthur firmly.
“Yes, milord, of course.” Merlin lowered his head. When he lifted his gaze to meet Arthur’s, his eyes were bright with mischief. “Perhaps I might be able to make some repairs to the table so that it might last longer.”
“That sounds reasonable enough.” Arthur stroked his bearded chin then nodded his consent. “Very well, you have my permission.”
“Thank you, your majesty.” Merlin retrieved his staff and carryout bag. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some business to attend to in my laboratory.”
“Of course,” Arthur sighed with relief. “You are dismissed.”
“Your majesty.” Merlin bowed and turned away.
Was that a smile? He could not be sure. It was hard to tell with Merlin, which was why Arthur could never fully trust him.
When at last the wizard was out of sight, Arthur slumped in his throne and resumed his quiet contemplation of the table.
Merlin was indeed smiling as he made his way out of the Great Hall, down the long, dark winding staircase to his private laboratory. Once inside, he took off the conical hat* and exchanged his traditional wizard garb for more sensible attire. Feeling more like a regular man, he took a seat at the large wooden desk in the center of the room, cleared some space, and opened his “spell book” to a blank page. There, by the dim and odorous light of burning rutabagas, he jotted down notes on Cornwall’s military, their armory, and their battle tactics, periodically pausing to take a bite of cold leftovers from his carryout bag.
“Wall made of corn,” he scoffed. He still could not believe Arthur had fallen for that pitiful excuse. “What kind of a lunatic travels hundreds of miles to see a wall made of corn?”
Surrounding him, illuminated eerily in the feeble glow, were one hundred or more inventions on display: wings made from old broom handles and paper sacks, wizard hat sharpeners, and plague-away spray, to name a few. Discolored parchment covered in scrawls of inventions littered the floor, adding to the ambience. Of course, he had no intentions of ever building that ridiculous flying contraption, nor did he really believe the goat translator would work; these projects were only meant to create the illusion of insanity. Sometimes he wondered if the inventions were too ludicrous.
A devious smile spread across Merlin’s face as he glanced at the closet door in the back of the room. Behind that door was no mere closet, but a storage area where Merlin kept his actual inventions: weapons to be tried on the training yard. He thought of his newest invention, an arrow-launching device he had yet to name. Surely, a certain knight wouldn’t mind testing it for him.
Finishing his notes, he set the pen back into the inkwell and left the book open to dry. He wasn’t worried about anyone seeing it. The notes were all written in code. To the untrained eye, it appeared to be the ingredients for a magical spell, but to Merlin, it was the recipe for change.
“Change,” he spoke the word aloud now that Arthur was not present, a small act of defiance that left a pleasant aftertaste on his tongue. “Such a tiny word to invoke so much fear in a king.” He would never say this to Arthur, of course, but inwardly he knew the king was holding onto that worn table for fear of change. That same fear kept alive every outdated tradition, including the chivalric order. Merlin snorted. That table was no more capable of supporting a feast than the knights were of defending the kingdom if ever it fell under attack.*
As Arthur’s advisor,* he had tried to convince the young king to adopt the technologies and advancements being made in other kingdoms, but his ideas were always rejected. Fed up, he tossed aside his council robes in exchange for ones with little moons and stars on them, taking on the guise of Wizard Merlin. Only then was he able to get things done. Whereas Steve couldn’t even convince Arthur to change the tapestries in the Great Hall, Merlin had completed all of the preparations necessary to amass an army worthy of Camelot, his largest project to date.
Leaning back in his chair, Merlin folded his hands behind his neck and went through his mental checklist. Uniforms, check; weapons, check; potential recruits, check. The only item not taken care of was, well, the knights.
Merlin frowned. He couldn’t build a new army with the old one still standing, now could he? Certainly, the knights would oppose it. Merlin couldn’t imagine them just standing idly by while he threatened their job security. He would have to get rid of them. But how?
He could always go the traditional route—let loose a white stag in the Great Hall and insist they pursue it. But usually, only a handful of the knights chased after the wild game. Sir Bedivere, for one, did not eat meat, and Sir Kay was always complaining about having a bad back. No, he needed all of them to leave at the same time. A beautiful maiden in distress was certainly more enticing, and hiring a girl to belt out a sob story wouldn’t cost much.* But maybe only one or two knights would answer her call. He needed a bigger, grander reason to get them beyond that wall and miles away. Amassing an army could take weeks, even months. It was going to have to be important.
In the bottom drawer of the desk was a bottle of mead. Merlin took it out and poured himself a cup. Sometimes, when he had trouble getting in touch with his inner lunatic, he would turn to the bottle, and sure enough, he’d know what to do.
Halfway through the bottle, it came to him. Send them on a quest, the mead told him—after an important object, perhaps something holy. Merlin searched his mental catalog for holy items in need of searching: spears, swords, chalices—they all passed through his mind. But they were too easy to replicate. A sword could be purchased from anywhere, taken to a smithy, and made holy; the same with a spear. What he needed was an item more elusive, more difficult to come across.
He stared at the goblet in his hand. The cut was rough and misshapen. If only he knew a good grail maker. He smiled. The Holy Grail.
“A quest for the Holy Grail,” Merlin gasped. That was just the sort of thing to get all of the knights out of Camelot. Then he thought of the knight who tested his weapons. It didn’t seem right sending him on the same quest as the others; after all, he was the only one brave enough to test his inventions, some of which could be rather dangerous.* But he would still need to be tested . . . he would need his own quest. Surely, with a little more mead, he could think up another holy item, one worthy of a quest. He drained the goblet while brainstorming everything from holy kettles to sacred coat racks. At last the mead provided the answer.
He refilled his goblet and raised it to a portrait of Arthur that hung opposite his desk. The portrait was covered in holes; so many, in fact, one could barely recognize the king’s face. When questioned on the condition of the portrait, he just shrugged, blaming it on the moths.
“To progress.” He offered a toast to the dart-laden king before draining his cup. He licked his lips. “And to a never-ending supply of mead.”
* Everyone knew the dominant crop was wheat.
* The beard was attached.
* Even from herring-wielding fishwives.
* At the time, he went by Steve.
* Six pence, tops. Seven for tears.
* The self-propelled rotating duel blade had nearly taken off the knight’s head.
Hope you enjoyed it. If you’re interesting in reading the rest of the story, it can can purchased on Amazon in both paperback and e-formats.
For those of you who would like to know more about the contest, please follow the link to Bridget Whelan’s blog. You can enter the contest by clicking “Submit” at the bottom of page.
Happy Hump Day, everyone!