The Mordred Situation

The Mordred Situation

The Mordred Situation

SHORT STORY

In a mysterious castle, deep in the greenwood, malevolent plans to take over the kingdom are brewing.

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Mordred regularly walks along the forest paths and across the valley. He is sent to fetch supplies from the supermarket or the kiosk at the bus terminus. He wears a woollen cloak and military boots, and usually has a short sword buckled to his belt. He sometimes stops to look for mushrooms, or throw pebbles into the drain overflow.

Deep in the forest is the lake. In the middle of the lake is the island. On the island is the stone tower where Mordred lives with his legal guardian. He has lived there for as long as he can remember. His quarters are on the second floor, with a south-facing balcony where he puts out sunflower seeds for the jackdaws and grows foxgloves in pots. In order to cross back and forth between the shore and the island, Mordred has a flat-bottomed boat, which he punts across the water. The further out you go, says Mordred, the quieter it becomes, and the light seems to thicken.

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The first time I encountered Mordred, deep in the woods, I told him I was a woodcutter’s daughter. He seemed unsure at first but sat down anyway. We shared two squares of chocolate and a packet of peanuts. He apologised for being so quiet. He said he didn’t have many people to talk to. Only my raven, he said, and ravens don’t talk about anything interesting.

When I asked him if he had always lived in the woods, Mordred said he didn’t think so. I don’t know where I was born, he said. I don’t even know if I was born at all. When I laughed, he looked off between the trees, as if he might be listening for something. They found me on the shingle, he said at last, tangled in seaweed, like I’d just washed up on the tide.

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Mordred will eat most kinds of pudding but dislikes cheese. His staple diet is lambs’ hearts boiled in wine, sausage casserole, and chicken and mushroom pies. He says they can’t keep many provisions at the castle because the pantry is filled with jars of adders’ tongues and dried bats. A lot of space is reserved for hawthorn twigs, he says, and there are countless bottles of hemlock extract.

On the path through the woods, there’s a milestone where Mordred sits. It’s in a small hollow, a little bit away from the track. The lettering on the stone is carved in a language no longer spoken and no longer known in these isles. He sits there to rest, and to listen to the trees groaning and cracking and rubbing their branches in the canopy. Sometimes he starts to sing but his voice is thin and scratchy.

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Mordred says that people belong to the earth and gods belong to aether. In between, he says, lies the medium of air, and that is populated mainly by daemons. The daemons are the intermediaries connecting the two realms. They share the material form of humans and the unlimited means of the gods. He stares at me as he says this.

The library of the tower contains countless books, according to Mordred. That’s where he learns this stuff. He’s read Plato on the subject of hierarchies and all of Macrobius. There are some books with pages that appear to be blank and several volumes locked in a silver cage. The titles alone can be enough to make you lose your hold on reason, he says. He’s trying to pick the lock, but hasn’t yet managed it.

Mordred doesn’t have a mother, he says. The crab catcher who picked him up off the shore wrapped him in an oilcloth and carried him to the cottage of a local herbalist. Next day, he was passed on to a sailor’s wife, and later to a laundress, who was kind but had a busy schedule. She asked the lady in the tower if she would take the child. In return she offered free service washes for a year and a day. It was an offer too good to refuse.

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Mordred isn’t unkind about his mistress. She’s not bad, he says, when pressed. She’s out most of the time anyway, or is busy having parties with her friends, or else she works late on the upper floors, with candles burning in all the rooms, and fires spewing blue smoke into the sky. He says she spends a lot of time watching the stars and mixing compounds in her laboratories. Anyway, he says, I’m a very private person and I prefer my own company. As he’s leaving the clearing, he glances back in my direction. See you tomorrow, he says.

There are other advantages to living in the tower, according to Mordred. If you spend all your life in the forest, he says, you will never see cloud formations or the phases of the moon. He has a machine called an astrolabe. He says you can use it to find exactly where you are. When I protest that he should already know where he is, he looks at me patiently. Yes, he says, but it also works in reverse. You can configure it to identify heavenly bodies. Saturn is a wandering star, he explains, which causes sadness and despair. Its emissions react with the ground to form antimony and it’s behind a lot of the political unrest we’ve been having recently.

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At the weekends, Mordred mainly stays in the castle. He has to check on the prisoners locked in the dungeons and conduct certain experiments with alloys. There are also the overgrown briars to be kept at bay and the reactors need constant monitoring. He reckons these jobs are a small price to pay for his board and lodging and anyway, he says, he enjoys them. They give his life structure.

As requested, I have tried to obtain more on the current state of the weapons programme. It’s all very insubstantial so far but Mordred has let the occasional detail slip. Something about how a portion of the energies in the curvature of space might be folded and folded again, many times, to manufacture a laminate form, a blade. His eyes glaze over slightly as he describes it.

Mordred’s raven is called Morrigan. You sometimes hear her calling in the woods when he’s nearby and once she followed me for miles through the trees. I have to be careful.

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Most days, Mordred returns to the castle, shopping bags bulging with bottles of wine, oven chips, whole grain bread. He is sent for cans of beer and packs of cigarettes. Sometimes it’s fresh salmon and furniture polish. Once it was a grapefruit and three rolls of tracing paper. When I ask him how he knows what to get, he closes his eyes. The lists are endless, he says.

Mordred’s nanny, the lady in the tower, sometimes goes by the name of Morgaine. Or it might be Morguein. The sparrow who told me wasn’t altogether clear. She heard it from a greenfinch, who heard it from a woodpecker, who heard it from a magpie, who heard it from the crow of the cliffs.

In addition to the daemons, Mordred says, there are others who occupy the degrees between air and earth. These are harder beings to classify. They are liminal forms. They combine a sense of humanity with uncontained wildness. What’s more, they complicate the standard model of physics. They mess everything up, he says. The next few days, there’s no sign of him on the roads through the greenwood.

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Mordred’s been busy, he says. He’s having to do more training these days. It was nice meeting me but he’s probably going to be spending more time at the castle. He says he’s sorry but there’s not much he can do about it.

Now he’s making fewer trips, Mordred has to carry more supplies, so he wears a backpack and has bags in each hand. I wait for him at the milestone every few days with some shortbread and a flask of coffee. Preparations are really stepping up now, he says, and the markets are about to go haywire. He compliments me on my baking and, when it’s time to continue on his journey, he looks over at the pile of supplies and seems to hesitate a little. According to the authorities, he says, there is no such thing as the present moment. When you examine it closely enough, time is just an artefact. It’s the natural result of a complex interaction of statistical probabilities. Then he sighs and looks up into the branches, and asks me if the flask is empty.

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They’ve been having a lot of visitors lately, says Mordred. One of the dining halls has been designated a briefing room and there are missile launchers on the battlements. He’s even been fitted for a new set of armour. I always knew, he says, that I couldn’t escape my fate. I just wasn’t expecting it to come so soon.

The tower is ablaze, day and night, with electrical lighting and the roar of furnaces. Mordred says he hasn’t slept for days, not since the fabrication schedule was brought forward. There’s been a complete change of management at the tower, with a greater emphasis on results and operational excellence. Everybody thought Caliburn was the ultimate weapon, he says, but it seems it was merely the prototype.

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These days, it’s unusual for Mordred to be late for our afternoon meeting. Eventually, I find him kneeling in a dried out river bed, staring into the leaf litter. He doesn’t even look up as I approach. Birth and death are fixed points, he says, impossible to avoid, and the impression of free will is an illusion.

Mordred says there are certain inevitabilities that will be realised in the short to medium term. He says he can’t be specific on the details but it will involve quite a bit of upheaval. He doesn’t touch the bramble tarts I brought, or drink the rosehip tea. I’ve taken more than is fair, he says, from a woodcutter’s daughter.

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Mordred set out this morning on the north road, on horseback, strapped into his armour, and with a shining new broadsword reflecting the sun. He’s off to meet his destiny, he thinks, assuming he finally goes through with it, assuming there’s method in any of this.

I watched him go, his eyes fixed on the route ahead, with the suspicion this will be my final report from these particular paths and groves. Histories will be made elsewhere now, in places filled with concrete and mechanisms, where the moon rises and falls behind the clouds, silent and unseen.

For whatever good or ill, from this humble corner of the wildwood, I entrust these reports to your most discerning balefulness, Merlin of the four directions, of the nine gates, of the high halls of Camelot, in fair payment of dues.

The Mordred Situation
Short story published 2024

Words and pictures
David Guest