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Memorable Data: The Malady (part 2) by Andrzej Sapkowski

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

We are standing on the battlement, Branwen and I. A drizzle. We are in Brittany, after all. The wind is growing stronger, tugging at her hair, wrapping her dress tightly around her hips. It thwarts our words, squeezes tears out of our eyes, which are fixed on the horizon.
No sign of a sail.
I’m looking at Branwen. By Lugh, what a joy it is, watching her. I could look at her till the end of time. Just to think that when she stood next to Iseult, she didn’t seem pretty. I must have been blind.
“Branwen?”
“Yes, Morholt?”
“Were you waiting for me then, on the beach. Did you know…?”
“Yes.”
“How?”
“Don’t you know?”
“No. I don’t… I can’t remember… Branwen, enough of these mysteries. My head is not up to it. Not my poor cracked head.”
“The legend cannot end without us. Without our participation. Yours and mine. I don’t know why, but we are important, indispensable to this story. The story of great love, which is like a whirl, sucking in everything and everyone. Don’t you know that, Morholt of Ulster? Don’t you understand what an almighty power love can be? A power capable of turning the natural order of thing? Can’t you feel that?
“Branwen… I do not understand. Here, in the castle of Carhaing…”
“Something will happen. Something that depends only on us. That’s the reason we are here. We have to be here, whether we want it or not. That is how I knew you would turn up on that beach. That is why I couldn’t allow you to die on the dunes…”
I don’t know what made me do it. Perhaps her words, perhaps the sudden recollection of the eyes of the golden-haired lady. Maybe it was something I had forgotten journeying down the long, unending black tunnel. I don’t know, but I did it without thinking, without any deliberation: I took her in my arms.
She clung to me, willingly, trustfully, and I thought that indeed, love can be an almighty power. But equally strong is its prolonged, overwhelming, gnawing absence.
It lasted only a moment. Or so it seemed to me. Branwen slowly freed herself and turned around. A gust of wind pulled her hair.
“Something depends on us, Morholt. On you and me. I’m scared.”
“Of what?”
“Of the sea. Of the rudderless boat.”
“I’m with you, Branwen.”
“Please be, Morholt.”

***


Tonight’s evening is different. Completely different. I don’t know where Branwen is. Perhaps she is with Iseult, nursing Tristan who is again unconscious, tossing and turning in the fever. Tossing and turning, he whispers: “Iseult…” Iseult of the White Hands knows it’s not her that Tristan calls, but she trembles when she hears this name. And wrings the fingers of her white hands. Branwen, if she is with her, has wet diamonds in her eyes. Branwen… I wish… Eh, the pox on it!
And I… I’m drinking with the chaplain. What is he doing here? Perhaps he’s always been here?
We are drinking, and drinking fast. And a lot. I know it’s not doing me any good. I shouldn’t, my cracked head doesn’t take kindly to this kind of sport. When I overdo it, I have hallucinations, splitting headaches, sometimes I faint, though rarely.
Well, so what? We are drinking. I have to, plague take it, drown this dread inside me. I have to forget the trembling hands. The castle of Carhaing. Branwen’s eyes, full of fear of the unknown. I want to drown the howling of the wind, the roaring of the sea, the rocking of the boat under my feet. I want to drown everything I can’t remember. And that scent of apples which keeps following me.
We are drinking, the chaplain and I. We are separated by an oak table, splattered with puddles of wine. It’s not only table that separates us.
“Drink, shaveling.”
“God bless you, son”
“I’m not your son.”
Since the battle of Mount Badon, I carry the sign of the cross on my armour, like many others, but I’m not moved by it as they are. Religion and all its manifestations leave me cold. The bush in Glastonbury, professedly planted by Joseph of Arymatea, looks to me like any other bush, except it’s more twisted and sickly than most. The Abbey itself, about which some of the Arthur’s boys speak with such reverence, doesn’t stir great emotions in me, though I admit it looks very pretty against the wood, the hills and the lake. And the regular tolling of the bells helps to find the way in the fog, for it’s always foggy there, the pox on it.
This Roman religion, although it has spread around, doesn’t have a chance here, on the islands. Here, in Ireland, in Cornwall or Wales, at every step you see things whose existence is stubbornly denied by the monks. Any dimwit has seen elves, pukkas, sylphs, the Coranians, leprechauns, sidhe, and even bean sidhe, but no one, as far as I know, has ever seen an angel. Except Bedivere who claims to have seen Gabriel, but Bedivere is a blockhead and a liar. I wouldn’t believe a word he says.
The monks go on about miracles performed by Christ. Let’s be honest: compared with things done by Vivien of the Lake, the Morrigan, or Morgause, wife of Lot from the Orkneys, not to mention Merlin, Christ doesn’t really have much to boast about. I’m telling you, the monks have come and they’ll go. The Druids will stay. Not that I think the Druids are much better than the monks. But at least the Druids are ours. They always have been. And the monks are stragglers. Just like this one, my table companion. The devil knows what wind’s blown him here, to Armorica. He uses odd words and has a strange accent, Aquitan or Gaelic, plague take him.
“Drink, shaveling.”
I bet my head that in Ireland Christianity will be a passing fashion. We Irish, we do not buy this hard, inflexible, Roman fanaticism. We are too sober-headed for that, too simple-hearted. Our Ireland is the fore-post of the West, it’s the Last Shore. Beyond, not far off, are the Old Lands: Hy Brasil, Ys, Mainistir Leitreach, Beag-Arainn. It is them, not the Cross, not the Latin liturgy, that rule people’s minds. It was so ages ago and it’s so today. Besides, we Irish, are a tolerant people. Everybody believes what he wants. I heard that around the world different factions of Christians are already at each other’s throats. In Ireland it’s impossible. I can imagine everything but not that Ulster, say, might be a scene of religious scuffles.
“Drink, shaveling.”
Drink, for who knows, you may have a busy day tomorrow. Perhaps tomorrow you will have to pay back for all the goodies you’ve pushed down your gullet. The one who is to leave us, must leave us with the full pomp of the ritual. It’s easier to leave when someone is conducting a ritual, doesn’t matter if he is mumbling the Requiem Aeternam , making a stink with incense, or howling and bashing his sword on the shield. It’s simply easier to leave. And what’s the difference where to – Hell, Paradise or Tir Na Nog? One always leaves for the darkness. I know a thing or two about it. One leaves down the black tunnel which has no end.
“Your master is dying, shaveling.”
“Sir Tristan? I’m praying for him.”
“Are you preying for a miracle?”
“It’s all in God’s hands.”
“Not all.”
“You are blaspheming, my son.”
“I’m not your son. I’m a son of Flann Uarbeoil whom the Normans hacked to death on the bank of the river Shannon. That was a death worthy of man. When dying, Flann didn’t moan “Iseult, Iseult.” When dying, Flann laughed and called the Norman yarl such names the poor bastard forgot to close his gob for an hour afterwards, so impressed was he.”
“One should die with the name of Lord on one’s lips. And besides, it’s easier to die in a battle, from the sword, than to linger on in bed, being eaten away by la maladie . Fighting la maladie is a lonely struggle. It’s hard to fight alone, harder still to die alone.”
“ La maladie? You’re drivelling, monk. He would lick himself out of this wound, just like from that other one, which… But then, in Ireland, he was full of life, full of hope. Now the hope’s drained out of him, together with his blood. If he could only stop thinking about her, forget about this accursed love…”
“Love, my son, also comes from God.”
“Oh, it does, does it? Everybody here goes on about love, racking their brains where it comes from. Tristan and Iseult… Shall I tell you, shavling, where this love, or whatever it is, has come from? Shall I tell you what brought them together? It was me: Morholt. Before Tristan cracked my head, I poked him in the thigh and thus sent him to bed for several weeks. But he, the moment he felt a bit better, he dragged the lady of the Golden Hair into it. Any healthy man would do that, given time and opportunity. Later, the minstrels were singing about the Moren Wood and the naked sword. Balls, that’s what I say. Now you see yourself, monk, where the love comes from. Not from God, from Morholt. And it’s worth accordingly, this love. This maladie of yours.”
“You are blaspheming. You are talking about things you do not understand. And it would be better if you stopped talking about them.”
I didn’t punch him between the eyes with my tin mug which I was squeezing in my hand. You wonder why? I’ll tell you why. Because he was right. I didn’t understand.
How could I understand? I was not conceived amidst misfortune, or born into tragedy. Flann and my mother conceived me on the hay and I’m sure they had plenty of good, healthy joy doing it. Giving me a name, they didn’t put any secret meanings into it. They gave me a name which it would be easy to call me by. “Morholt! Supper!” “Morholt! You little brat!” “Fetch some water, Morholt!” La tristesse? Balls, not la tristesse .
Can one daydream with a name like this? Play a harp? Devote all one’s thoughts to the beloved? Sacrifice to her all the matters of everyday life and pace the room unable to sleep? Balls. With a name like mine one can drink beer and wine and then puke under the table. Smash people’s noses. Crack heads with a sword or an axe, or alternatively, have it done to oneself. Love? Someone with the name Morholt pulls off a skirt, pokes his fill and falls asleep. Or, if he happens to feel a wee stirring in his soul, he will say: “Eh, ye’re a fine piece of arse, Maire O’Connell, I could gobble you whole, yer teats first.” Dig through it for three days and three nights, you won’t find in it a grain of la tristesse . Not a trace. So what that I like looking at Branwen? I like looking at lots of things.
“Drink, monk. Pour it, don’t waste time. What are you mumbling?”
“It’s all in God’s hands, sicut in coelo et in terris, amen …”
“Maybe in coelo but not in terris , that’s for sure.”
“You are blaspheming, my son. Cave !”
“What are you trying to scare me with? A bolt from the blue?”
“I’m not trying to scare you. I fear for you. Rejecting God you reject hope. The hope that you won’t lose what you have won. The hope that when it comes to making a choice, you will make the right one. And that you won’t be left defenceless.”
“Life, with God or without God, with hope or without it, is a road without an end or beginning, a road which leads along the slippery side of a huge tin funnel. Most people don’t realise they are going round and round passing the same point on the narrow slippery slope of the circle. There are some who are unfortunate and slip. They fall. And that’s the end of them, they’ll never climb up, back to the edge, they won’t resume the march. They are sliding down, till they reach the bottom of the funnel, at the narrow point of the outlet, where all meet. They meet, though only for a short while because further down, under the funnel, there awaits an abyss. This castle pounded by the waves is just such a place. The funnel’s outlet. Do you understand it, shavling?”
“No. But then I do not think you understand the cause behind my failure in understanding.”
“To hell with causes and effects, sicut in coelo et in terris . Drink, monk.”
We drank late into the night. The chaplain survived it admirably well. I didn’t do so well. I got pissed, I can tell you. I managed to drown… everything.
Or so it seemed to me.

***

Today the sea has the colour of lead. Today the sea is angry. I feel its anger and I respect it. I understand Branwen, I understand her fear. I don’t understand the cause. Or her words.
Today the castle is empty and terribly silent. Tristan is fighting the fever. Iseult and Branwen are at his side. I, Morholt of Ulster, stand on the battlements and look out into the sea.
Not a sign of a sail.

***

I was not asleep when she came in. And I was not surprised. It was as if I expected it. That strange meeting on the beach, the journey through the dunes and salty meadows, the silly incident with Bec de Corbin and his friends, the evening by the candlelight, the warmth of her body when I embraced her on the battlement, and above all that aura of love and death filling Carhaing – all this had brought us close to each other, bound us together. I even caught myself thinking that I would find it difficult to say goodbye…
To Branwen.
She didn’t say a word. She undid the brooch on her shoulder and let the heavy cloak drop onto the floor, and then quickly took off her shirt, a simple coarse garment, exactly like the ones worn everyday by Irish girls. She turned around, reddened by the flames flickering on the logs in the fire, which was spying on her with its glowing eyes.
Also without saying a word, I moved to the side and made room for her next to me. She lay down, slowly, turning her face to me. I covered her with furs. We were both silent, lying still, watching the fleeting shadows on the ceiling.
“I couldn’t sleep,” she said. “The sea…”
“I know. I hear it too.”
“I’m scared, Morholt.”
“I’m with you.”
“Please be.”
I embraced her, as tenderly and delicately as I could. She slipped her arms round my neck and pressed her face to my cheek, overpowering me with her hot breath. I touched her gently, fighting the joyous urge to embrace her fully, the need for violent, lusty caress, just as if I were stroking a falcon’s feathers or the nostrils of a nervous horse. I stroked her hair, her neck and shoulders, her full, wonderfully rounded breasts with their small nipples. I stroked her hips which, not so long ago, seemed to me too round and which in fact were wonderfully round. I stroked her smooth thighs, her womanhood, that place I didn’t have a name for, for even in my thoughts I wouldn’t dare to name it as I used to, with any of the Irish, Welsh or Saxon words I knew. It would be like calling Stonehenge a pile of rubble, or Glastonbury Tor a hillock.
She trembled, giving herself forth to meet my hands, guiding them with the movements of her body. She asked, she demanded with groans, with rapid uneven gasps of breath. She pleaded with momentary submissions, warm and tender, only to harden the next moment into a quivering diamond.
“Love me, Morholt,” she whispered. “Love me.”
She was brave, greedy, impatient. But helpless and defenceless in my arms. She had to give in to my quiet, careful, restrained love. My love. The one I wanted. The one I wanted for her. For in the one she was trying to impose on me I sensed fear, sacrifice, resignation, and I didn’t want her to be afraid, to sacrifice anything for me, to give up anything for me. I had my way.
Or so it seemed to me.
I felt the castle shudder in the slow rhythm of the pounding waves.
“Branwen…”
She pressed her hot body to mine; her sweat had the scent of wet feathers.
“Morholt… It’s good…”
“What’s good Branwen?”
“It’s good to live…”
We were silent for a long while. And then I asked a question. The question I shouldn’t have asked.
“Branwen… Will she… Will Iseult come here from Tintagel?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know? You? Her confidant, who…”
I shut up. By Lugh, what an idiot I am, I thought. What a bloody blockhead.
“Don’t torture yourself, Morholt,” she said. “Ask me.”
“About what?”
“About Iseult and King Mark’s wedding night.”
“Ah, this. Believe me or not, Branwen, I’m not interested.”
“I think you’re lying.”
I didn’t answer. She was right.
“It was just like people say,” she said quietly. “We swapped in Mark’s bed, soon after the candles were put out. I’m not sure if it was necessary. Mark was so charmed with Iseult of the Golden Hair that he would accept her lack of virginity without reproach. He was not that fussy. But that’s what we did. I did it because of my bad conscience after what had happened on the ship. I thought it was all my doing, mine and that of the magic potion’s I had given them. I assumed the guilt and wanted to pay for it. Only later it turned out that Tristan and Iseult slept with each other even in Baile Atha Cliath. And that I was not guilty of anything.”
“It’s all right, Branwen. Spare me the details. Leave it alone.”
“No. Listen to the end. Listen to what the minstrels will never sing about. Iseult ordered that as soon as I had given proof of my virginity I should sneak out of bed and swap with her again. Perhaps she was afraid the king would find out, or maybe she didn’t want me to get used to him, who knows? She was with Tristan in the room next door, both busy with each other. She freed herself from his arms and went to the Cornishman as she stood, naked, without even combing her tangled hair. I stayed, naked, with Tristan. Till dawn. I don’t know how or why.”
I was silent.
“That’s not the end,” said Branwen turning her face towards the fire. “After that there was the honeymoon during which the Cornishman wouldn’t leave Iseult even for a minute. Thus, Tristan could not get close to her. But to me he could. To spare you the details, after these few months I was in love with him. For life and death. I know you are surprised. It’s true, the only thing we had in common was the bed where, it was obvious to me even then, Tristan was trying to forget his love for Iseult, his jealousy of Mark, his guilt. He treated me as a substitute. I knew that and it didn’t help.”
“Branwen…”
“Be patient, Morholt. It’s still not the end. The honeymoon passed, Mark resumed his normal royal duties, and Iseult began to have plenty of free time. And Tristan… Tristan ceased to notice me. Worse, he began to avoid me. While I was going crazy with love.”
She fell silent, found among the furs my hand and squeezed it tight.
“I made several attempts to forget him,” she carried on, staring at the ceiling. “Tintagel was full of young, uncomplicated knights. But it didn’t work. One morning I took a boat to the sea. When I was far enough from the shore, I jumped.”
“Branwen,” I said pulling her close, trying to smother with my embrace the shudders convulsing her body. “It’s all past now. Forget about it. Like many others, you were sucked into the whirl of their love, love which proved unhappy to them, and fatal to others. Even I… I caught it on the head, though I merely brushed against this love, knowing nothing about it. In Dun Laoghaire, Tristan defeated me, although I was stronger and more experienced. That’s because he fought for Iseult, for his love. I didn’t know about it, got a good bash on the head and, like you, I owe my life to those who happened to be near me and who thought it right to help me. To save me. To pull me out of that unfathomable depth. And so we were saved, you and me. We are alive and to hell with everything else.”
She slipped her arm under my head and stroked my hair. She touched the swelling that ran from the temple right down to my ear. I winced. The hair on the scar grow in all directions and a touch can sometimes cause an unbearable pain.
“The whirl of their love,” she whispered. “Their love pulled us in. You and me. But were we really saved? What if we are still falling into that depth, together with them? What fate awaits us? The sea? The rudderless boat?”
“Branwen…”
“Love me, Morholt. The sea is asking for us, can you hear? But as long as we are here, as long as the legend isn’t over…”
“Branwen…”
“Love me, Morholt.”
I tried to be gentle. I tried to be considerate. I tried to be Tristan, king Mark and all the uncomplicated knights of Tintagel rolled into one. From the mass of desires whirling inside me, I kept only one: I wanted her to forget, forget about everything. I tried to make her believe, if only for as long as I held her in my arms, that there was only me. I tried. Believe me.
In vain.
Or so it seemed to me.

***


Not a sign of sails. The sea…
The sea has the colour of Branwen’s eyes.
I pace the room like a wolf in a cage. My heart is pounding as if it wanted to shatter my ribs. Something is squeezing my chest, my throat, something strange, something that’s sitting inside me. I hurl myself on the bed. To hell with it. I close my eyes and see the golden sparks. I can smell the scent of apples. Branwen. The scent of falcon’s feathers as it sits on my glove when I return from hunting. The golden sparks. I see her face. I see the curve of her cheek, the small perky nose. The roundness of her arm. I see her… I carry her…
I carry her on the inner side of my eye-lids.

***

“Morholt?”
“You are not asleep?”
“No, I can’t… The sea…”
“I’m with you, Branwen.”
“For how long? How much time have we got left?”
“Branwen…”
“Tomorrow… Tomorrow the ship from Tintagel will be here.”
“How do you know?”
“I simply do.”
Silence.
“Morholt?”
“Yes, Branwen?”
“We are bound together. Tied to this wheel of torture, sucked into the whirl. Chained. Tomorrow, here in Carhaing, the chain will break. I knew that the moment I saw you on the beach. When I realised that you were alive. When I realised I was alive too. But we do not live for each other, not any more. We are merely a tiny part in the fates of Tristan of Lionesse and Iseult of the Golden Hair from the Emerald Isle. Here, in the castle of Carhaing, we found each other only to lose each other. The only thing that binds us together is a legend about love, which is not our legend. In which we play a role we cannot understand. A legend which perhaps won’t even mention our roles, or it will warp and falsify them, will put into our mouths words we never said, will ascribe to us deeds we never did. We do not exist, Morholt. There is only a legend which is about to end.”
“No, Branwen,” I said, trying to make my voice sound hard, determined and full of conviction. “You mustn’t say that. It’s sorrow, nothing else, that makes you say these words. True, Tristan of Lionesse is dying and even if Iseult of the Golden Hair is on the ship sailing from Tintagel, I’m afraid she may be late. And even though I, too, am saddened by this, I shall never agree that the only thing that binds us together is the legend. I’ll never agree with this, Branwen, lying next to you, holding you in my arms. At this moment, it’s Tristan who doesn’t exist for me, the legend, the castle of Carhaing. There is only the two of us.”
“I too hold you in my arms, Morholt. Or so it seems to me. But I do know that we don’t exist. There is only the legend. What will become of us? What will happen tomorrow? What decision will we have to make? What will become of us?”
“Fate will decide. An accident. This entire legend to which we so stubbornly return, is a result of an accident. A series of accidents. If it weren’t for this blind fate there would be no legend. Then, in Dun Laoghaire, just think Branwen, if it weren’t for blind fate… it could have been him, not I…”
I stopped, frightened by the sudden thought, horrified by the words pressing onto my lips.
“Morholt,” whispered Branwen.” Fate’s done with us all there was to do. The rest cannot be the result of an accident. We are beyond the rule of accident. What is ending, is ending for both of us. It’s possible…”
“What, Branwen?”
“That perhaps then, in Dun Laoghaire…”
“Branwen!”
“...that your wound was mortal? Perhaps… I drowned in the bay?”
“Branwen! But we are alive!”
“Are you sure? Where had we come from to find ourselves on that beach, you and me, at the same time? Do you remember? Don’t you think it possible we were brought by the rudderless boat? That very same boat which one day brought Tristan to the mouth of the river Liffey? The boat from Avalon, looming out of the mist, filled with the scent of apples? The boat we were told to get into for the legend cannot end without us, without our participation? For it was us, no one else, who are to end this legend? And when we end it, we shall return to the shore, the rudderless boat will wait for us, and we will have to get into it and drift away, and be swallowed by the mist? Morholt?”
“We are alive, Branwen.”
“Are you sure?”
“I’m touching you, Branwen. You exist. Lying in my arms. You are beautiful, warm, you have a smooth skin. You smell like my falcon sitting on my glove when I return from hunting, while the rain is rustling in the birch leaves. You are, Branwen.”
“I am touching you, Morholt. You exist. You are warm and your heart is beating just as strong. You smell of salt. You are.”
“And so… we are alive, Branwen.”
She smiled. I didn’t see it. I felt that smile pressed into my arm.

***

Later, deep in the night, lying still with my arm numb from the weight of her head, careful not to break her shallow sleep, I listened to the roaring of the sea.
For the first time in my life this sound, dull and monotonous like a toothache, made me feel uneasy, irritated me, kept me awake. I was afraid. I was afraid of the sea. I, an Irishman, brought up on a seashore, from birth familiar with the sound of the surf.
Later still, in my sleep, I saw a boat with a high, upturned stem and a mast adorned with garlands. The rudderless boat, tossed on the waves. I could smell the scent of apples.

***

“Good Lady Branwen…” the page was gasping for breath. “Lady Iseult asks you to come to Sir Tristan’s chamber. You and Sir Morholt of Ulster. Please hurry, melady.”
“What happened? Has Tristan…?”
“No, it’s not that. But…”
“Speak, boy.”
“The ship from Tintagel… Sir Caherdin is coming back. There was a messenger from the cape. It can be seen…”
“What colour are the sails?”
“It’s impossible to say. The ship is too far, far beyond the cape.”
The sun came out.

***

When we entered, Iseult of the White Hands was standing with her back to the half-open window which threw off flashes of light from the little panes of glass fitted in little lead frames. She was radiating an unnatural, turbid, deflected light. Tristan, his face glossy with sweat, was breathing irregularly, with difficulty. His eyes were closed.
Iseult looked at us. Her face was drawn, disfigured by two deep furrows etched by pain on both sides of her mouth.
“He is barely conscious,” she said. “He is delirious.”
Branwen pointed to the window:
“The ship…”
“It’s too far, Branwen. It’s hardly passed the cape. It’s too far…”
Branwen looked at Tristan and sighed. I knew what she thought.
No, I didn’t.
I heard it.
Believe me or not, I heard their thoughts. Branwen’s thoughts, anxious and full of fear, like waves frothing among the shore’s rocks. The thoughts of Iseult, soft, trembling, fluttering like a bird held in hand. The thoughts of Tristan, loose and torn, like wisps of mist.
“We are all at your side, Tristan,” thought Iseult. “Branwen of Cornwall who is the Lady of Algae. Morholt of Ulster, who is Decision. And I, who loves you, Tristan. I who love you more and more with every minute that passes and takes you away from me, that takes you away no matter what colour the sails of the ship approaching the shores of Brittany. Tristan…”
“Iseult,” thought Tristan. “Iseult. Why aren’t they looking out of the window? Why are they looking at me? Why aren’t they telling me what colour are the sails? I must know it, I must, otherwise…”
“He will fall asleep,” thought Branwen. “He will fall asleep and he will never wake up. He has reached the point as far from the luminous surface as it is from the green algae covering the sea bed. The point where one stops struggling. From that point there is only peace.”
“Tristan,” thought Iseult. “Now I know I was happy with you. Despite everything. Despite all the time you have been with me and thought only about her. Despite you rarely calling me by my name. You always called me ‘my lady’. You’ve tried so hard not to hurt me. You were trying so hard, putting so much effort into it that it was your very trying that hurt me most. Yet I was happy. You’ve given me happiness. You’ve given me the golden sparks flickering under my eyelids. Tristan…”
Branwen was looking out through the window. At the ship appearing slowly out from behind the land’s edge. “Hurry up,” she thought. “Hurry up, Caherdin. Sharp to the wind. No matter what colour, turn your sail sharp to the wind, Caherdin. Hail, Caherdin, welcome, we need your help. Save us, Caherdin…”
But the wind, which for the last three days had been blowing, freezing us and lashing us with rain, now abated. The sun came out.
“All of them,” thought Tristan. “All of them. Iseult of the White Hands, Branwen, Morholt… And now I… Iseult, my Iseult… What colour are the sails of this ship?... What colour…?”
“We are like blades of grass that stick to the cloak’s hem when one’s walking through a meadow,” thought Iseult. “We are those blades of grass on your cloak, Tristan. In a moment you’ll brush off your cloak and we shall be free… borne away by the wind. Do not make me look at those sails, Tristan, my husband. I beg you, don’t.”
“I wish,” thought Tristan, “I wish I could have met you earlier. Why did Fate bring me to Ireland? Armorica is closer to Lionesse… I could have met you earlier… I wish I had loved you… I wish… What colour are the sails of this ship? I wish… I wish I could give you love, my lady. My good lady Iseult of the White Hands… But I can’t… I can’t…”
Branwen turned her face to the tapestries, her shoulders shaking with sobs. She too must have heard.
I took her in my arms. On all the Lir’s Tritons! I cursed my bear-like clumsiness, my wooden hands, my cragged fingertips catching on the silk like tiny fishhooks. But Branwen, falling into my arms, had filled everything out, put everything right, rounding off all the sharp edges like a wave washing over a sandy beach trampled by horses’ hooves. Suddenly, I felt we were one person. I knew I couldn’t lose her. Ever.
Above her head, pressed onto my chest, I saw the window. The sea. And the ship.
“You can give me love, Tristan,” thought Iseult. “Please give it to me, before I lose you. Only once. I need it very much. Don’t make me look at the sails of this ship. Don’t ask me what colour they are. Don’t force me to play a role in a legend, a role which I don’t want to play.”
“I can’t,” thought Tristan. “I can’t. Iseult, my golden-haired Iseult… My Iseult…”
“It’s not my name,” thought Iseult. “It’s not my name.”
“It’s not my name!” she shouted.
Tristan opened his eyes, looked around, his head rolling on the pillows.
“My lady…” he whispered. “Branwen… Morholt…”
“We are here, all of us,” answered Iseult very quietly.
“No,” thought Tristan. “Iseult is not here. So… it’s like there was no one here.”
“My lady…”
“Don’t make me…”
“My lady… Please…”
“Don’t make me look at the sails, Tristan. Don’t force me to tell you…”
“Please…” His body tensed. “I beg you…”
And then he said it. Differently. Branwen shuddered in my arms.
“Iseult.”
She smiled.
“I wanted to change the course of a legend,” she said very quietly. “What a mad idea. Legends cannot be changed. Nothing can be changed. Well, almost nothing…”
She stopped, looked at me, at Branwen, both still embracing and standing next to the tapestry with the apple tree of Avalon. She smiled. I knew I would never forget that smile.
Slowly, very slowly, she walked up to the window. Standing inside it, she stretched her hands up to its pointed arch.
“Iseult,” groaned Tristan. “What… what colour…”
“They are white,” she said. “White, Tristan. They are white as snow. Farewell.”
She turned around. Without looking at him, without looking at anybody, she left the room. The moment she left I stopped hearing her thoughts. All I could hear was the roaring of the sea.
“White!” shouted Tristan. “Iseult! My Golden Hair! At last…”
The voice died in his throat like a flickering flame of an oil-lamp. Branwen screamed. I ran to his bed. Tristan’s lips moved lightly. He was trying to raise himself. I held him up and gently forced him to lie back on the pillows.
“Iseult,” he whispered. “Iseult. Iseult…”
“Lie still, Tristan. Do not try to get up.”
He smiled. By Lugh, I knew I would never be able to forget that smile.
“Iseult… I have to see it…”
“Lie still, Tristan…”
“...the sails…”
Branwen, standing in the window where a moment ago stood Iseult of the White Hands, sobbed loudly.
“Morholt!” she cried. “This ship…”
“I know. Branwen…”
She turned.
“He is dead.”
“What?”
“Tristan has died. This very moment. This is the end, Branwen.”
I looked through the window. The ship was closer than before. But still too far. Far too far to tell the colour of its sails.

***

I met them in the big hall, the one where we were greeted by Iseult of the White Hands. In the hall where I offered her my sword and my life, whatever it might have meant.
I was looking for Iseult and the chaplain. Instead I found them.
There were four of them.
A Welsh druid named Hwyrddyddwg, a sly old man, told me once that a man’s intentions, no matter how cleverly disguised, will be always betrayed by two things: his eyes and his hands. I looked closely at the eyes, then at the hands of the knights standing in the great hall.
“My name is Marjadoc,” said the tallest of them. He had a coat of arms on his tunic –two black boars’ heads, crested with silver, against a blue-red field. “And these are honourable knights – Sir Gwydolwyn, Sir Anoeth and Sir Deheu of Opwen. We come from Cornwall as envoys to Sir Tristan of Lionesse. Take us to him, sir.”
“You’ve come too late,” I said.
“Who are you, sir?” winced Marjadoc. “I do not know you.”
At this moment Branwen came in. Marjadoc’s face twitched, anger and hatred crept out on it like two writhing snakes.
“Marjadoc.”
“Branwen.”
“Gwydolwyn, Anoeth, Deheu, I thought I would never see you again. They told me Tristan and Corvenal put you out of your misery then, in the Wood of Moren.”
Marjadoc smiled nastily.
“Inscrutable is Fate. I never thought I would see you again either. Especially here. But never mind, take us to Tristan. The matter is of utmost urgency.”
“Why such a hurry?”
“Take us to Tristan,” repeated Marjadoc angrily. “We have business with him. Not with his servants. Nor with the panderess of the Queen of Cornwall.”
“Whence have you come, Marjadoc?”
“From Tintagel, as I said.”
“Interesting,” smiled Branwen, “for the ship has not yet reached the shore. But it’s nearly there. Do you wish me to tell you what sails it is sailing under?”
Marjadoc’s eyes didn’t change for a second. I realised he had known. I understood everything. The light I saw at the end of the black tunnel was growing brighter.
“Leave this place,” barked Marjadoc, putting his hand on the sword. “Leave the castle. Immediately.”
“How have you got here?” asked the smiling Branwen. “Have you, by any chance, come on the rudderless boat. With the black, tattered rag for a sail? With the wolf’s skull nailed to the high, upturned stem? Why have you come here? Who sent you?”
“Get out of the way, Branwen. Do not cross us or you’ll be sorry.”
Branwen’s face was calm. But this time it was not the calm of resignation and helplessness, the chill of despair and indifference. This time it was the calm of an unshaken, iron will. No, I mustn’t lose her. Not for any price.
Any? And what about the legend?
I could smell the scent of apples.
“You have strange eyes, Marjadoc,” said Branwen suddenly. “Eyes which are not used to daylight.”
“Get out of our way,.”
“No. I won’t get out of your way, Marjadoc. First you will answer my question. The question is: why?”
Marjadoc didn’t move. He was looking at me.
“There will be no legend about great love,” he said and I knew it was not him who was talking. “Such a legend would be unwanted and harmful. The tomb made of beryl and the hawthorn bush growing from it and spreading itself over the tomb made of chalcedony would be a senseless folly. We do not want tombs like that. We do not want the story of Tristan and Iseult to take root in people’s minds, to become an ideal and an example for them. We do not wish that it should repeat itself. We won’t have young people saying: ‘We are like Tristan and Iseult’. Ever. Anywhere.”
Branwen was silent.
“We cannot allow something like the love of these two to cloud minds destined for higher things. To weaken arms whose purpose is to crush and kill. To soften the spirit of those who are meant to hold power with iron tongs. And above all, Branwen, we shall not allow what has bound Tristan and Iseult to pass into a legend as an imperishable love that dares all dangers and makes light of hardships, binding the lovers even after their death. That is why Iseult of Cornwall has to die far away from here, bringing into the world another descendant of King Mark, as befits a queen. As for Tristan, if he has already gone to rot before we got to him, he must be laid at the bottom of the sea, with a stone tied to his neck. Or burn. Yes, that would be best. And the castle of Carhaing should go up in flames with him. And soon, before the ship from Tintagel sails into the bay. Instead of a tomb of beryl – a heap of stinking, smouldering rubble. Instead of a beautiful legend – an ugly truth. The truth about a selfish infatuation, about stepping over dead bodies, about trampling the feelings of other people and the harm done to them. Branwen? Do you really want to stop us, us the Knights of Truth? I repeat: get out of our way. We have nothing against you. We do not want to kill you. There is no need. You have played your role, a rather contemptible one, now you can go. Go back to the shore, where they are waiting for you. You too, Sir… What is your name?”
I was looking at their eyes and their hands, and I thought that what the old Hwyrddyddwg was right: their eyes and hands indeed showed their intentions. For in their eyes there was cruelty and determination while their hands held swords. I didn’t have my sword, that same sword I had offered to Iseult of the White Hands. “Well,” I thought, “tough tithies”. After all, it’s not a big deal to die fighting. It wouldn’t be the first time, would it?
I am Morholt! The one who is Decision.
“Your name, sir,” repeated Marjadoc.
“Tristan,” I said.
The chaplain appeared out of nowhere, sprang from the ground like a pukka. Groaning with the effort, he threw across the hall a huge, two-handed sword. Marjadoc leapt at me, raising his sword. For a moment the swords were up in the air – the Marjadoc’s and the one flying towards my outstretched hands. It seemed I could not move quick enough. But I was.
I cut Marjadoc under his arm, with all the strength, in half-swing. The blade went in diagonally, as far as the line dividing the fields on his coat of arms. I turned back, letting the sword slide out. Marjadoc fell down, right under the feet of the other three who were running towards me. Anoeth tripped on the body, which meant I could easily crack his head. And I did.
Gwydolwyn and Deheu rushed at me from both sides. I stepped in between them, whirling round with the stretched sword like a spinning top. They had to back off. Their blades were a good arm’s length shorter than mine. Kneeling down I cut Gwydolwyn on the thigh. I felt the blade grate on the bone. Deheu swung his sword and tried to get to me from the side. But he slipped on the blood and fell on one knee. His eyes were full of fear now, begging for mercy, but I found none. I didn’t even look for it. It’s impossible to parry a thrust with a two-hander delivered from a close range. If you cannot move out of its way, the blade will sink two-thirds of its length till it will stop on the two little iron wings placed there specially for this purpose. And it did.
Believe me or not, but none of them let out as much as a squeak. While I… I felt nothing. Absolutely nothing.
I dropped the sword on the floor.
“Morholt!” Branwen ran and clang to me, her body shuddering with waves of terror slowly dying away.
“It’s all right now, dear. It’s all over,” I said, stroking her hair, but at the same time looking at the chaplain kneeling by the dying Gwydolwyn.
“Thank you for the sword, monk.”
The chaplain lifted his head and looked me in the eyes. Where had he sprung from? Was he here all the time? But if he was here all the time… then who was he? Who the devil was he?
“It’s all in God’s hands,” he said, and bent over the dying Gwydolwyn. “...Et lux perpetua luceat ei…”
Still, he didn’t convince me. He didn’t convince me with the first saying, nor with the second.

***

Then we found Iseult.
In the baths; her face pressed to the well. Clean, pedantic Iseult of the White Hands, could not have done it anywhere else but on the stone floor, by the gutter meant for draining away water. Now this gutter glistened dark clotted red along its entire length.
She had opened her veins on both hands. With expertise. Along the forearms, on the inner side, and then, to make sure, on her wrists with the sign of the cross. We would not have been able to save her even if we’d found her earlier.
Her hands were even whiter than before.
And then, believe me or not, I realised that the rudderless boat was leaving the shore. Without us. Without Morholt of Ulster. Without Branwen of Cornwall. But it was not empty.
Farewell, Iseult. Farewell. For ever. Be it in Tir Na Nog, or in Avalon, the whiteness of your hands will last for centuries. For eternity.
Farewell, Iseult.

***

We left Carhaing before Caherdin’s arrival. We didn’t want to talk to him, or to anyone who might have been on that ship from Tintagel. For us the legend was over. We were not interested in what the minstrels were going to do with it.
The sky was overcast again, it was raining, a drizzle. Brittany, the usual stuff. There was a road ahead of us: the road through the dunes towards that rocky beach. I didn’t want to think what to do next. It didn’t matter.
“I love you , Morholt,” said Branwen without looking at me. “I love you whether you want it or not. It’s like an illness. A weariness which drains me of my free will, which pulls me into the deep. I’ve lost myself within you, Morholt, and I shall never find myself the way I was before. If you respond to my love, you too will lose yourself, you will perish, drown in the deeps and never find the old Morholt again. So think well before you give me your answer.”
The ship stood by the rocky shore. They were unloading something. Someone was shouting, cursing in Welsh, hurrying the men. The sails were being rolled. The sails…
“It’s a terrible sickness, this love,” carried on Branwen, also looking at the sails. “ La maladie , as they say in the south, on the mainland. La maladie d’espoir , the sickness of hope. The selfish infatuation, bringing harm to everyone around. I love you, Morholt, selfishly, blindly. I’m not worried about the fate of others, whom I may unwittingly draw into the whirl of my love, hurt, or trample upon. Isn’t it terrible? If you respond to my love… Think well, Morholt, before you give me your answer.”
The sails…
“We are like Tristan and Iseult,” said Branwen, and her voice came dangerously close to breaking point. “ La maladie… What shall become of us, Morholt? What will happen to us? Will we too be joined finally by bushes of hawthorn and brier-rose growing on our graves? Think well, Morholt, before you answer.”
I was not going to do any thinking. I suspect Branwen knew as much. I saw it in her eyes, when she turned her face towards me.
She knew we’d been sent to Carhaing to save the legend. And we did. The simplest way. By beginning a new one.
“I know how you feel, Branwen,” I said, looking at the sails, “for I feel exactly the same. It’s a terrible sickness. Terrible, incurable malady. I know how you feel. For I too have fallen ill.”
Branwen smiled, and it seemed to me that the sun had broken through the low-hanging clouds. That’s what this smile was like. Believe me or not.
“And the pox on the healthy, Branwen!”
The sails were dirty.
Or so it seemed to me.

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