Ripples in the Chalice

Prologue

 

They say when you’re dying, your life passes before your eyes.

They’re right.

What they don’t tell you is that life mocks and lectures you while it’s happening.

Sir Patrick Gawain did not need that. Not now. Not when a sword was about to strike him at eye level.

He noted its wide, swinging arc. The blade seemed to slow down the closer it came to his head. Indeed everything began to slow down, taking on a dreamlike, or rather, nightmarish quality—as if the world had plunged into a sea of despair, where grief hindered all movement.

To his left, Greensprings burned. The central keep tower guttered like a giant candle whose flame licked at low-hanging dark clouds, giving them a brimstone glow.

To his right, flanks of a group of enemy horsemen disappeared into the forest beyond Greensprings. In the dream-motion, the earth their horses kicked up hung in the air, gently rolling in suspension. The horsemen pursued Aimeé, who held the object of all their troubles—and their salvation. They followed much closer than Patrick wanted. He had hoped to give her a much greater head start, but even that had not gone according to plan. The enemy would catch her soon, and her only protection would be her one-time rapist with whom she rode.

Around him the battle raged. The combatants danced the deadly dance, a thousand rising arms and falling bodies in tune to the music of clashing steel. Men’s cries of pain and anger formed the song.

Movement may have been dreamlike, but it only gave him more time to see his friends and comrades dying.

Nearby Sir Corbin spun with a long sword in each hand, surrounded by opponents. Sir Peredur struggled to get free as an attacker palmed his face into the water of a deep puddle. Sir Waylan and Sir Brian fought back to back, running out of precious space to maneuver. Four enemies forced another Avangardesman, his identity obscured by the press of attackers, to his knees. They held his arms out to the sides while a fifth pulled his head back to expose his throat and run a sword blade across it.

A mob of attackers pulled down the last of the mounted Avangardesmen, horse and all. Even before the knight hit the ground, his attackers struck with sword, axe, halberd, and maul like farmers thrashing wheat.

Patrick realized it had been raining for some time now. The odd slowing of time enabled him to see the drops of rain, blood, and flying sweat as they hung trembling in the air.

His heartbeat drummed louder.

How did things go so horribly wrong? How did it come to this? Were not the righteous supposed to prevail?

He’d caused all this. Things could have been so different if he had only made different choices; one choice in particular, so long ago, and none of this would have happened. The consequences of his action lay all around him in the mud, the blood, and the fire. Now the grand experiment known as Greensprings on the island of Avalon collapsed into a bloody ruin. And once they captured Aimeé with her precious charge, the world would never be the same, either.

Patrick would not witness any of this because death had arrived, brought to him by the hands of his own brother. Patrick’s sword arm dipped. His brother’s blade came within inches of his face now, moving so slowly it may as well have stopped. But it did not, for he could see its sharpened edge pass through a fat raindrop, slowly parting it like a quivering bead of quicksilver.

As he watched the drop separate on the blade, Patrick noticed his reflection in the metal. In the reflection, he could see a figure at his back walking towards him. Another attacker coming from behind? This figure moved at a normal pace, not in slow motion. Once right behind him, Patrick recognized the face.

The sword truly did stop moving now. The parted raindrop froze in place.

“Rise, Patrick,” the voice said.

Patrick came to a standing position from his knees and turned to face the newcomer.

“You,” he said.

Before him stood a mirror image of himself, though rain and sweat did not plaster his other self’s dark shoulder length hair against his scalp. Nor did he wear Patrick’s torn and bloodied black Avangarde surcoat with the white swan emblem on the chest. He did not have rent armor with loose chain mail links spilling from threads. The Other’s face, with its high cheekbones and light complexion, was clear of cuts, blood, bruises, and mud. His own hazel-green eyes, with a hint of gold circling the pupils, peered at him intensely.

Once, Patrick referred to him as the “Apparition” because when he came during his silent, unsettling visitations he wore a deeply cowled robe. Nowadays, he came wearing a sort of simple cassock of a forgettable color and made no attempt to obscure his face. The visitor still preferred to wear gloves, though, which Patrick noticed when the Other hooked his thumbs in his belt. Also, the Other no longer remained silent. Though Patrick often wished he did.

“Have you come to save me at the last moment, again?” Patrick asked.

“No,” the Other responded, gesturing with a nod towards where Patrick had sat on his knees moments before.

Patrick frowned and looked in the direction. To his surprise, he saw he still knelt there, the sword dangerously close to his head. All frozen in time.

Patrick staggered back and looked down at his hands. He still wore his bloodied and muddied gauntlets, but he held no sword. He gasped and patted himself down, confirming the solidness of his body.

“Well, this is a new one,” he said. “What does it mean? Am I dead, then?”

The Other shook his head. “You will be, though, unless you do something quick.”

Patrick shrugged. “So do something. Step in as you did when I fought Loki and he had the upper hand.”

A sneer, ever so faint, curled on the Other’s lip. “I’m here to help you help yourself this time,” he responded. “Just moments ago you lowered your sword arm. You weren’t even trying.”

Patrick sagged and ran a hand through his hair, leaving a streak of grime.

“Why? Why do you care? Who are you? What are you? Why won’t you tell me?”

The Other approached the frozen, still-kneeling Patrick and bent over to scrutinize his face as if fascinated by an insect.

“Much rides on your success here,” he said at last. “You must hold on as long as possible.”

Patrick chuckled without mirth. “Define success. Look around! It is over! I held on as long as possible, and they’re still dying!”

The Other broke his gaze away from the kneeling Patrick. “It is not over. You must continue the fight.”

Patrick staggered a few steps in the direction of the keep and looked at a particular spot of ground before the gate. His jaw muscle moved as he ground his teeth.

“I’m so sorry!” he shouted at the spot. His eyes glistened with tears though none fell to his cheeks. He pulled his gauntlets off and stared at his hands, turning to the Other.

“So much blood,” he spoke softly, rubbing his fingers along a scar that ran the length of his right palm. “It flows from the people who trusted me. Believed in me.” He wrung his hands in an attempt to make them clean. “I can’t get it off. I can’t get it off!”

“Get a hold of yourself!” the Other shouted, displaying for the first time something resembling emotion. “You must be strong. You must follow through. You’ve come so far and taken such great steps. Don’t stop now.”

“Why?” Patrick asked, meaning more than just the immediate inquiry.

“These people followed you onto the battlefield because they believed in you,” the Other replied. “If there is any chance of their surviving and changing the course of history, you must believe in yourself, as well. You must fight until the end.”

“Even if it looks hopeless?” Patrick whispered.

“Especially when it looks hopeless,” the Other whispered back, then gestured to the still frozen Patrick. “And now it is time to return and raise your sword.”

“What? That’s it?” Patrick glowered at the interloper. “That is your sole purpose for being here? That is all the aid you have to offer—” Patrick waved his hands at the spectacle around them, scowling “—just to say, ‘You must hold on?’ How does that help?”

“What more do you want from me?” the Other asked, glowering back.

“I want to know where I went wrong! I want to go back and change things! Surely if you can stop time, you can reverse it?”

The Other shook his head gravely. “I did not stop time, merely took you out of it for a moment.”

“Then what good are you?” Patrick kicked at a dirt clod.

The Other stepped closer, almost nose to nose.

“Would it motivate you to raise your sword arm one last time if I showed you that you did nothing wrong? That your guilt is an illusion?”

“Yes,” Patrick said without hesitation.

The Other reached up and touched Patrick’s face, the glove rasping against the skin of his temple.

“Then see,” he said.

Patrick’s vision suddenly narrowed to a dark tunnel. He gasped and almost lost his balance.

“What do you see?” the Other asked.

“I-I’m high above, in the dark, looking down on a boat on a river, lit by lanterns,” Patrick responded. “I don’t remember this. What am I looking at?”

“You are looking at the whole story. All the choices leading to today. Did you really think this was all your doing? Everyone has to take a share of responsibility. Now, watch.”