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Authors: Richard Monaco

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The Grail War

BOOK: The Grail War
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© Richard Monaco 1979

 

Richard Monaco has asserted his rights under the Copyright, Design and Patents Act, 1988 to be identified as author of this work.

 

First Published in 1979 by Berkley Publishing Corporation

 

This edition published in 2016 by Venture Press, an imprint of Endeavour Press Ltd.

 

 

The author acknowledges the help and support of the following:

 

Adele Leone

Barbara Bravin

Peter Lampack

 

PROLOGUE

 

BROADITCH OF NIGH was watching the bony-backed mules plop-plopping along the muddy trail that frothed under the steady rain. Their sides were slick and the animal reek hung in the sluggish, cool air sharper than the smell of earth. The open cart jerked and creaked along. He wondered if he might not have done better to walk. The cold water splashed over his hood and spattered his reddened face.

The heavy-bearded monk, face obscure in the shadow of his full cowl, held the reins with chapped fingers. His long body swayed with each lurch and tilt as they moved across the open, rolling, flooded fields through the oppressive, unrelieved gray daylight…

“King Arthur’s been dead over a year’s time,” the monk was just saying as the cart labored through a grove of bedraggled, autumnal apple trees.

“As long as that?” Broaditch reflected, without great interest.

“Over a year’s time, brother,” the other confirmed. “And you say you seek the famous knight Parsival of the Grail? But what can your business be with such a one?”

Broaditch cracked his big knuckles. His massive body swayed only slightly as the team struggled unevenly on.

“I ofttimes wish I were more certain myself,” he said meditatively. “The Grail, for all I know.”

“You seek
it
? Ah … you and the devil, too.”

“I left my wife, three children, and a fair farm …”

“Well,” the monk reflected, just his knotted, wet beard showing, “we say that’s a call.”

Broaditch folded his powerful arms inside his worn, stained cloak.

“I cannot say,” he commented, “but I know the world wearies me …” He shook his head. “I might be like yourself at that, save God has not spoken. Aye, He’s been notably silent in my case … Yet the world is weary and stale … So have I thought more and more as my years mount and ride me down …”

“God’s voice is not as men’s. You hear it and know it not. Yet you are led often to purpose by what seems chance and foolishness.” The monk was very matter-of-fact.

“I cannot say … But over the years I find I think of the Grail and Lord Parsival, whom I knew as a boy … Aye, that’s sooth. I served in his mother’s domain … more years ago than bears thinking … Perhaps I but
want
to believe he found it and knew joy and light without end … No doubt I want to believe it …” He sighed and now clasped his hands over his knees, then squeezed the soaked leather. “And yet I love my wife and little ones …” He sighed, shook his head, and smiled wryly. “If this be heavenly advice I’ve taken, brother, it truly seems ill.”

“If it were clearer,” the monk said, whipping the reins up to stir the sluggish team, “the end you seek might frighten you away.” Broaditch looked at him thoughtfully, but said nothing. “Recall, the devil sought it, too,” the monk repeated.

“Did he?” Broaditch wasn’t quite amused yet.

“The devil Clinschor — the black wizard cursed of God. He fought to possess the holy cup.”

“Is it a cup for certain?”

The monk shrugged. “So some say.”

“What would the devil do with such a sacred thing?” Make it as evil as once it were holy. Use the power of light to shine darkness … So have I heard.”

“Well, Clinschor is dead twenty years or more.” Broaditch stared into the gray horizon.

“Have you seen his grave?” As there was no reply, the monk went on, head tilting into the rain. “It is said the Grail draws everyone, though the many feel it not, being too mired in the world. The devil, it is said, knows it as a stinging, an irritation. It angers him continually.”

Broaditch made fists and drummed them on his knees.

“He must be dead,” he declared at length, “or in his dotage.”

The holy man looked straight ahead.

“To reach the Grail, you’ll have to pass the devil,” he said.

“Well, that’s comfort, indeed,” Broaditch responded, cocking his head to the side.

“You can always go back to your farm.” The monk shrugged.

“Did you mean Clinschor? What are you hinting at?” Broaditch wasn’t sure whether it was funny or frightening.

The monk didn’t respond immediately, then said: “You took this quest up freely.”

“Quest?” Broaditch expostulated. “Be that what it is?” No response. “Why mention him to me? I saw him once and saw close at hand the horrors …” He shook his head and refolded his arms. “Let memory sleep in memory,” he said grimly.

The cart was just topping a rise where the trees were thick, and Broaditch was startled by a sudden, violent shadow beating past his face with a raw shriek and he ducked away, hands raised up.

“A crow!” he gasped an instant later, heart pounding, glimpsing the creature winging into the gray sodden shadows across the road. “It struck for my eyes!”

The monk turned his loose, soggy cowl to him. Only the bushy, dripping beard was visible.

“Let it be just a bird that meant nothing,” he suggested with a faint mocking edge.

Broaditch stayed silent for a while, watching the heavy hanging trees move slowly and unevenly past as the steaming mules labored on.

“Has Clinschor been heard of?” he finally asked.

The monk urged the team along the twisting way.

“When the sun is setting and day dies,” he said, “there are long shadows. If you look, you see, brother.”

“So you but hint on,” Broaditch said, “mystic one.” He was irritated. “You and that crow are alike: you stir fear with darkness and noise.” He raised his bushy eyebrows. “Quest,” he muttered.

For the first time his companion (who’d promised him a ride nearly to Camelot) seemed amused.

“Some things,” he said, “are greatly to be feared, brother.”

Broaditch turned away and broke off the convention. He tightened his bulky arms together and tilted his chin down. The cart staggered on through the clinging mire and he gradually fell deeper into a dozing sleep and found himself suddenly flying, higher and higher, feeling his beating wings lifting him soundlessly, circling over the reeling, grayish world, and then, far below, a skeletal shadow seemed to bend its vast angles over the landscape … seemed to move like a pair of wings … Then he shuddered, crying out in his throat, starting, jerking on the seat, falling away from the immense, flying, black-winged, red-jawed, clawing, fierce-eyed shape … falling, crying out, hitting the rutted mud dully, banging himself awake, seeing instantly (heart racing as he struggled to his feet) that the driver was gone and the mules stood motionless in the traces …

He twisted, looking around. How far had they come since he fell asleep? The day was dying into blurry twilight. Where was the damned monk? In the trees? Shitting? There were dense woods all around here … For some reason he didn’t want to call out…

The rain was cold and relentless. He decided to walk. Those animals were too slow, in any case, and no doubt the man would take his time … He knew he was rationalizing … He didn’t want to wait, so he started walking, his traveling sack slung over his shoulder, and for a moment or two he fought an impulse to run, as his broad back felt naked and tingled…

 

BOOK I

 

PARSIVAL WAS DRENCHED. He was sitting on the black, hard rocks in a saturated gray robe, bare feet callused, cut, and bruised; face pinched, haggard, eyes deep-set and burningly bright blue. There were silver streaks in his blond hair and ragged beard. He was staring out over the rolling moors and fens where dark, scraggly pines and scrubby brush smoked with heavy fog among the sharp, bare, tundric stones.

The rain had more or less stopped, and bitter, gusty winds rent mist and leaden sky. He barely noticed the raw chill on his face and limbs.

“Nothing again,” he murmured. He worked his dry tongue around his cracked lips, licked a few drops of rain from the corners of his mouth. “Nothing at all,” he said quite clearly.

There was only the raw day and the dark, bitter hills. He sat in his lean, tireless body, which was like well-worn and tanned leather; he felt the faint, unspecific gnawing of his long fast. Yes, much had happened, up to a point: he’d slept on stones, held his mind fixed on God for hours at a time (as the Irish monks had instructed him); the months had rolled away as he’d thinned out and hardened and lost all ordinary sense of time and events that (he thought) were neither truly real nor truly dream had taken place; he’d melted from his flesh, heard the voice of rain and earth, the heartbeat of the sun, whispering of the moon; and since the endless rains began, he had come upon an inner silence so deep and intense that he often feared he’d somehow fall into it and be lost, and lose even the memory of memory. He’d obeyed the monks, strained, stopped body and breath and fought for peace, sensed it there just beyond the furthest grope of his efforts. Even the visions he’d sought had shimmered to nothing and stranded him when he’d risen to embrace them and found only the hard rocks, like the teeth of dreams. Even the demons became rageless shadows after a time and he was stranded without even evil anymore.

He had been watching the two riders across the moor, not particularly curious as to which side of reality they rode from. He partly closed his eyes and saw the shimmering flickers of flame-like gleaming spring out from their forms. Well, his sight had certainly changed, he reflected, though it had not made him loving or good or filled him with the peace and benediction of God … It was a strange shock to realize these were merely men coming, and he felt the density, the earthly solidity, of them and realized how light he’d become. How many months since he’d seen a real person? And then it was as if he could hear them speaking close to his ear, though the distance was still too great, even for shouts.

Am
I
altogether
a
wizard
, he wondered without fear,
in
seeking
God
to
find
only
strange
strength
?

He was still considering this question as the two knights rose, out of a streamer-like exhalation of mist, silvery ghosts, and his normal sight doubted their reality again. They stopped. Visors were up, but their faces were obscure in the steel hollows. They were watching him and he thought they were speaking again before the voices actually sounded so that he seemed to respond to another statement rather than the words.

“Good day, hermit,” the first said.

“So,” was his reply, “you’ve come again into my life.”

He said this because the last time suddenly flashed in his mind, a whole memory seeming to totally repeat in an instant in his strained and remarkable consciousness: over twenty years ago (though time was no part of the memory) on that sloping field outside the castle walls, nude, the risen sun coming into his aching eyes, a wine headache, the smell of sex on his body (the woman wasn’t there; she had been somebody’s wife or other …), shivering in the bright morning, surrounded by the brigands in castoff armor, castle guards looking helplessly down as Gawain, helmet tightly shut, stood there, the silver faceplate blankly reflecting Parsival’s fine, bright hair and scintillant blue eyes …

He remembered saying, “Don’t kill me, Gawain.” Feeling a need to live, a fantastic, clear, tender beauty, a deep touch that held him and them all: men, sky, hills, sun, caught in a hush of pure stillness, like a voice saying something with a depth no word could skim even an inch from, as if saying everything is beloved and loved, loving itself and touching itself with an endless lover’s touch … and his heart … and sinking and rising, saying, yes, yes, yes, lips still saying, “Gawain, please don’t kill me!” Not from fear (for there was no shadow of death or stain in his mind at that moment), because he was speaking to light and tender peace and he wanted just to share this, to share everything he was and had and felt and would feel and see … yes … with everything, flower, bird, beast, and man … and he smiled and perhaps the other felt it, too, the inexplicable, overpowering, gentle nearness of it …

He was never certain, except that Gawain’s voice said, “Then lead us to the Grail, Parsival, my old companion.” And Parsival laughed; he couldn’t help it.

“Yes,” he said, “but I have. I’ll show you.”

“Is it here?”

“Yes. Exactly.”

“Inside?”

The others had gathered around, scarred, utterly grim and mangy faces.

“Yes. And outside, too, my friends. Anywhere you like.”

“Arr,” said one, with a slit nose and one eye, “he’s mad.” He raised his spear to kill him.

“Wait,” said Gawain inexplicably. “Let him live.” This notion found no favor with anyone.

“Very well,” Gawain stated, “but I’ll not touch him. Even naked and unarmed, and slightly fat, as he is, I wonder if all of you might prevail. I say he’s no use to us.

He will die here and reveal nothing. But a living man can be set watch upon and followed and all his secrets found out. A dead brain is a tomb of truth, you lowborn curs.”

Most were convinced. Two were not.

“The Grail is moonshine, anyway,” one said. “Let’s kill this pretty swine and roast his liver.” He had a single eye working, the other a raw socket, gaping, myriad little muscles flickering when the first moved. “I’ll skin the bastard!” he offered in conclusion.

He thrust his jagged-tipped spear at the tall, pale, naked man. With breathtaking ease, Parsival stepped inside the deadly jab and effortlessly plucked the shaft from the man’s hairy grip and casually cracked him under the ear with it. The outlaw dropped like a stone.

“Now he’s armed,” Gawain observed dryly. “Even armored as I am, I’d choose some lighter sport to fighting him, if it please God.”

Parsival felt wonderful, light, free, and hardly was aware of what he’d effortlessly done. It was true that, though armed, all but Gawain were as good as dead in a fight with him.

He found himself looking warmly at the depraved, glowering lot of them; he didn’t actually perceive them as individuals in the usual sense, just saw the sheer life, the undistorted, unconcentrated, innocent pulsing, as if they were little children playing silly games, and he felt this as if the breeze blew it into his naked body, there on that grassy slope in the clear morning sun.

“Violence has no meaning,” he told them. “All that we have and are is borrowed from one another. To strike one another is to rend our own garments and spoil our own substance.”

He had no idea why he said that or if he expected any result. It was true, and so he simply said it.

And
then
, he was remembering, sitting on the rough outcropping as the horsemen came up to him,
and
then
my
troubles
really
began
… He smiled.
To
be
touched
by
that
sweetness
and
peace
and
then
to
let
and
be
let
go
again

He sighed deeply.

“Holy man,” the nearest knight called, leaning down a little, “we seek Sir Parsival, the great warrior.”

“So you mock me,” Parsival said.

“Pious one,” said the other, “what a thought.”

“What you mean is clear,” Parsival told them, sitting perfectly still as one man dismounted and walked closer, steel suit pinging faintly. Parsival seemed to look deep, deep away, eyes never shifting to them.

“Holy saint,” the knight said, “we crave your blessing.”

“Don’t mock him,” said the man on horseback.

“Will you force this senseless thing?” the famous knight inquired calmly.

The horseman moved closer. His shield hung around his neck, wetly gleaming. His war ax lay massively across his lap.

“Give your sermon, holy one,” the man on foot said within the shadow of his visor.

“If I could put ears and sense in stones,” was the reply. “And I am far from holy.” He sighed.

“Best confess yourself, then,” the man suggested, “and make what peace you can with God.”

“Fools,” Parsival said, standing up gracefully. “I want no more to do with all your silly business, your petty plots and hates and wars! Tell your Lord that.”

“It can be carved on your tomb, instead, you hypocrite and bastard knight!” hissed the other, who, in one explosive movement, drew his long sword and lashed a savage cut at the unarmed, bearded man … which could as well have been aimed at a shadow or the drifting, gleaming fog. Parsival moved as though they’d rehearsed this together for a lifetime; he stepped inside and under the cut, took the helmet in both hands, burst the straps, and tossed away the steel pot, exposing the bright coif of mail, and he flattened the fellow with a terrific blow, gracefully moving behind him as if glued to his back as the sword spasmodically swept around and the ax wielder tried to maneuver into position for a blow. Parsival stooped and picked up the sword now, still not looking directly at anything, moving with uncanny economy and grace. The horseman held back, watching the brooding figure in tattered robes and shoulder-length, wild, golden-streaked hair.

“Why do you seek the Grail?” Parsival had asked Gawain twenty years before, standing naked, holding the spear like a graceful, edenic archangel.

Gawain replied without lifting his gleaming mask. “Why did you, Parsival?”

“I knew not what it was.”

“No,” Gawain said. “That was the first time. What about the second?”

“I still don’t know — not until today, now. I’m still finding out.”

Gawain’s flat, seamless visor didn’t move, mirroring Parsival’s pale body, as if the man within the armor didn’t even have to draw breath.

“Whoever has the Grail’s power,” Gawain said, “can rule all men.”

“No,” said Parsival.

“Yes,” Gawain insisted, relentless, almost fanatic. “Yes, yes, yes! And he can heal all wounds, and restore what has been lost.”

“Poor Gawain,” Parsival said, “this is both true and false.”

He thought of Gawain’s incredibly mutilated face and thought about what was truly mutilated within him. He shut his eyes with the pain of it … So he hoped to cure his torn flesh with the holy, magical cup or jewel or whatever it actually was … because no one who said “seek it” ever actually described it …

“What will you do now?” the mounted knight asked.

Parsival still wasn’t quite looking at him. He weighed the sword in his right hand, musingly.

“I threw one of these away,” he said, “years ago. Still they fear I’ll swing it again.”

“Won’t you?”

Parsival hummed to himself.

“Perhaps,” he allowed, “for I’ve failed.”

“Then I have to die,” said the knight, “to stop you, on my vow.”

Parsival flipped the sword up once and caught the hilt again.

“Why?” he wondered.

“I swore to.”

“An honest knight. You knew me?”

“No.”

“But you swore.”

“Yes.”

“Who is your lord?” No reply. “I have failed here,” Parsival went on. He sighed. He started walking. “The rain will lift soon.” He rested the blade across his shoulder, bare, callused feet padding lightly over the harsh rocks.

And all the misery, he was more or less thinking, goes on … the brief lives, the dying friends, glory lost and won, O God, O God, if I could but rest still and content in you while outside life passes like a shadow … each dying thing leaves me with no pleasure, not in food, drink, woman, or praise; each beginning, each flower of hope, withers as it sprouts … a race of fools … God help us all, all us fools and that fool behind me about to slay himself for a fool’s dream of honor under a fool’s order … Grant us some common permanence to sustain us, give us the grace of your utter love so there’s no loss but simply a joy, a joy deep in the heart of all that perishes without end …

The horseman was looming over him, the animal’s frothy mouth, shod hooves sparking on the slippery stones, the determined warrior already chopping straight down into Parsival’s peripheral notice and his body stepped meditatively aside and the stroke went wide.

“Don’t be absurd,” he told him, “you can’t possibly kill me.”

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