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Memorable Data: The Malady (part 1) by Andrzej Sapkowski

I wished to share with you this cute short story written by the acclaimed polish fantasy writer Andrzej Sapkowski and translated by Wiesiek Powaga · It was first published in Nowa Fantastyka  (Poland's leading fantasy literary magazine) in December 1992.

His first short story The Witcher (Wiedźmin), was published in Fantastyka too, in 1986 and was enormously successful both with readers and critics. Sapkowski has created a cycle of tales based on the world of The Witcher, comprising three collections of short stories and five novels. Morevoer, the Polish game publisher, CD Projekt, created a role-playing PC game based on this universe, of which I am confessed fan too!. The character is basically a mutant warrior who has been trained since childhood to hunt down and destroy monsters.

The Malady, is particularly centered on the celtic world, with definite references to mythological charactes such as those of Branwen, Daughter of Llŷr and sister of Bran the King of Britain; she certainly  is the major character in the Second Branch of the Mabinogi

Curiously, Branwen also appears as a character in some versions of Tristan and Iseult, and this reference has been the source for Andrzej's story. By the way, in Arthurian legend, Morholt (also called Marhalt, Morold, Marhaus and other variations) is an Irish warrior who demands tribute from King Mark of Cornwall until he is slain by Tristan, Mark's nephew and defender.

Copyright © Andrzej Sapkowski, translation copyright © Wiesek Powaga, as previoulsy featured on Polish Writing

“Maladie” 

I see a tunnel of mirrored walls where nothing seems
and nothing is, unwarmed by human breath and cast
in a timeless warp where seasons never come to pass,
a tunnel dug beneath the cellars of my dreams.

I see a legend of mirrored gleams, a silent wake
that’s kept amidst the sea of candlelight by none
over the corpses of pre-beings, a legend spun
in endless yarn whose magic spell is ne’er to break…

Bolesław Leśmian


For as long as I remember I have always associated Brittany with drizzle and roaring waves breaking on its jagged, rocky shore. The colours of Brittany that I remember are grey and white. And aqua marina of course, what else.

I spurred my horse gently and moved towards the dunes, pulling the cloak tighter around my shoulders. Tiny raindrops, too small to soak in, fell thick and fast on the cloth and on the horse’s mane, dulling the sheen of the metal parts of my outfit with a thin veil of steam. The horizon kept spitting heavy, swirling, grey-white clouds which rolled across the sky towards the land.

I rode up the hill covered with tufts of hard, grey grass. Then I saw her: black against the sky, motionless, still as a statue. I moved closer. The horse stepped heavily on the sand, breaking the thin, wet crust with its hooves.

She sat on a grey horse the way ladies do, wrapped up in a long cloak, the hood thrown on her back. Her fair hair was wet, the rain twisted it into curls and made it stick to her forehead. Sitting still, she watched me calmly, as if sunk in thought. She radiated peace. Her horse shook its head, the harness rattled.

“God be with you, sir knight,” she spoke first, before I could open my mouth. Her voice was calm too, just as I expected.

“And with you, my lady.”

She had a pleasant oval face, unusually cut full lips and above her right eyebrow a birth mark, or a small scar, the shape of a crescent turned upside down. I looked around. Nothing but dunes. No sign of an entourage, servants or a cart. She was alone.

Just like me. She followed my eyes and smiled.

“I am alone,” she confirmed the undeniable fact. “I’ve been waiting for you, sir knight.”
Hm. She was waiting for me. Strange, for I didn’t have a clue who she was. And I didn’t expect anyone on this beach who might be waiting for me. Or so I thought.

“Well then,” she turned towards me her calm face, “let’s go, sir knight. I am Branwen of Cornwall.”

She was not from Cornwall. Or from Brittany.

There are reasons why I sometimes fail to remember things, things which may have happened even in the recent past. There are black holes in my memory. And conversely, sometimes I remember things I’m sure have never taken place. Strange things happen inside my head. Sometimes I’m wrong. But the Irish accent, the accent of the people from Tara – this I would never get wrong. Ever.

I could have told her that. But I didn’t.
I bowed with my helmet on, and with the gloved fist I touched the coat of mail on my breast. I didn’t introduce myself. I had the right not to. The shield hanging by my side, turned back to front, was a clear sign that I wished to preserve my incognito. The knightly customs had by then assumed the character of commonly accepted norm. I didn’t think it a healthy development but then the knights’ customs grew odder, not to say idiotic, by the day.

“Let’s go,” she repeated.

She started the horse down the hill, among the mounds of dunes bristling with grass. I followed her, caught up with her and we rode side by side. Sometimes I moved ahead and it looked as if it was me who was leading. It didn’t matter. The general direction seemed correct. As long as the sea was behind us. 

We didn’t talk. Branwen, the Cornish impostor, turned her face towards me several times as if she wanted to ask me something. But she never did. I was grateful. I was not disposed to giving answers. So I too remained silent and got on with my thinking, if the laborious process of putting facts and images whirling in my head into a semblance of order could be called thinking.
I felt rotten. Really awful.
My thinking was interrupted by Branwen’s stifled cry and the sight of a serrated blade pointed at my chest. I lifted my head. The blade belonged to a spear which was held by a big brute wearing a horned fool’s hat and a torn coat of mail. His companion with an ugly, gloomy face held Branwen’s horse by the bridle, close to its mouth. The third, standing a few steps behind us, was aiming at me from a crossbow. I can’t stand it when someone is aiming at me from a crossbow. If I were a Pope, I would have banned crossbows under the threat of excommunication.
“Keep still, sir,” said the one with the crossbow, aiming straight at my throat. “I will not kill you. Unless I have to. And if you touch your sword, I’ll have to.”
“We need food, warm clothes and some money,” announced the gloomy one. “We don’t want your blood.”
“We are not barbarians,” said the one in the funny hat. “We are reliable, professional robbers. We have our principles.”
“You take from the rich and give to the poor, I suppose?” I asked.
The Funny Hat smiled broadly, revealing his gums. He had black, shiny hair and the tawny face of a southerner, bristling with a few days’ stubble.
“Our principles don’t go that far,” he said. “We take from everybody, as they come. But because we are poor ourselves, it comes to the same thing. Count Orgellis disbanded us. Until we join up with someone else we’ve got to live, don’t we?”
“Why are you telling him all this, Bec de Corbin?” spoke the Gloomy Face. “Why are you explaining yourself? He is mocking us, wants to offend us.”
“I’m above it,” answered Bec de Corbin proudly. “I’m letting it pass. Well, Sir Knight, let’s not waste time. Unstrap your saddle bag and throw it here, on the road. Let your purse sit next to it. And your cloak. Mind we are not asking for your horse or your armour. We know how far we can go.”
“Alas,” said the Gloomy Face squinting his eyes horribly, “we will have to ask you for this lady. Not for long.”
“Ah, yes, I almost forgot.” Bec de Corbin bared his teeth again. “Indeed, we need this lady. You understand, sir: all this wilderness, the solitude… I’ve forgotten what a naked woman looks like.”
“Me, I can’t forget that,” said the crossbower. “I see it every night, the moment I close my eyes.”
I must have smiled, for Bec de Corbin quickly raised the spear to my face, while the crossbower in one move put the crossbow to his cheek.
“No,” said Branwen. “No, there is no need.”
I looked at her. She was growing pale, gradually, from the mouth up. But her voice was still quiet, calm, cold.
“No need,” she repeated. “I don’t want you to die on my account, sir knight. I’m not that keen to have my clothes torn and my body bruised either. It’s nothing… After all, they are not asking much.”
I’m not sure who was more surprised – me or the robbers. But I should have guessed earlier: what I took to be her calm, her inner peace and immutable self-possession, was simply resignation. I knew the feeling.
“Throw them your saddle bag,” Branwen carried on, growing paler still, “and ride on. I beg you. A few miles from here there is a cross where two roads meet. Wait for me there. It won’t take long.”
“It’s not everyday that we have such sensible customers,” said Bec de Corbin, lowering his spear.
“Don’t look at me that way,” whispered Branwen. No doubt, she must have seen something in my face, though I always thought myself good at self-control.
I reached behind me, pretending I was unstrapping the bag, and pulled out my foot from the stirrup. I spurred the horse and kicked Bec de Corbin in the face so that he reeled back, balancing with his spear as if he were running on a tight-rope. Pulling out my sword I leaned forward and the bolt aimed at my throat banged on the helmet and slipped. I swung in a nice, classic sinister on the Gloomy Face; the leap of my horse helped in pulling the blade out of his skull. It’s not really that difficult if one knows how to do it.
Bec de Corbin, had he wanted to, could have run for the dunes. But he didn’t. He thought that before I could turn the horse he would run me through with his spear. He thought wrong.
I slashed him broadly, right across his hands holding the spearshaft, and then again, across his belly. I wanted to reach lower but failed. No one is perfect.
The crossbower didn’t belong to the cowardly, either. Rather than run, he pulled the bowstring again and tried to take aim. I reined in the horse, caught the sword by the blade and threw it. It worked. He fell down conveniently so that I didn’t have to get off the horse to retrieve the weapon.
Branwen lowered her head onto her horse’s neck and cried, choked with sobs. I didn’t say a word, didn’t make any gestures. I didn’t do anything. I never know what to do when a woman cries. One minstrel I met in Caer Aranhrod in Wales, claimed that the best way to deal with it is to burst out crying oneself. I don’t know if he was serious or joking.
I carefully wiped the sword-blade. For such emergencies I carry a rag under my saddle. Wiping a sword-blade calms the hands.
Bec de Corbin was wheezing, moaning, making a huge effort to die. I could have got off my horse and helped him, but I didn’t feel all that good myself. Besides, I didn’t pity him enough. Life is cruel. If I remember correctly, no one’s ever pitied me. Or so it seemed to me.
I took off the helmet, the ring-mail hood and the skull-cap. It was soaked through. I can tell you, I sweated like a mouse in labour. I felt awful. My eye-lids felt heavy as lead and my arms and elbows were slowly filling with a painful numbness. I heard Branwen’s crying as if through a wall made of logs, tightly fascined with moss. My head rang with a dull, throbbing pain.
Why am I on these dunes? How have I got here? Where from? Where am I going? Branwen… I heard this name somewhere. But I couldn’t… couldn’t remember where…
My fingers stiff, I touched the swelling on my head: the old scar, the reminder of that terrible cut which cracked my skull open, hammering in the sharp edges of the broken helmet.
“No wonder”, I thought, “that going around with a hole like this my head sometimes feels empty. Even when I’m awake I feel as if I were still inside that black tunnel with a turbid glow at the end, just as I see it in my dreams.”
Sniffling and coughing, Branwen let me know that she was ready. I swallowed a lump in my throat.
“Ready?” I asked in a deliberately hard, dry tone of voice to mask my weakness.
“Yes.” Her voice was equally hard. She wiped her tears with the top of her hand. “Sir?”
“Yes, my lady.”
“You despise me, don’t you?”
“That’s not true.”
She turned away from me violently, spurred her horse and rode off, down the road among the dunes, towards the rocks. I followed her. I felt rotten.
I could smell the scent of apples.

***

I don’t like locked gates, lowered portcullis, raised drawbridges. I don’t like standing like an idiot by a stinking moat. I hate wearing out my throat answering the guards who shout at me incomprehensibly from behind the walls or through the embrasures, I’m never sure if they are cursing me, jeering at me, or asking my name.
I hate giving my name when I don’t feel like it.
It was lucky then that we found the gate open, the portcullis raised and the guards leaning on their picks and halberds not too officious. Luckier still, a man dressed in velvet robes who greeted us in the courtyard was satisfied with a few words he had exchanged with Branwen and didn’t ask me any questions. Holding the stirrup, he offered Branwen his arm and politely turned his eyes away while she dismounted, showing her calf and knee. Then, just as politely, he motioned us to follow him.
The castle was horribly empty. As if deserted. It was cold and the sight of cold hearths made us feel even colder. We were waiting, Branwen and I, in an empty great hall, among the diagonal shafts of light falling in through the arched windows. We didn’t wait long. A low door creaked.
“Now,” I thought, and the thought exploded in my head with a white, cold, dazzling flame, illuminating for a moment the long, unending depth of the black tunnel. “Now,” I thought. “Now she’ll come in.”
She did. It was her. Iseult.
I felt a deep shudder when she entered: the white brightness in the dark frame of the door. Believe me or not, at first glance she was identical with that other, the Irish Iseult, my cousin, the Iseult of the Golden Hair form Baile Atha Cliath. Only the second glance revealed differences: her hair was slightly darker and without the tendency to curl into locks; her eyes green, not blue and more oval, without that unique almond shape. The line of her lips was different too. And her hands.
Her hands were indeed beautiful. I think she must have got used to all the flattering comparisons with alabaster and ebony, but to me, the whiteness and smoothness of her hands brought back the image of the candles in the chapel of Ynis Witrin in Glastonbury: burning bright in the semi-darkness, aglow to the point of transparency.
Branwen made a deep curtsy. I kneeled down on one knee and, bowing my head, stretched towards her my both hands holding the sheathed sword. Thus, as required the custom, I was offering my sword in her service. Whatever it might mean.
She answered with a bow, came closer and touched the sword with the tips of her slender fingers. Then the rules of the ceremony permitted me to rise to my feet. I gave the sword to the man in velvets, as the custom demanded.
“Welcome to the castle Carhaing,” said Iseult. “Lady…”
“My name is Branwen of Cornwall. And this is my companion…”
“Well?” I thought.
“...Sir Morholt of Ulster.”
By Lugh and Lir! Now I remembered: Branwen of Tara, later Branwen of Tintagel. Of course. It was her.
Iseult watched us in silence. In the end, clasping her famous white hands she cracked her fingers.
“Have you been sent by her?” she asked quietly. “From Cornwall? How have you got here? I look out for the ship every day and I know that it has not reached our shores yet.”
Branwen was silent. I, of course, didn’t know what to say either.
“Do tell me,” said Iseult. “When will the ship we are waiting for arrive? Who will it bring? Under what colour will it sail from Tintagel? White? Or black?”
Branwen didn’t answer. Iseult of the White Hands nodded, as if showing she understood. I envied her that.
“Tristan of Lionesse, my lord and husband,” she spoke, “ is gravely wounded. His thigh was torn with a lance in a skirmish with Estult Orgellis and his mercenaries. The wound is festering… and will not heal…”
Her voice broke and her beautiful hands trembled.
“Fever has been eating him for many days now. He is often delirious, loses consciousness, doesn’t recognise anybody. I stay by his bed day and night, tend to him, trying to ease the pain. Nevertheless, perhaps due to my clumsiness and incompetence, Tristan has sent my brother to Tintagel. Apparently, my husband thinks it is easier to find a good medic in Cornwall.”
We remained silent, Branwen and I.
“But I still have no news from my brother, still no sign of his ship,” continued Iseult of the White Hands. “And now, instead of the one awaited by Tristan, you appear, Branwen. What brings you here? You, the maid and friend of the golden-haired Queen of Tintagel? Have you brought with you your love potion?”
Branwen turned pale. I felt an unexpected pang of pity. For in comparison with Iseult – tall, slim and slender, proud, mysterious and a ravishing beauty, Branwen looked like a simple Irish peasant woman: chubby-cheeked, round-hipped, coarse as homespun cloth, with her hair still tangled from the rain. Believe it or not, I felt sorry for her.
“Tristan has already accepted the potion once from your hands, Branwen,” continued Iseult. “The potion which is still working and slowly killing him. Then, on the ship, Tristan took death from your hands. Perhaps, you have arrived here now to give him life? Verily, Branwen, if this is so, you had better hurry. There is little time left. Very little.”
Branwen didn’t stir. Her face was expressionless; the wax face of a doll. Their eyes, hers and Iseult’s, fiery and powerful, met and locked. I could sense the tension, creaking like an overstretched rope. To my surprise, it was Iseult who turned out to be stronger.
“Lady Iseult,” Branwen fell down to her knees and bowed her head, “you have the right to feel bitter towards me. But I do not ask you for forgiveness as it wasn’t you whom I offended. I beg you for grace. I want to see him, beautiful Iseult of the White Hands. I want to see Tristan.”
Her voice was quiet, soft, calm. In Iseult’s eyes there was only sorrow.
“Very well,” she said. “You shall see him, Branwen. Although I swore I wouldn’t let foreign hands to touch him again. Especially Cornish hands, her hands.”
“It’s not certain that she will come here from Tintagel,” whispered Branwen, still on her knees.
“Rise, Branwen.” Iseult of the White Hands lifted her head and her eyes glittered with moist diamonds. “It is not certain, you say. Yet… I would run barefoot through the snow, the thorns, the red-hot embers, if only… if only he called me. But he does not call me, although he knows… He calls only her, on whom he cannot depend. Our lives, Branwen, never cease to surprise us with ironies.”
Branwen rose from her knees. Her eyes, I saw, were also filled with diamonds. Eh, women…
“Go to him, then, good Branwen,” said Iseult bitterly. “Go and take to him that which I see in your eyes. But prepare yourself for the worst. For when you kneel by his bed, he will throw in your face a name which belongs not to you. He will throw it like a curse. Go, Branwen. The servants will show you the way.”
Iseult, wringing fingers of her white hands, watched me carefully. I was looking for hatred and enmity in her eyes. For she must have known. When one weds a living legend, one gets to know that legend in its tiniest detail. And I, after all, was no trifle, not to look at, anyway.
She was looking at me and there was something strange in her gaze. Then, having gathered her long dress, she sat in a carved chair, her white hands clasping the arm-rests.
“Sit here, Morholt of Ulster,” she said. “By my side.”
I did.
There are many stories, mostly improbable or untrue from beginning to end, circulating about my duel with Tristan of Lionesse. In one of them, I was even turned to a dragon whom Tristan slain, thereby winning the right to Iseult of the Golden Hair. Not bad, eh? Romantic. And justified, to a point. I did in fact have a black dragon on my shield, perhaps it all started with that. After all, everyone knows that after Cuchulain there are no dragons in Ireland.
Another story has it that the duel took place in Cornwall, before Tristan met Iseult. That’s not true. It’s a minstrels’ tale. King Diarmuid sent me to Mark, to Tintagel, several times, it’s true, where I haggled over the tribute Cornwall was due to the King, gods only know on what grounds, I wasn’t interested in politics. But I didn’t meet Tristan then.
Nor did I meet him when he came to Ireland for the first time. I met him during his second visit, when he came to ask Iseult of the Golden Hair for Cornwall. Diarmuid’s court, as usual in such situations, divided between those who supported the match and those who were against it. I belonged to the latter faction, though in all honesty, I didn’t know what all the fuss was about; as I said, I wasn’t interested politics, or intrigues. But I liked and knew how to fight.
The plan, as far as I could see, was simple. It didn’t even merit the name of an intrigue. We wanted to break up King Mark’s match and prevent the marriage with Tintagel. Was there a better way than to kill the envoy? The opportunity presented itself easily enough. I offended Tristan and he challenged me. He challenged me, you understand, not the other way round.
We fought in Dun Laoghaire, on the shore of the Bay. I didn’t think I would have much of a problem with him. At first glance, I was twice his weight and had at least as much experience. Or so it seemed to me.
How wrong I was I discovered soon after the first encounter, when we crushed our lances into splinters. I almost broke my back, so hard did he push me against the back of my saddle. A bit harder and he would have pushed me over together with my horse. When he turned around and without calling for another lance he drew his sword – I was pleased. The thing about lances is that with a little bit of luck and a good mount even a green horn can thrash an experienced knight. The sword, in the long run, is a fairer weapon.
To start with, we felt each other around the shields for a bit. He was strong as a bull. Stronger than I thought. He fought in the classical style: dexter , sinister , sky-below, blow after blow, very fast; his speed didn’t allow me to take advantage of my experience, to impose my own, less classical style. He was tiring me out, so at the first opportunity I dodged the rules and slashed him across the thigh, just below the shield adorned by the rearing lion of Lionesse.
Had I struck from the ground it would have felled him. But it was from the mount. He didn’t even blink, as if he hadn’t noticed that he was bleeding like a pig, squirting dark crimson all over the saddle, the housing, the sand. The onlookers were shouting their heads off. I was sure the loss of blood was taking its toll and, because I was nearing my limits too, I launched myself into attack, impatiently, recklessly. I went for the kill. And that was my mistake. Unwittingly, thinking perhaps that he would repay me with a similar, unfair cut from the side, I lowered my shield. Suddenly, I saw the stars burst with light and… don’t know what happened next.
“I don’t know. I don’t know what happened next,” I thought looking at the white hands of Iseult. Was it possible? Was it only that flash of light in Dun Laoghaire, the black tunnel and then the grey-white coast and the castle of Carhaing?
Was it possible?
And immediately, like a ready made answer, like a hard proof and an irrefutable argument, there came images, faces, names, words, colours, scents. It was all there, every single day. The short, dusky winter days seeping through the fish-bladders in the windows. Those warm, fragrant with the rain days near Pentecost, and those long, hot summer days, yellow with sunshine and sunflowers. It was all there: the marches, the fights, the processions, the hunts, the feasts, the women, and more fights, more feasts, more women. Everything. All that had happened since that moment in Dun Laoghaire till this drizzly day on the Armorican coast.
It all took place. It all happened. It passed. Only I couldn’t understand why it all seemed to me so…
Never mind.
It didn’t matter.
I sighed. This reminiscing wore me out. I felt almost as tired as then, during the fight. Just like then, my neck hurt and my arms felt like slabs of stone. The scar on my head throbbed furiously.
Iseult of the White Hands, who for some time had been looking out of the window, watching the overcast horizon, slowly turned her face towards me.
“Why have you come here, Morholt of Ulster?”
What was I to tell her? About the black holes in my memory? Telling her about my black, unending tunnel wouldn’t make sense. All I had at my disposal was, as usual, the knights’ custom, the universally respected and accepted norm. I got up.
“I am here to serve you, Lady Iseult,” I said, bowing stiffly.
I saw Kai bowing like that in Camelot. It struck me as a dignified, noble bow; worth copying.
“I have come here to carry out your orders, whatever they may be. My life belongs to you, Lady Iseult.”
“Sir Morholt,” she said softly, wringing her fingers, “I’m afraid it’s too late for that.”
I saw a tear, a narrow, glistening trickle making its way from the corner of her eye till it slowed down and stopped on the wing of her nostril. I could smell the scent of apples.
“The legend is about to end, Morholt.”

***

Iseult didn’t dine with us. We were alone at the table, Branwen and I, except for a chaplain with a shiny tonsure. But we didn’t bother with him. He muttered a short prayer and having blessed the table he devoted himself to stuffing his face. I soon forgot about his presence. As if he’d always been there.
“Branwen?”
“Yes, Morholt.”
“How did you know?”
“I remember you from Ireland, from the court. I remember you well. No, I doubt you remember me. You didn’t pay any attention to me then, although, I can tell you this now, Morholt, I did want you to notice me. It’s understandable: when Iseult was around one didn’t notice others.”
“No, Branwen. I remember you. I didn’t recognise you today because…”
“Yes, Morholt?”
“Because then, in Atha Cliath… you always smiled.”
Silence.
“Branwen?”
“Yes, Morholt?”
“How is Tristan?”
“Bad. The wound is festering, doesn’t want to heal. The rot’s set in. It looks horrible.”
“Is he…?”
“As long as he believes, he will live. And he believes.”
“In what?”
“In her.”
Silence.
“Branwen?”
“Yes, Morholt?”
“Is Iseult of the Golden Hair… is the Queen… really going to sail here from Tintagel?”
“I don’t know, Morholt. But he believes she will.”
Silence.
“Morholt?”
“Yes, Branwen?”
“I told Tristan you were here. He wants to see you. Tomorrow.”
“Very well.”
Silence.
“Morholt?”
“Yes, Branwen?”
“There, on the dunes…”
“It didn’t matter, Branwen.”
“It did. Please, try to understand. I didn’t want, I couldn’t let you die. I could not allow an arrow butt, a stupid piece of wood and metal, to spoil… I couldn’t let that happen. At any price, even the price of your contempt. And there… on the dunes, the price they asked didn’t seem so high. You see, Morholt…”
“Branwen… it’s enough, please.”
“I had paid with my body before.”
“Branwen. Not a word more.”
She touched my hand, and her touch, believe me or not, was the red ball of the sun rising after a long, cold night. It was the scent of apples, the leap of a horse spurred to attack. I looked into her eyes and her gaze was like the fluttering of pennons in the wind, like music, like a stroke of fur on the cheek. Branwen, the laughing Branwen of Baile Atha Cliath. Serious, quiet, sad Branwen of Cornwall, of the Knowing Eyes. Was there anything in that wine we drank? Like the wine Tristan and Iseult drank on the sea?
“Branwen…”
“Yes, Morholt?”
“Nothing, I only wanted to hear the sound of your name.”
Silence.
The roaring of the sea, monotonous, hollow, carrying persistent, intrusive, stubborn whispers…
Silence.

***

“Morholt.”
“Tristan.”
He had changed. Then, in Baile Atha Cliath, he was a child, a cheerful boy with dreamy eyes, always with that engaging little smile which sent hot waves up the maids’ thighs. Always that smile, even when we bashed each other with swords in Dun Laoghaire. And now… Now his face was grey, thin, withered, cut with glistening lines of sweat, his lips chaffed and frozen in a grimace of pain, black rings of suffering around his eyes.
And he stank. He stank of illness. Of death. Of fear.
“You are alive, Irishman.”
“I am, Tristan.”
“When they carried you off the field they said you were dead. Your head…”
“My head was cracked open and the brain out,” I said, trying to make it sound casual.
“A miracle. Someone must have been preying for you, Morholt.”
“I doubt that,” I shrugged my shoulders.
“Inscrutable is Fate.” His brow furrowed. “You and Branwen… both alive. While I… in a silly scuffle… I had a lance thrust in my groin, it came right through me, and it snapped. A splinter must have got stuck inside, that’s why the wound is festering. God’s punished me. It’s the punishment for all my sins. For you, for Branwen. And above all… for Iseult…”
His brow furrowed again, his mouth twisted. I knew which Iseult he meant. My heart ached. Her black-ringed eyes, her hand-wringing, the fingers cracked out of her white hands. The bitterness in her voice. How often she must have seen it: that involuntary twist of the mouth when he spoke the name of “Iseult” and could not add “of the Golden Hair”. I felt sorry for her – her, married to a legend. Why did she agree to it? Why did she agree to serve merely as a name, an empty sound? Hadn’t she heard the story about him and the Cornish woman? Maybe she thought it unimportant? Perhaps she thought Tristan was just like any other man? Like the men from Arthur’s retinue, like Gawaine, Gaheris, Bors or Bedivere, who started this idiotic fashion to adore one woman, sleep with another and marry the third, without anyone complaining?
“Morholt…”
“I’m here, Tristan.”
“I have sent Caherdin to Tintagel. The ship…”
“Still no news, Tristan.”
“Only she…” he whispered. “Only she can save me. I’m on the brink. Her eyes, her hands, just the sight of her, the sound of her voice… There is no other cure for me. That’s why… if she is on that ship, Caherdin will pull out on the mast…”
“I know, Tristan…”
He fell silent, staring at the ceiling, breathing heavily.
“Morholt… Will she… come? Does she remember?”
“I don’t know, Tristan,” I said and immediately regretted it. Damn it, what would it cost me to confirm with ardour and conviction? Did I have to reveal my ignorance to him as well?
Tristan turned his face to the wall.
“I wasted this love,” he groaned. “I destroyed it. And through it, I brought a curse on our heads. I am dying because of it, unsure that she will answer my plea and come, that she would, even if it were too late.”
“Don’t say that, Tristan.”
“I have to. It’s all my fault. Or perhaps my fate is at fault? Maybe that’s how it was to be from the beginning? The beginning born of love and tragedy? For you know that Blanchefleur gave birth to me amidst despair? The labour began the moment she received the news of Rivalin’s death. She didn’t survive my birth. I don’t know whether it was her, in her last breath, or Foyenant, later… who gave me this name, the name which is like doom, like a curse? Like a judgement. La tristesse . The cause and effect. La tristesse , surrounding me like a mist… Exactly like the mist swathing the mouth of the river Liffey when for the first time…”
He fell silent again, his hands instinctively stroking the furs with which he was covered.
“Everything, everything I did turned against me. Put yourself in my position, Morholt. Imagine yourself arriving at Baile Atha Cliath, you meet a girl… From the first sight, from the very moment your eyes meet, you feel your heart wants to burst out of your breast, your hands tremble. You wander to and fro the whole night, unable to sleep, boiling with anxiety, shaking, thinking about one thing only: to see her again in the morning. And what? Instead of joy – la tristesse…”
I was silent. I didn’t understand what he was talking about.
“And then,” he carried on, “the first conversation. The first touching of the hands, powerful as a lance’s thrust in a tournament. The first smile, her smile, which makes you… Eh, Morholt. What would you do in my place?”
I was silent. I didn’t know what I would have done in his place. I had never been in his position. By Lugh and Lir, I had never experienced anything like it. Ever.
“I know what you would not have done, Morholt,” said Tristan, closing his eyes. “You would not have sold her to Mark, you would not have awakened his interest, babbling all the time about her. You would not have sailed for her to Ireland in his name. You would not have wasted love, the love that began then, then, not on the ship. Branwen doesn’t have to torture herself with that story about magic potion. The elixir had nothing to do with it. By the time Iseult boarded the ship she was already mine. Morholt… If it were you, boarding that ship with her, would you have sailed to Tintagel? Would you have given her to Mark? I’m sure you would not. You would have rather sailed to the edge of the world, to Brittany, Arabia, Hyperborea, the Ultima Thule. Morholt? Am I right?”
I couldn’t answer this question. And even if I could, I wouldn’t want to.
“You are exhausted, Tristan. You need sleep. Rest.”
“Look out… for the ship…”
“We will, Tristan. Do you need anything? Shall I send for… for the lady of the White Hands?”
A twist of his mouth:
“No.”


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