In this short story taken from Brecon Beacons Myths & Legends (Graffeg), Horatio Clare presents a retelling of the sleeping hero tale of Arthurian legend through the eyes of Gaheris, King Arthur’s nephew.
I was the youngest and to be honest my uncle is a pretty intimidating guy, so I used to stand at the back. I didn’t listen sometimes, just copied what everyone else did. They’re decisive people, the other guys. My uncle lays out the plan, quick chat, and off they go. Someone would tell me what to do. I guess I used to miss the significance of some of the briefings. And I skipped a few. Like the ones that went on forever about the you-know-what. Suddenly – action! Everyone comes crashing out, they’re like, “Hey, Gaheris, you were in there, right? You heard all that?” I’m like, “Yeah?” So they’re like, “Well come on then! Saddle up, best horse, best armour, best swords, let us pray and let’s get going.”
Whenever I was stuck I asked Bors. Bors is brilliant. You know the one about him and the twelve virgin witches or whatever? He rescued them, killed the guy who was torturing them or whatever, and then they said he had to sleep with them. He’s like, “I don’t think so, I’m a knight, not into that,” and so they go, “If you don’t make love with us we’re going to jump off this tower,” and he says, “Don’t threaten me, and by the way don’t jump off anything.” But they insist if he doesn’t do the deed with all twelve of them, or one of them at least, they are definitely going to jump. And so Bors says, “Well that’s up to you.” So they did. All twelve of them jumped! They were virgin witches, but really. So everyone was just running around looking for their best shields and praying like it was Christmas and I found Bors and asked him–“What’s up man?” And Bors was like, “Jesus, Gaheris, we’re going to find the Cup of Christ!”
And you know how that turned out. We all nearly died, some of us did die, and we found the blessed thing, Bors and Galahad and Percival did anyway. It’s in a bank in Hereford at the moment, not that anyone cares about cups anymore. Anyway, this time was like that – lots of meetings, the big man looking very serious, everyone looking very serious, I guess I drifted off, and when I tuned back in everyone was looking – just – stunned. As soon as I could I found Bors. “Bors! Bors! What’s the deal?” He puts his arm arm around my shoulder and he says, “Oh, Garry, it’s the big one.” “What, bigger than the Grail?” And he looks so sad.
“We’ve got to take a break.”
“How long for?”
“No one knows, could be a thousand years.”
“Great! We’re retiring? We’re done, no more fighting? No quests?”
And he said, “Not quite. We’ve got to wait, all of us together, until great danger threatens the Isles of Britain, and then we’ll awake.”
“We’re going to sleep?”
And he says, “Well, there’s this cave. In Wales…”
It was the strangest journey. Everywhere we went, the whole way, everyone came out to see us – food, presents, blessings, it was amazing. Women, kids, really old people, all the men from farmers to barons, they came out and they bowed or knelt for the big man, and they prayed for us and cheered. They say a lot of stuff about the big man but when you look at what he did, and what we did, I guess – it was something. The Isles of Britain united and peaceful, under a great leader. You foreswore greed and lies, devoted yourself to service, did the job with a smile. Everybody was fine. Easy. We discussed it and we reckoned that if we had to sleep in a cave for the rest of time, if that was the last mission, it was worth it for the people of the British Isles. Anyhow, I like sleeping. I have great dreams. Bors was a bit depressed. That guy lives for action. I tried to cheer him up. I said, “Bors, we’re going to have the best sleep ever. And with the stuff you’ve done you’re going to have the best dreams. Do you a deal – when we wake up I’ll tell you all of them, all the weird stuff, and you have to tell me yours.” He said, “Garry, if we get out of this one we’ll be going into the biggest fight in history, but I’ll be sure to tell you the best bits if there’s time.”
So it was a great trip but by the time we got within sight of Craig y Ddinas, at the head of the Vale of Neath, everyone was very quiet. Just the horses stamping in the frost and shaking their manes, and there’s the Number One Hippy, Old Merlo, and there’s the cave. Merlo said he would look after the horses. We went in. It was dry at least. We all shook hands, hugged each other, Arthur said, “Men, you’ve been brilliant. You deserve a rest. You’re the best ever. The stuff you’ve done they’ll still be talking about a thousand years from now. And if we have to get up and sort things out again – well, I hope we don’t, but if we do it will be worth it to ride out with you again. God rest you, and may flights of angels watch over you in your peace.” Some of us were pretty emotional. We all hugged and then we picked our spots and lay down. It was weird. I was frightened. I thought, wait, this is like – dying or something, and I have this sort of twitch? I go for my sword when I get scared, it’s automatic, but Bors was right there and he put his hand on my arm and he smiled at me and he said, “Don’t worry, Gaheris. We can do this, right?”
I don’t know what I’d have done if it hadn’t been for Bors. And then Merlo stepped up and said, “Look, don’t anyone worry about this, it’s the sweetest sleep, the Sleep of the Just. You just think calm thoughts, I’ll chant a bit and you’re dreaming. OK? And if – when – great danger comes, you’ll all wake up, you’ll feel great, I’ll be here, tell you what’s going on and we’ll take it from there. OK? Alright. Calm thoughts now. Good night everyone, and God bless you.” Someone made a joke then about what Gawain would be thinking about, and he said, “Well it’s not Green Men, I can promise you that!” and someone made a crack about Launcelot and who he would be thinking about, and my uncle, and then everyone was dying laughing and it took Merlo a minute to restore order, and we all relaxed, and then it went quiet. Really quiet.
The thing is – that’s when it happened. No twitch, nothing – just this overwhelming feeling of certainty, like when I killed the dragons – just, like, do it now. I jumped up and ran for it. It wasn’t just dying a virgin, sleeping a virgin, same difference. It was – life! I was the youngest! Why did I have to be there? Everyone else was just chilling, thinking about woods or banquets or their favourite horse or whatever and I was thinking about being a knight, and not having – well, not getting to the marrying the lady stage, I mean, lots of rescuing maidens but still a maiden myself, in that way, and this half-Irish maiden I knew, wishing she was there, and then I was really wishing she was there. It was too soon to go to bed without ever having been to bed with anyone. And they woke up – Bors did, and one or two others. We had a row. I was really like – get out of my way man, I’m way too young for this, I don’t want to go to sleep or die or whatever it is, I want to have my life, I’ve never even really kissed anyone, don’t try stopping me.
So then there was a fight. We weren’t really trying to hurt each other, it was all with the flat of the blades, but the guys – you know, they really take everything my uncle says so seriously, so – I mean, I went berserk, shouting let me go, let me go, but they didn’t, about four of them sat on me. Merlo looked a bit worried, and he had to do the spell again, and that was it, everyone must have fallen asleep, and I was out of it too. Next thing I know I’m wide awake. And there’s this guy, this weird, tall, skinny guy in bizarre clothes, and he’s got a pot of gold – we always take plenty of cash on campaigns, so there was loads of it lying about. He looked terrified. I could see straight away this was nothing to do with the great danger–everyone else was still asleep and this guy was obviously a thief. So I drew my sword and I was about to split his gizzard when he took off. No way could I catch him without a horse. You ever tried running in armour? Didn’t know what to do then. Couldn’t leave the guys. Didn’t want to go wandering about without them. Really, really wanted to have a look around though. It must have been a long time since we dropped off, judging by the thief. A whole mad different world out there! Imagine! People in bizarre clothes. What would the women and maidens look like?
So I crept up to the mouth of the cave and there was the stone the Number One Hippy had rolled across it and there was a gap where the thief had got in and out and I edged through, just my head and shoulders. First damn thing I saw was a dragon. Way high up, flying over dead straight, rumbling, leaving two streaks of smoke behind him in a line. There were other streaks up there too – must be a lot of dragons. But they were very high so I guess there was some agreement, dragons stick to the sky. Because the farms looked fine, none of them pillaged or on fire, and the fields had got big – huge! – so they must be doing well. A lot of the forest had gone. That was weird. Chopped down a long time ago by the look of it and the stumps dug out. The farms were like small castles, all in stone, and the tracks between them wide, and there were roads which had been paved black, and poles with ropes on top of them linking the farms like rigging on a ship, and lots of cattle and some horses, and loads of sheep. And I looked at it all and thought, yeah, it is a peaceful land, prosperous and quiet. It all came true. He did it! We did it. There is peace and no great danger, and so I went back in and rolled the stone back into place. It took me ages to get back to sleep.
Win a copy of Brecon Beacons Myths & Legends by Horatio Clare
The wonderful folks over at Graffeg have offered a copy of Horatio’s charming book for one lucky #FolkloreThursday newsletter subscriber this month!
‘Horatio Clare re-tells ten myths and legends of Wales’ famous Brecon Beacons, including Arthur and his Slumbering Knights, the White Lady of Tretower Court and the gory tale of Black Vaughan. These brilliantly written short stories bring to life the extensive history and supernatural mystery that resides in these beautiful hills. Each story is illustrated by Jane Matthews, including a simple map of the area covered.’
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The book can be purchased here.