Encountering a Black Hole, actually put into one very briefly by the Great Weaver’s hand, Excalibur II was spun backwards in time, then expelled out a side port, just in time to catch the original first King Arthur before he went to battle against his treacherous nephew, Mordred.
At first Arthur II and his court and people had no idea they were looking at the genuine article. It did not fit the descriptions, and they were amazed, after so many years on exile in a space station, by the feel of real air, real wind, real sunlight--real everything! So much reality, after so much ferro-celluloid virtual reality, tended to be overwhelming at first, producing disorienting confusion, great surges of emotion, and a sense of being more alive than they had been in many years.
At least that the experience of most Camelese. As for the king, he decided that the 5th Century Celts were not ready for 22nd Century technology. Leaving the mother ship in a shuttle, he took only volunteers for the first landing, since no one knew for sure they would return alive. He also commanded his entourage to exercise proper appearance and behavior, dressing like the first Britons as much as possible, with absolutely no electronic wizardry permitted, the one exception being the translator, which they would need to get around because nobody on board could speak either Latin or Erse, the languages of Roman Britain. Wotoo was given the responsibility to carry it, and not let anyone else have it or even look at it closely.
If it drew too much attention or showed signs of inciting a riot, it was to be immediately returned to the shuttle. As for Wotoo, his appearance was exotic enough to pass for a Tarshish merchant from Gadis, Spain, and to distinguish him even further he was instructed to dress as a minstrel, one who was expected to act a bit odd and look somewhat extraordinary within Celtic society. Helping with his costume, the queen donated plumes for his hat, and sewed on her whole collection of diamond brooches for his jacket buttons.
As for his clothes, the “Rose of Guinevere Performing Arts Center” had to help out. Everything he wore needed to be highly colored, and the wardrobe department came through magnificently with a pink striped shirt, a green velvet jacket with scarlet trim and piping, a purple scarf with moon and stars on it in gold, a white hat with red plumes, pants with gold polka dots sprayed on, and boots painted silver.
The queen, hearing the details of the Celtic dress code, could think of nothing suitably Celtic in her rather sedate, traditional, and reserved wardrobe until she recalled a gardening suit that was still in boxes since its arrival on the last shipment to the base. Sent via a secret means of communication that friends of the Royal Family had set up, it had arrived inside a container of soybean seed--seed no one actually wanted since soybeans were far too invasive in their root systems for exo-terran cultivation.
Digging it out was accomplished with difficulty, but Owens and Wotoo were equal to the task and brought the boxes to the royal quarters.
Changing into a wide-brimmed Vita Sackville West hat, shirt, and culottes, armed with a garden trowel that fitted in a belt sheath and she had painted gold, she felt prepared to take on the challenge of dropping unannounced into the 5th Century.
As for the shuttle, there was nothing they could do to make it look contemporary, except that they hung out every flag on board, giving the vessel the look of a military encampment.
Keeping a stiff upper lip, as well as a stiff lower lip, he managed to maintain his royal demeanor. What did he see?
A narrow, muddy road led up to a hill that was walled with rather loose ashlar bound with clay, and within a large stockade ringing the top of the hill stood a number of thatched huts and in their midst a hall with stag horns affixed to the front and guards at the door. Riding out of the gates on a black stallion, the scarlet and blue caped, helmeted leader who came forward to greet him spoke a language Arthur II could not understand, but the gorgeously attired Wotoo came forward with his translator, and the royal audience began.
“Our warmest greetings to you! We ask your kind permission to encamp! Pardon me for this intrusion, for it hasn’t been scheduled, believe me. We were headed in another direction entirely. Are you the ruler of this beautiful country, sir? I must say it looks quite a bit like my own homeland--as it once looked, that is. I should also like to know your name, sir. And please accept the offices of my court bard! He is very good to help me and will show you a clever little box now that is gifted with speech, which will say to you what I cannot say, not knowing your tongue. I pray that you will not be angry with my servant, for he is a great help to me in this matter.”
This was the first test for Wotoo and his “talking box.” Would the Celts denounce them as wizards and heathen, or would they be given a dignified Christian hearing? Would the box be seized and torn open to reveal the hidden, enchanted tongue of some wicked soothsayer?
It was a tense moment. Somehow, Wotoo felt inspired to bow, present the box, then do a little jig which made the King of Powys and Gwynedd look less suspicious and fierce and even a bit amused.
Taking the black box as something he had long been accustomed to, the man listened without merely a lifting of an eyebrow as it translated with a quacking voice that sounded like helium had been applied. This had been intentional in the design, supposedly preventing criminal uses in all sorts of scams, but now it only relieved tension, since anything so silly in sound could not be seriously taken as a work of heathen witchcraft.
The king’s response was translated to Arthur II, and he could make nothing of it, though it sounded not so much ducklike but suspiciously Welsh to him. “Owain, son of Uther Pendragon, king of Powys and Gwynedd”?
Wotoo, close by the king, leaned even closer and whispered, “Your Majesty, Powys and Gwynedd were the Celtic-Roman Wales and Somersetshire kingdom of the first King Arthur!”
This news was too much for the second Arthur. The stiffness went entirely out of his upper and lower lips, they trembled, and he had a chair brought immediately, and sat down. His entourage, too, sat down on the grassy banks of the road, while Arthur I remained on his horse, staring at the oddly dressed foreigners who appeared half-Celtic and half something unidentifiable.
“I must be going up to battle soon,” the king announced before Arthur II had fully recovered. “Are you come to join me? Where are your arms and horses and battle clothes? And what is that strange castrum you have brought along? It will be no use to me! I have plenty such, with no men to keep them! My watchmen said it fell down out of the sky, which I don’t believe, since they have been tossing down some captured barrels of Saxon mead all last night. Explain how you brought it here without many oxen, and I will listen again to your minstrel’s little speaking box!”
By this time the inhabitants of the first Camelot had been pouring out to see the newcomers. The two kings could not prevent the meeting, and within moments the scene was utter confusion. The two groups could not understand each other, so more “black ducks”--as they came to be called--were brought out from the shuttle, but they only deepened the confusion.
Arthur II, hoping to gain more light on this most perplexing situation, spoke to Wotoo. “See if you can get him to understand that we are not going to fight for him, and that this is purely a social call, and we would like to leave without any trouble to him, and will do so as soon as I get my breath.”
While Wotoo, working with the translator, dealt with Arthur I, Queen Astrid came out to her husband. As long as she was dressed for it, she intended to get some real soil for an ailing African violet that the Duchess of York had all but given up on.
“What is going on, Art darling? Who are these strange people? Where are we?”
Arthur II shook his head. “We got clear of that bloody Black Hole--now this! It’s probably a warp in the time continuum, and won’t last too long. Be prepared for a sudden shift back into the 22nd Century. But, for the present, from what Wotoo says, this is old England, the kingdom of Powys and Gwynedd, where my namesake supposedly ruled in the fifth century! I never heard a more preposterous thing in my life! I am Arthur, and this fellow has to be an impostor, for he doesn’t have the look of anyone in my family! So that proves these are only figments of warped time.”
“Of course, he doesn’t look like you, and for good reason! ” the queen laughed, her good humor coming back after hearing two monarch’s quacking exchanges and then being surprised pleasantly when a butterfly frisked past, returning to alight on her red, white-speckled gardening glove. “Well, for one thing, he is a Christianized British Celt, and you are an idol-worshipping heathen foreigner, since he was fighting your people, the Anglo-Saxons, barbarian tribes who were moving in to take over his country.”
“Yes, yes, I suppose you’re correct as the books go, but why should I be meeting him now, after all these years, and so much has happened? What good could come of that?”
The butterfly flew off as the queen gave him a gentle blown launch. The queen watched it go, then turned to the king and slowly replied. “You might think that one over a bit more. Wotoo can deal with the local king over there in the meantime.”
Arthur II did think it over, though it was hard while being jostled by so many Celts, who all wanted to know what the strangers were, speculating this and that, and also marveling at how outlandishly the foreigners were attired.
After a minute, the queen turned to him. “Well? We are waiting.”
The second Arthur rose from his chair, waved to Wotoo that he was coming forward, and then went to the mounted king.
“Your Majesty!” the second Arthur called out. “I bid you a good day! And, without the proper introductions, I’m afraid, I have come in person to offer my best wishes to you in your own kingdom, for I have lost mine some time ago. I cannot explain it all now, but, you see, this kingdom you have my forebears took from your people, and we named it after you but pushed out your people to the edges while we ruled and cultivated the best portions. We grew great from the goodness and strength of your best lands, and then gained other kingdoms beyond, so many that our scepter ruled over lands far and wide. Then—probably because we lost the favor of the Lord God by shamefully refusing to honor him and His commandments--we lost our overseas realms, and our domain shrank back these original holdings, until one day most powerful enemy came and seized me and my family, and took us from the palace and put us in a far-off place of exile--”
“Come to the point, dear!” Queen Astrid whispered, prodding him with the point of her trowel while the translator was relaying the king’s message. “You can’t tell him everything!”
All this while, the mounted Arthur looked down at the speaker, and he appeared ready at one point to draw Excalibur I and take the second Arthur’s head off. But a tall, distinguished gentleman dressed in a long, green robe with gold embroidery on his tunic, with boots that showed fine work of leathersmiths, stepped up to Arthur I and said something. The first Arthur nodded, took his hand off his sword, and glared at Arthur II as he labored on about his past and present.
“--as I was saying, I believe I owe you an apology, Your Majesty. It is frightfully long overdue, I’m afraid. This is, if you are whom I am told, Sovereign Lord of Powys and Gwynedd, and we are the Anglo-Saxons you so rightfully oppose as interlopers. But, having considered some things during my long exile, I now declare a truce, and ask for peace between our peoples. I cannot speak for the tribes that are presently occupying most of the country, but I can speak for us here. Let there be peace! If we are still responsible for taking your land, then I gladly acknowledge it, and, furthermore will make restitution as far as--”
“What about the constitutional monarchy?” the queen interposed in full voice. “That’s the business at hand!”
“Yes, one more thing. I planned to turn over the major powers of my kingship to the properly elected parliament that would be formed under my administration, but now, faced with these new circumstances, I see that is not going far enough. “ He glanced at the queen, ignored her look of alarm, and continued on hurriedly. A few more words, and the thing was done. Arthur II resigned his kingship, retaining only his name. Only then did he look again at his wife, but she had her eyes closed and was mumbling something, perhaps a prayer for the grace not to kill her husband.
When the first Arthur heard that the visiting king was turning over his authority and crown to him, he could not understand it—and was deeply impressed, for no opposing king had ever willingly bowed to his crown before. As for the humble apology, made even more humble by his minstrel’s quacking box, that had pleased him. He hadn’t received any such overtures before from the Angles and Saxons who had invaded the land time and again—nor could he reasonably expect any But he was the king, and a king knew how to treat even his foes when they acted so worthily and generously as this king had just done.
“Splendidly said! You are most welcome in my house! Come to the Consul’s Hall and we will feast together on the boar and mead we captured from the Saxon camp the other day!” he invited the second Arthur and his people. “After we have all eaten and drunk, we can discuss the truce and make a treaty between us!”
Suddenly, all the Celts began smiling, clapping arms around the visitors, and treating them like long-lost relatives. Language no longer mattered when everyone was considered a friend.
It was just as well Arthur II was seated at one end of the table and Queen Astrid at the other. The queen, highly annoyed that she hadn’t been consulted on his abdication, was not on speaking terms with him at the moment. Still wearing her gardener’s Vita Sackville-West hat, veil pinned up, and her cherry-red, white polka-dotted gloves exciting great envy among the Celts, she fell to on the banquet, doing justice like Arthur I’s legionaries to the real meat, real butter, real bread, real wine. Meanwhile, her mind was working hard on the present problems of state.
“I’ll have to checkmate him soon, before he really goes off beyond where I can retrieve him,” she thought, savoring the wonderful food. “Without our crown, what on earth is he going to do? I’ve have him completely on my hands then, and that will be impossible! No, I won’t allow it! He’s got to get his crown back, or I’ll leave him and take the children! A king without the slightest thing to do would be the most frightful cross!”
As for the children, they could not all be held back from the volunteer mission, and so one hundred were allowed to join. These could not be held back any longer. They jumped and ran about. The queen made a grab at one wanna-be rocket, but missed wide of the mark. “Oh, well, they’ve been cooped up so long, they must be allowed some license!” she said as the king viewed the commotion disapprovingly.
Emily Wotoo was one the royal entourage had brought as a guest. Still garbed in her musical comedy costume, which she would not put off and wore day and night, the “True Spirit of Christmas” who had recited John 3:16 without a hitch to an audience of over 2,000 now fluttered about the grass and flowers like a butterfly in rapture.
“I doubt we’ll get her to come with us back into the shuttle,” the queen said to king. “But we can always settle here, if our host allows us. What do you think, Art? Is this time period so bad as the one we left? As for the others, they won’t see the situation with the same eyes as ours, and they’ll probably move to some other star system, rather than start over here with us. It just isn’t advanced enough for most people--and we might have to resign ourselves to living with just whose on those from this mission.”
The population of his kingdom now shrunk to one quarter of its former size, Arthur II gave her a horrified look. Then his shoulders slumped. “I suppose you’re right. I can’t very well force 22nd Century people to step down to these conditions--”
Arthur II’s upper lip regained former stiffness fortunately as the reality of the new “conditions” set in, and Owain assigned them all to horse transport and then led them across the hills and little plains into the outskirts of Viroconium. From the half-civilized countryside, with its thatched huts, wooden stockades, and muddy lanes through forest and fen to a gleaming, clean, well-run city of marble avenues, thriving shops, luxurious baths, noble churches, well-stocked libraries, an amphitheater, and--he couldn’t take it all in. The contrast was enough to give anyone not prepared for it a massive dose of culture shock.
News had already reached their destination by courier, and crowds gathered all along the main route in, cheering Owain and his men and marveling at the duck-talking Saxon king they had heard was coming with his “duck-people.” After a long march, the king drew up before the palace, and they dismounted. Very sore and stiff, Arthur II had to be helped before he could get down to the ground.
His wife, though no Windsor-Guelf from Hanover, wasn’t at all disoriented by the sudden switch from Dark Age to Advanced Roman and hopped down nimbly as a page boy, and seemed to enjoy every aspect of the highly urbanized provincial capital around her. She hurried over to Arthur II, now famous locally as “The Duck King,” just as their own ruler was famed as “Bear -Bear.”
“I had no idea these Romans of early Britain built cities so nicely--they left so many old, crumbling ruins, I supposed that was the way their cities always looked. None of that horrid ferro-cellulose for them! Why, this stone and marble and brick looks utterly new and liable to last for hundreds of years!”
Indeed, everything did look spanking new and beautifully designed. Arthur I, however much he was being ogled and compared to a duck, was not a man to stand about gawking at familiar scenes, and he continued directly into the palace hall, throwing down his helmet and cape to palace attendants, and went to a big, reserved chair at the head of the hall and seated himself. Counselors and city officials hurried to the hall in chariots, presenting various news and the first of petitions. Spies, enjoying top clearance to His Majesty, gained his ear, and he soon sent them back to the field.
Watching the proceedings from the sidelines, Arthur II was learning quickly. His wife kept prodding him unmercifully, however, pointing out whatever she thought he might have missed. “I do love the flower arrangements!” she said, indicating the huge silver urns set in niches along the walls that were filled with blue and purplish hydrangeas, pale pink roses, and white lilies. “They know just what colors will agree. That’s the Roman genius for order. But, look, the variety and imaginativeness in the selection of blooms, and that wonderful mossy limb added for an unusual touch to each arrangement! If that isn’t classic Celtic, what would it be?”
The consular hall was in perfect taste, even Arthur II could see, who hadn’t much of an eye for such things as floral arrangements, as his wife had often reminded him. But all he wanted now was his old briar, a little Bonnie Prince Charlie, and a chair in his library in Balmoral, and he would have been happy. But there was, he realized with a jolting sensation, no Balmoral, not the one he knew, at any rate! And there wouldn’t be for hundreds and hundreds of years.
With court officials in sophisticated Roman togas and powerful Welsh magnates in wonderfully colored attire, the citizens of Powys and Gwynedd thronged into the hall to greet their king and champion. Apparently, he had returned after a successful campaign of some kind, Arthur II realized from the way the king was being congratulated.
“What a respected and beloved man he is, even in that outlandish costume!” Arthur II observed. “His subjects do not cringe and beg in a servile fashion, as they would before a tyrant. And he takes care to treat all with dignity and--what is it? It must be Celtic bonding--or something like that! They all seem to be one big family here, not acting at all reserved as we would in a public occasion.”
Not quite knowing how to take the friendly, jostling camaraderie and “familiarity” with which the people all greeted Bear-Bear the king, Arthur II the Duck held himself aloof until the king motioned for him to come forward to receive the people’s well-wishes. The queen on his arm, still wearing her Vita Sackville-West hat and veil, her trowel stowed in her green belt like a ceremonial sword, the king proceeded through the crowd, which parted respectfully for them as Duck King and Duck Queen made their way to the front.
The king stood, extending his scepter, which was a long staff inlaid with gold and silver in an intricate Celtic design. “We bid a merry and joyous welcome and extend a hand of eternal friendship and succor to the Duck King who has come to make alliance with us!”
This news, that the enemy was actually going to join forces with them, took the congregation by surprise, but they recovered quickly, and a thunderous cheering and stomping of feet filled the hall. What possible service a duck-speaking king could render their army failed to gain anyone’s attention in the general celebration. Truly, in a land that would be called “Merrie England,” the people most inclined to merriment were the Celts--and particularly the Celts favored by the blessed rule of the good Arthur of Powys and Gwynedd’s royal line!
Her face flushing beneath her veil, Queen Astrid accepted the tribute which came to “Her Royal Duck Highness” along with quite a few thrown flowers, and Arthur II smiled gamely as they faced the crowd.
“How utterly unreserved and Irish they all act!” the queen observed behind her hand to the king. “But then they are the original Britons, are they not, and can act however they please?” “We shall feast and then make a great treaty, and there will be friendship and peace forever between us!” continued the lord of Powys and Gwynedd. “A treaty--where did he get that idea?’ the queen whispered to Arthur II, who swallowed and tried not to show his mortification. “How did you let him think that?” “Speech, O King of the Duck People!” the people cried, overjoyed at the news. They were war-weary, and had seen nothing but unending warfare ahead for their country, and now this wonderful news of so strange a king and court as these visitors applying for alliance--it thrilled the Celtic heart, which until now had been burdened with the grim travail of almost ceaseless warfare! The wildness in the hall increased, as the glad news spread from the palace and engulfed the city. Cheering could be heard coming from all quarters, and the sound of many thousands of feet and--beyond everything else--laughter, the kind that heals and restores and brings everything back into balance.
“We shall be mobbed and trampled,” thought Arthur II dismally. “ Now we are really in for it. And all because the king mistook my innocent little “duck box” translator!”
“Hear the mighty Duck!” the Grand Marshal of the Royal Guard cried to the people. The lictors thumped their standards, and the people gradually subsided, even while more hundreds poured in, creating a press of massed bodies that pushed Arthur II and Astrid practically into the king’s lap.
Suddenly, the king raised his scepter high, and all fell deathly silent.
Every eye turned to Arthur II, and he immediately felt as though he might drop through the marble floor. Had he heard right? Were they calling him a Duck?
“Ah--ah--” he quacked, via the box, uncertainly.
“Art!” his wife hissed. “It’s just a silly way these Celts have in addressing visitors--so don’t be put out. Get hold of yourself and just tell them you are happy to be here, and you trust they will be friends with us. And don’t you dare say a thing more than that!” With a violent effort, Arthur II did get hold of himself. He had never faced so hopeful, expectant, and joyous a people as these of ancient Roman Britain. Celts all, despite the Roman trappings, they were marvelous in vitality, and smelled fresh and good too--evidently they all bathed regularly with soap and water and used the baths the town was known for! That they had called him a duck could be forgiven, since they treated him well in all other respects.
In the moment he had to gather his thoughts, it was time enough for many past thoughts to rush together, creating enough confusion so that he had to say what was on his heart instead. Forced to speak in so humble a fashion as quacking, his heart spoke, breaking through the chaos of his mind.
Looking directly into faces and eyes, he began speaking, at first not loud enough to be heard, but gathering steam as powerful feelings and convictions he didn’t know were in him at last found entrance and burst through despite his wife’s warnings. Even though the quacking first excited great merriment, the sober thoughts soon penetrated enough to bring the laughter down to levels where he could be heard throughout the hall.
“People of Britain, at first I resented and hated the tyrant who kidnapped and exiled me and my family in a place far from here, but we have been released by God’s almighty hand, and there is a task set before me, a task greater than any a hundred kings before me have faced. But having suffered long exile with my wife and family and people, I have come to thank my enemy for teaching me what you people paid so dearly, that Britain might remain free. It has been my people who stole your country and freedom, and so I acknowledge my guilt, and ask your forgiveness, with all my heart’s sincerity!”
This was not, of course, what the Viroconii had come to hear when told there was a Duck King at the court visiting their own beloved Bear-Bear. As the speech was translated via Wotoo’s black box, the crowd, now hushed, began to moved about uncomfortably.
The queen, darting Arthur II a glance that could kill, felt like an utter fool. What had he said? Had he really said what his ears just told him, and was being repeated on Wotoo’s translator?
Arthur II, thinking over the shocks of the day, thought he was mad, and all this had to be a dream, yet the senses told him it was real. Reminding himself that he, a 22nd Century Briton, could not really be standing in a 5th Century Roman city in ancient Britain squawking like a barnyard duck, he decided that whatever he had said, it couldn’t be binding. Late, with the time warp smoothed out and returned to library on the Excalibur II, he could recant at his leisure.!
As soon as Wotoo’s box had finished, more words burst out through Arthur II’s lips! He himself could scarcely believe he was saying such things, as his ears told him he was saying. Was that his heart speaking? Why couldn’t he control it? he wondered.