Friday, 22 March 2013

Bytepals by Sue Bursztynski


First.published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #8, edited by Sally Beasley

To: Subject: Visit.

I keep telling you, Jean-Marc, vampires simply aren’t allowed into this country, all right?
Yes, I know, I know, werewolves are! But we’ve had them here since the convict era, when they got transported, mostly for poaching (what else?), so it’s a bit late to keep them out now. So Immigration just ask them to have rabies shots before they get here and spend a few weeks in quarantine.
Anyway, werewolves don’t leap at you out of the night, do they? They’re pretty lawabiding, mostly, they only hunt professionally, clearing up feral animals in the bush. Okay, it’s a bit unnerving to see a pack of wolves running down the city streets on a Saturday night, but hey, they’re entitled to go out partying like the rest of us. The only facilities they need are changing-booths and lockers, which are easy enough to supply at the railway stations.
Vampires are another matter. I hate to tell you this, Jean-Marc, but we have no private blood-banks here, only Red Cross and no one is going to donate blood for perfectly healthy adults who can’t give up their blood-drinking habit.
My uncle works for Immigration and I asked him about all this. He says the real problem is not so much the born vampires like you, but the undead, like your dad, who have to carry around boxes of dirt full of who knows what creepy-crawlies and bacteria we don’t have here. (Do they really have to do that? It must be yukky lying around all day in a pile of dirt. Wouldn’t something symbolic do?) And they won’t stop attacking people. If we let one lot of vampires in, the undead would be launching court cases for discrimination - it’s just too complicated, he says.
This is my uncle, Jean-Marc - you know **I’d** love to meet you! Lotsa Luv, Sarah.

To: Subject: travel

Hi Jean -Marc,

Today I went to get some travel brochures. The lady at the travel agency looked at me as if I was a loony when I asked for stuff about Armorique. “Are you kidding? Nobody goes there from here! The place is crawling with vampires!” I told her I knew, that I was ‘ corresponding with one and that was why I wanted to go.
I wish you could have seen her face.
She said, “You’d have to go through France to get there. No planes across the border either, what with the magic gathered there they have a tendency to turn into birds. Trains and buses are okay. But I can only get you as far as France, they have travel agents there to arrange the rest of it.”
I went to the library and found a book about the history of Armorique, with pictures - wow! What a gorgeous place! No big logging companies tearing the forests down, hardly any pollution...
Is it true you still have unicorns there? Lotsa Luv, Sarah.

To: Subject: pic. Thanks for the attachment with the photo of yourself and the unicorn. Uh - it isn’t
the way I imagined. More like a little kid’s pony with a horn, but kind of sweet. You’re pretty nice-looking, too. I’d have thought you’d be a bit paler, though, or is that only when you can’t get blood?
Lotsa Luv, Sarah.
PS. What a pity you can’t send yourself as an attachment. ;-) *giggle*. I’d love to show you around, even if it was just one evening.

To: Subject: chat-rooms

Hi Krystal. Nice to hear you have a few friends in your chat-room. No, I don’t do that any
more. Mum won’t let me. Anyway, I’ve got lots of “bytepals” (what else do you call someone you write to by e-mail?) and it’s still pretty good to write a note and get a message. I did belong to a computer-freaks mailing-list for a while, you know me and computers, but I just don’t have time to go through all those messages this year, what with Year 12 and everything. I’m not even writing computer programs this year, just working at the supermarket.
I did collect one correspondent before I dropped out of the chat-room. When Mum said I had to stop it, Jean-Marc and I kept in touch by regular e-mail. Have I told you about him?
Yes, I think I have. You know, the vampire in Armorique? Well, if we agree on a set time to write to each other, we can sit on the computer at the same time and it’s almost like a chatroom. Only we have to time it just right. Depends when it’s night over there; they CAN go out by day, if they slather themselves with sunscreen and bundle up, but they have to sleep some time, like everyone else, and it’s less hassle to do it by day.
I got a photo of him the other day. Gods, he’s gorgeous! Wild, dark curls, olive skin, big black eyes, he looks like something off a Roman fresco. (Before you ask, no, he isn’t a Roman! He’s only our age, though his parents are a few centuries old; it’s only been in the last century that the vampires worked out how to reproduce).
I’m saving up to go there, not spending anything from my after-school job. Did you know the hotels have garlic-impregnated paint on the doors and window-sills?
Gotta go now, I have a pile of homework a kilometre high! Lotsa Luv, Sarah.
To: Subject: New System Hi Jean-Marc! That’s great about your Dad working out a way of travelling without the box of
dirt. I don’t know how the Immigration Department would feel about sealed bags of soil carried in your clothes, but you can ask. I read this story once about a vampire who used to carry the soil in his shoes, by some writer called Chelsea Quinn Yarbro. The vampire was the good guy in the story. I think the Customs lot would call it smuggling, myself, so check it out before your Dad goes running for a passport. I mean, you can still get germs from a small packet of soil, right?
It’ll be useful if he wants to travel around Europe, anyway.
What do your parents do for - uh, a living? Just wondering. I mean, you have to have money, don’t you? I bet you don’t live in a castle with a servant called Igor < grin > or rely on lightning for your electricity. And you do have a computer and an e-mail account and the Internet...
Giggle! Can you really turn into a bat? Lotsa Luv, Sarah.

To: Subject: Batman, da-da-da-da...

You mean you actually DO live in a castle? Even one where you have to raise
money by letting tourists visit twice a week? I was just joking, but I guess your parents have been around for long enough to save the money to buy it...or did they BUILD it? I suppose vampire nobles would last longer than peasant vampires, they could hide out and there’d be no mobs with flaming torches. Just as well they weren’t over the border in France during the Revolution, eh? CAN turn into a bat. I was joking about that too. How would you DO it? A big human into a small bat - wouldn’t you be a really HEAVY bat? Can you turn into anything else or are you just a sort of were-bat? Come to think of it <grin> can you change while dressed or do you have to strip? It’d cast a whole new light on all those old vampire movies, huh?
Lotsa Luv, Sarah.

To: Subject: nudity

Oh. You DO have to strip. Wow! Sarah.

To: Subject: your bytepal Ooh, that guy in your chat-room sounds gorgeous! Why don’t you write to him
properly? Does he live here? Maybe you can even meet. I wish Mum would be reasonable, but she won’t. She says it’s a waste of time and money and you never know who’s lurking on the other side of the line - as if they can get at you from the other end of the computer! I think she just reads the tabloid newspapers too much. Talk about paranoid.
Still, I have to admit, people do talk a lot of bullshit on those lines. My brother does. He says it’s a great way to pick up girls. He tells them he’s a tall, tanned surfer type and arranges a date. Of course, it never works out, because he’s short and dumpy and has pimples, and they usually turn out to be pretty plain too, and personality never seems to count. But he keeps doing it (at uni, of course, he can get away with it there). Maybe the lies are half the fun of it, eh? You can pretend you’re anything or anyone.
Go on, ask your friend - I dare you! Lotsa Luv, Sarah.

To: Subject: Re-arrangement

Hi, Jean-Marc.Um...that’s really interesting about your re-arranging your body,
but STILL don’t see where the rest of you goes, unless you sort of compact yourself when you change (hey, my subject is computers, not biology!). Would it be like teleporting?
But if it was, you should be able to wear your clothes and you said you can’t do that <giggle!>.
Magic is a weird thing, isn’t it? We don’t have much of it here, or at least, we can’t get at it. Not the Europeans, I mean. There’s magic in the land, all right, like oil or gold or something, but only the Aborigines know how to unlock it, with their rituals and dances and stuff, and they can’t share that, because it’s all secret business. Mind you, I’m not sure even they use it much, for whatever reason, or my ancestors would have been in BIG TROUBLE when they invaded. A bit of it leaks out, which helps the werewolves keep up the Changes, but not much more than that.
So we concentrate on science here. I always assumed you couldn’t really have both. I mean, why bother to invent the wheel if you’ve got other ways to float your crops to market? So you wouldn’t advance very far, right? But then, there were all
those perfectly good civilisations in South America that never bothered with the wheel.
Anyway, if you CAN re-organise your body, whether it’s magic or science, you’d have a set of rules to follow, wouldn’t you? So why only bats, huh? Where’s the logic?
Lotsa Luv, Sarah.

To: Subject: Jean-Marc’s visit

Guess what! Jean-Marc is coming here to visit! He worked out a way to sneak
in and sneak out again. I asked him if it was a teleport or if he was going to fly all the way over, but he just sent me a winking smilie and told me to stand by at my computer on Saturday night, and open my e-mail for instructions. He also asked me if I could supply him with clothes for the evening, so I think he’s going to come as a bat, but I can’t see how, because how can he fly all the way over from Europe? Maybe he’s going to hitch a ride in a plane or something.
I told him I’d take him out to the city to meet my friends and go to a couple of games places (WHY aren’t I old enough to get a keycard and go to nightclubs?), but he’s NOT to bite anyone while he’s here. I insisted on that and he promised. It’s not as if they HAVE to have it every single night, or anything.
I’m SO excited, Krystal. Pity you’re not living in Melbourne, I’d love to have you come along.
Nice to hear you finally started corresponding properly with that guy you mentioned. Yes, .ar is the domain name for Armorique, so it looks as if you’ve got an Armoriquan “bytepal” too. Say hullo for me. I wonder if he knows Jean-Marc, we were all in the same chat-room. Talk to you later.
Lotsa Luv, Sarah. :

To: Subject: the date!

 Krystal, it was GREAT! He’s so good-looking and funny and charming. Everyone
liked him. He kept his promise, too, no biting, and it turned out he could eat normal food as well, though he digests it better with blood. So while we were having ice cream, he ordered chops, practically raw, oozing blood, talk about super-rare (you should have seen the waitress’s face!)
I shouted him, of course. He couldn’t bring money with him, the way he arrived. He couldn’t even bring his clothes - but I’ve told you that.
So - how DID he arrive? <g>
I sat in my room. Mum and Dad were at the pictures, seeing some science fiction film, and I told them my friends from school would be around a bit late, for some gig we were going to.
I borrowed some of my brother’s clothes and laid them out on a chair. Craig is living at uni, but he’s left behind some of his stuff for when he visits.

At 8.00 p.m., I turned on the computer and went to my e-mail and there was a message from Jean-Marc, telling me to download the attachment and turn my back for a minute, because he got embarrassed dressing in front of people.
I’d already opened my window in case a bat came flying in, but I did what he said and there was this weird humming noise from the computer while the download happened. I waited, and then there was a rustling noise and breathing, and he said, “You can turn around now,” in this gorgeous French accent. He speaks fluent English, by the way, his parents sent him to boarding school in England for a few years, a special one for vampire kids, but the accent is still there.
So I turned around and there he was, in Craig’s pants and jumper - they were yucky when Craig wore them, but Jean-Marc made them look like this season’s big fashion statement.
I grinned like an idiot and giggled a bit, I think, and offered him some coffee and he made me laugh by saying, “As long as there’s no garlic powder in it.”
About 8.30, my friends arrived and we all went out. There was a pub gig we could go to, because it was in a separate room, upstairs, away from the bar. And there I was, with the best-looking boy in the room.
Afterwards, we went to a rollerblading rink, Jean-Marc had never done it before, but he picked it right up, and then we went for coffee and ice cream, that’s when he had the chops.
We’d all just about run out of money by then (especially me, I’d been paying for him, I saved two weeks of pay from my after-school job, but it was worth it) and Greg and Rebecca dropped us off (Rebecca’s 18, the lucky sod, and her Mum and Dad gave her a bomb of a car for her birthday, but it works, which is all that counts.)
My Mum and Dad weren’t home yet, which was just as well, because there was no way I was going to explain Jean-Marc. I mean, it’d be bad enough taking him to my room – but him not coming out?
This time he let me watch while he took off Craig’s clothes and went back. Well, he had to, really, because I had to “send” him back as an e-mail attachment. He promised we’d do it again.
Isn’t it BRILLIANT? Lotsa Luv, Sarah.

To: Subject: Emergency!

 Krystal: You MUST read this carefully and pass it on to everyone on your list and get all of
them to do the same and then I want you all to stay off the Net for a week. By that time, I will have worked out an anti-viral program, which I can send you. Under NO circumstances download any attachment anyone sends you till you’ve used it, I don’t care if it’s your boyfriend or your sister or anyone. You’ll know mine is from me, I’ll say something no one else knows but you and me.

I guess I should have known what would happen. I was so happy to finally get a visit from Jean-Marc, it didn’t occur to me that I was giving the OTHERS a way to come here - the ones Immigration wouldn’t touch with a ten-foot pole.
The day after his visit, I got a short message saying he’d had a great time, but his Dad had seen him coming back - it was evening in Armorique by then and he’d just woken up and strolled in to check his own e-mail.
His father had actually been quite nice about it, though he said Jean-Marc should really have told him he was going across the world - what if the computer had crashed or the power gone off or someone else was using it before he got back? He’d be stuck in the phonelines for who knows how long!
So they had a nice chat and Jean-Marc went off to have a snooze, because after all, he had been out for hours.
Two days after that, I got a message with an attachment from Jean-Marc’s address, only it wasn’t Jean-Marc, it was his Dad, Robert, this naked middle-aged vampire standing on my bedroom floor asking for a sheet or something to cover up. He was very apologetic, said he’d been playing around and couldn’t resist trying out the system.
I didn’t scream, I just picked up my bed-spread and handed it to him, wondering how he’d got Jean-Marc’s password, but I suppose anyone good enough with computers could have cracked that quickly enough, especially if he knew his son well enough. I don’t think Jean. Marc gave it to him. At least, I hope he didn’t. He must know what that would mean. I know he’s a vampire and everything, so he might not see why there was a problem, but he knows how I feel and he’s always been straight with me.
Robert went right back to Armorique after we’d chatted for a while. I don’t think he’ll be back, at least not through my computer; I’m wise to him and it was just a try-out anyway.
I can’t even let Jean-Marc do it again, not even if he changes his password.
But I bet Jean-Marc has an address-book FULL of friends and all of THEM have their own lists and so on. And some of my friends from school have been acting funny, especially the ones who use chat-rooms. Has Robert been through my address list, I wonder? I bet he has vampire friends who want to visit.
Think about it, Krystal. The rules of vampiredom haven’t changed a whole lot. You still have to invite them in - and what could be more of an invitation than downloading them from the Internet? Even if they don’t come out right away, they can spread through your computer like a virus, lurk there till you do something in particular and come out. They’re not in a hurry, they have centuries to live.
So many of my friends are Net and chat-room junkies. Their parents can’t get them out of their rooms at night or on the weekends. They sit in darkened rooms in front of the screen and all it takes is one bite and they can be hypnotised into co-operating, not that some of them need much hypnotising!
Let’s face it, Krystal: with some of that bunch, who’d notice the difference?
Of course, the undead would have to go back because of the soil thing - thank heaven they can’t bring anything with them! - but they don’t have to stay long, just long enough for a quick snack or two and back home to Europe for a nap till their next
hunting-trip and no one on this side of the world able to come after them. And if one route is shut off, there’s always more computers and more idiot kids.
The younger ones, the born vampires, don’t have to go back. All they need is some clothes and they can blend in with the crowds here. Of course, they might not be able to do the bat thing here, there’s so little magic available, but it’s no big loss. Armorique is a small country, they must be sick of the same old diet.
I’ve got an idea for an anti-viral program that might work, just for them. After all, if they’re in the computers, they have to follow the same rules as any other virus, don’t they? At least till they come out. Even as BATS, they have to follow bat rules.
Oh, I wish I hadn’t given Jean-Marc THAT idea, but never mind, can’t be helped now.
For cyber-vampires, I’m designing a cyber-stake. I hope. Sarah.

To: Subject: Fearless virus-killer

 Dear Krystal, Here it is, download it. Sign by which you can trust me: remember the day I visited
you in Sydney and we went to that jeans shop with the cute guy at the counter and I dared you to chat him up? And you did!
I hope you did what I asked. You didn’t reply to my last e-mail, but with Internet- based accounts messages sometimes bounce around and you never know whether they’ve got to the other end, unless they come back. I’ve enclosed a copy of my earlier message just in case (see below) and I’m PRAYING it’s in time.
It worked for me, anyway. I THINK I got Jean-Marc’s Uncle Charles. He may still be lurking in my computer. I don’t like that at all, but I’ll get Mum to give it a good going-over to clear anything I can’t find myself.
PLEASE let me know if it helped, okay? Luv, Sarah.

To: Subject: Anxiously awaiting your reply.

Krystal? I rang your place last night, but kept getting an engaged signal. Mum doesn’t know I’m doing this and I can’t tell her the truth, so would you PLEASE ring me? Or snailmail me, even?
Lotsa Luv, Sarah.


 When I wrote this, some years ago, the Internet was fairly new, at least to me, I don't think Facebook was even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg's eye. Kids at my school were all obsessed with chatrooms. And I looked at them, in a dark room off the library, typing away at the two Internet computers we had and thought that if a vampire leapt out of the computer and bit them, nobody would ever know the difference. The idea for the title - in some ways for the story itself - came from an email from my friend the late Jan Howard Finder, who used the term for communicating by email rather than by post, i.e. instead of "pen pal".

Choices By Sue Bursztynski


First published in Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine #12, edited by Edwina Harvey

Merlin used to say we live by the choices we’ve made.

As far as I’m concerned, we have all lived by a choice he made decades ago.

In a way, Camelot fell from the moment he made the choice to help Uther lie with another man’s wife; Ygerna’s daughters never forgave him or his son for their father’s death. So two of them worked to destroy Arthur’s kingdom, Morgana with magic and Morgause with her body, only Elaine staying out of the quarrel.  None of it would have happened if Merlin had waited a day, till Ygerna’s husband had been killed in battle. Perhaps then Arthur’s half-sisters wouldn’t have resented him as much.

“ But there would have been no Arthur," Merlin argued when I said as much. He was packing his most treasured goods and a few clothes to take with him into retirement. “You know that, Nimue.  No Arthur and no Camelot and by now we would have been over-run by the Sea Wolves. It may still happen, but then I was young enough to believe I could fix it.”
“And now, we must face the consequences and you’re running away,” I said bitterly, thrusting a scroll of Greek plays at him. If I’d been less angry I would have handled it more reverently. He had taught me Greek with the help of that book.

Merlin took the scroll and tucked it into his bag.

“I’m retiring,” he corrected me. “You’re court wizard now, I’ve taught you all I know, and I’m entitled to a rest. Nimue, I can’t bear to stay for the end. I can’t! It’s not only Mordred. I tried to warn Arthur about Guinevere. He wouldn’t listen. So I begged him to go fetch his own bride, at least, instead of sending that slimy Gaul, but at the last minute there was a raid up the coast, so she had four days to fall for Lancelot. And that stupid Grail quest! I meant it to take the edge off the men’s boredom and all it did was build on old quarrels. But I have done what I can to prevent disaster and now I’m going to my cave in Cornwall to stay. If anyone can change things, it’s you. Do it!"
He slung the bag over his shoulder and picked up his staff.

“You aren’t saying goodbye to Arthur?"

He shook his head. “If I told him I’m going, he’d drag out of me why.”

He embraced me and left.

*        *        *
A man’s lust may seem a small thing, but with it, Uther Pendragon destroyed his son’s kingdom before Arthur was conceived.

What if I could make one small change?  I wondered as I made my way home.

“You brood too much," said my husband, Pelleas, that night. We were preparing for bed. Pelleas is a knight, with a fighter’s simple way of looking at things. He'd never liked Merlin, who was too subtle for him. "If I had my way, someone would have killed Mordred and Lancelot during the Grail quest. A lot of scores were settled back then."

“It wasn’t that simple," I protested, shaking my hair out. Pelleas took up my comb, grinning, and set to work. "Mordred's kin up north wouldn’t have taken it like lambs and Gawain is his half-brother. Gawain isn’t fond of his youngest brother, but kin is kin in Orkney and the man has a temper on him. And Lancelot's family in Gaul have been our allies. Besides, Arthur doesn’t know."

Pelleas snorted."Then he's the only one who doesn't. More likely, he doesn't dare know.”
That was true; there were some nasty penalties for a Queen who betrayed her husband. It wasn’t merely adultery, it was treason. And a treasonous Queen was burned. Arthur wouldn’t want that.

I would cheerfully have let Guinevere pay the penalty if I’d thought it would stem the tide about to roll over us, but at this stage it would merely bring it on more quickly.

Pelleas finished untangling the snarls in my hair, brought by the wind of my ride from Camelot, then carried me to the bed and for a while, I forgot the results of other people’s choices.

But Merlin had protected the kingdom and now that was my job. I thought about it and then went to find Morgana.

  It had been years since she had stayed in one place, with good reason. When you spend your days plotting against your brother and king, you don’t remain somewhere you can be found easily. Actually, Arthur wasn’t searching too hard; he felt guilt for what his father had done to her family and couldn’t bring himself to harm his own sister.

But she had no one close now; it gave her freedom of a sort and she used it to retreat further into the world of magic, which was all she had left now.

No one else might know where she was, but I did. She was in Avalon, preparing for the end. When I say Avalon, I don’t mean Glastonbury. Avalon could be reached from there, though. The boatman I hired to take me across the water was confused by the fog that had suddenly risen, but the promised silver ensured he followed my instructions, turning just so in the mist.

We reached a beach he didn’t know and he helped me out. Morgana's boat would bring me back. I paid and left him there. A few minutes after leaving me, the fog would lift and he would find himself in familiar territory.

  I walked through apple orchards with an otherworldly glow about them and made my way to Morgana’s retreat, a modest house among the trees. She could have had a fairy palace if she’d wished, but it would have been illusion.

She was not pleased to see me and even less impressed at what I had to say.

“You want me to help save Camelot?"

"Come now, Morgana! If you’d really wanted to kill Arthur, you could have done it. Your heart was never in it."

She snorted. "I’d rather have changed the past and saved my father. I tried. All I did was create a world in which both my father and Uther died. With no Arthur, the Sea Wolves conquered.”  She shrugged. "Change one thread and you affect the pattern, yes! But the new pattern may not be the one you wanted."

“I must try."

"And at what point will you change it?"

I had thought about this already: “The night when Morgause lay with him. With no Mordred, at least half his troubles will be prevented.”

She handed me her shuttle, unwinding all but a small amount of thread.

"Try, then. With my blessing."

I took the shuttle and went out, to the orchard, where there was always blossom and fruit at the same time and I worked magic.

"Well, girl? Open your eyes!" a sharp female voice said in Greek.

I sighed. I had been too long with Merlin, with his admiration of the ancient world. He had been as much classical scholar as wizard. He had taught me from Greek scrolls; I knew as much about ancient engineering works as I did about magic.  I had read the Greek plays and learned about their gods. Who else would I conjure up but the Moirae, the Greek version of the Fates?
They sat among the trees, surrounded by baskets of unspun flax
The one who had spoken to me was spinning, smoothly and evenly, a long linen thread that flickered in all colours as I watched.  Clotho, then, spinner of the thread of life. A tapestry wove itself on a loom beside her sisters, but I couldn’t see what it was, only that it was bright at times, then dull, then bright again. The middle sister - Lachesis the measurer - took the end of the thread and measured it, but what happened then was blurred. The third sister snipped busily at the tapestry, which somehow stayed intact. Dread Atropos, whose shears finished us all sooner or later.

"My name is Nimue," I began, but Clotho interrupted.

"We know your name, child. I spun your thread, remember?"

"A good long one," Lachesis remarked, but Clotho shut her up.

"It's not good for mortals to know these things. What if she becomes overconfident and ruins some lives?"

"What will be, will be," Atropos remarked. "She must know that, so why does she try to unweave the tapestry?"

"Only a small part of it," I argued.

"Listen, girl, other humans have tried to undo the weaving and all that happened was that they hastened what they feared," Atropos said harshly. Snip. Snip. "Do you know the tale of Oedipus?" I nodded. "His parents thought they could cheat their fate. They threw out the child doomed to kill his father and marry his mother and he survived and did what they feared because he didn't know of his birth."

"He knew his doom," I said, "and he still chose to kill an old man in a fit of pique and then marry a woman old enough to be his mother. He was a fool." I stepped forward to look at the tapestry. If I looked sideways, I could just see... "But I know what has happened and what could have happened."

Lachesis laughed, mockingly, never lifting her eyes from her measuring rod. "Do you?"
"Camelot is doomed," Atropos said. "Very well, Lady. You may try, for all the good it will do."

"Where do you want to begin?" the Spinner asked.

"The night after the battle of the Eleven Kings."

"Go, then." Her distaff twirled...

And I was there, in the royal camp on the chilly night of Arthur’s first victory.
 When he had pulled that sword out of the stone, all the local kinglets who had hoped to become High King themselves were furious.

"We will not follow a beardless boy!" Lot of Lothian and Orkney, their leader, had snarled. He'd been a great bear of a man with four healthy sons he’d hoped would become Princes of Britain. Instead, he had died in the battle against Arthur and they eventually became Arthur’s loyal knights - Sir Gawain, Sir Gareth, Sir Gaheris and Sir Agravaine.

#But tonight Arthur was a very young man who had just fought his first battle, under the supervision of Leodegrance, one of the few chieftains who had stayed loyal This was the night when Morgause, Lot's widow, had come to ask mercy for her family and brought her boys along to create a good impression.

Arthur didn’t know, yet, that they were related, while she knew perfectly well. Oh, yes, she knew. If she had actually been trying for mercy, she could have told him and would have received it.   She wanted revenge. I had to stop her.

I wasn’t quite sure what I would do, but it seemed reasonable to find the main tent, which young Arthur would soon leave to meet Morgause. I set off, trying to keep to the shadows - and collided with a cloaked woman coming from a side street of tents.

She was carrying a lamp and seemed to be a servant. Clearly, she was nervous at walking on her own at night and she shrieked as we made contact, nearly splattering hot oil on my gown.

"Oh, I’m sorry, lady," she babbled. "I think I’ve lost my way."

"Where are you going?" I asked, suspecting.

"My mistress, the Queen of Lothian, has sent me to ask the king for an audience."

And I knew the kind of audience she had in mind!

The royal tent was clearly marked, I could see it from where we stood and so could she, if she hadn’t been lowering her eyes before someone obviously a lady.

"Ah. Well, the king is by the southern edge of the camp, inspecting the guard. I have just come from speaking with him."  There. Even if she did spot the tent, she would not go to it.

"Oh, lady, I don’t dare go there! The men are so - well, they think every woman is-”
There were tears in her eyes; clearly, she didn’t dare return to her mistress without something to report.

"Perhaps you can tell her what you've heard and ask for an escort," I suggested. That would give me time. Of course, Morgause wasn’t going to send anyone down to fetch Arthur from the camp perimeter. It was one thing to send a maid to guide him past an indulgently chuckling guard and quite another to bring him from among his officers

The maid was so pathetically grateful, I felt guilty.

I continued on towards the royal tent, wondering what I would do now. I had kept Morgause from him for tonight, at least, and tonight was when Mordred would have been conceived. Also, by tomorrow, he would learn who she was. But I dared not take a chance on her finding another way. He must be kept occupied.

Muttering a “don’t-notice-me” spell, I slipped past the guard. The tent was dark, but I spelled a soft glow. The dog Cabal woke suddenly, but did not bark. Sensing I meant no harm, he only made a puzzled whine.

That woke Arthur, who sat up suddenly, but didn’t call out.

Dear God, I thought. So young!  He was a little older than me in my own world, so I’d never seen him like this.

But he was not a warrior-king yet, just a boy staring admiringly, if a little warily, at a glamorous older woman. Even if you didn't know who he was, the vitality flowed from him and hit you. He was - glorious.

“Who are you? You got past the guard," he added. "I suppose I'll have to punish him in the morning. Did you come from Queen Morgause? She said she’d send for me."

And suddenly I knew what I had to do. It was not what I'd had in mind, nor something I was happy about, but how could I warn him? He’d been treated as a man for the first time in his life, in that battle.  And it was either Morgause or me. If it was her, his life was ruined. I took a deep breath and steeled my resolve.
"She - couldn't see you tonight," I said, walking over to his bed. "Will I do?"

"Merlin said there would be women," he remarked happily. "Um - won't the guard hear?"

“I’ll make sure he doesn’t.”  It was a simple spell.

The young scamp was utterly cocky, flattered at this interest from older women, quite convinced he was God’s gift to the female of the species – like every other youth of his age. I couldn’t help being moved. Clumsy though he had been, there was something strangely touching about him. In a different world, I could have loved him

Afterwards, he slept and I made sure he stayed asleep, though I whispered in his ear,
"Morgause is your sister. Take care!" He murmured in his sleep and reached for me, but I kissed his hands and slipped away.

I didn’t even have to leave the tent; I was back in the orchard, with the sisters spinning away. .

"Come and see the tapestry," Atropos invited.

I bent over the frame and this time I saw, almost as if I was there.

"This is your world," the Fate said. "Enjoy it."

And I watched as the bright threads flickered, became real...

There was no Mordred and after my warning, Arthur had bundled the Queen of Lothian off home. Family was family, so he was merciful, but not trusting. On advice from Merlin, he had kept her children at court, effectively as hostages, but that was the way of things at royal courts. The sons still became his devoted knights.

So far, so good, but...

Merlin came back to court with a young girl who looked hauntingly like the beautiful stranger who had seduced Arthur that night. Me. A few years later, the other Nimue became Arthur’s mistress and lost interest in magic. There was no one to protect him, then, when Morgause, sure that it was Merlin who had kept her from Arthur that night, lured him off and killed him, as the revenge she hadn’t been able to get earlier.

The other Nimue bore Arthur a son. That didn’t impress Guinevere. She had put up with Bors, his son by a previous lover called Lyonors, since his mother wasn’t ambitious, but now decided it was time to act against both women.
She had her rivals and their children poisoned. That got her into trouble with Arthur, who rightly suspected her of the murders. Lancelot saved her by acting as champion, but it soured the men’s friendship. Arthur had lost some of his popularity by taking Nimue in the first place and still more now.

Arthur disappeared, kidnapped by Morgana, and was forced to fight her lover, Accolon, whom she'd armed with Excalibur, giving Arthur a cheap imitation. That had happened in my own world and Arthur had killed Accolon anyway, but I had been able to pressure Morgana into releasing him afterwards; in this world, she ordered him killed, in fury at her lover’s death. I wasn’t there to help him.

Gawain ruled for a while after, but died in battle. His brothers were useless as rulers.

The Sea Wolves wiped out our land. It was renamed England, after the Anglish tribe.

I stood, shaking. Atropos grinned at me.

"Still want to change the world, child?"

"There must be another way," I argued.

“Then try. But think what you ask. We have no time to cater to your whims."

I thought. If I couldn’t prevent Mordred, at least I could give him no chance to wreak havoc. Merlin had believed that if Arthur had fetched Guinevere from her father's home himself, she would not have fallen in love with Lancelot, but over the years Arthur was off fighting his wars often enough to give a frustrated woman time to turn elsewhere in his absence. It might have happened with any other Queen, but I could only work with the knowledge I had. I thought of Lyonors and her son Bors. Bors was a likeable, intelligent boy who was a good fighter and would make a fine officer one day. There would never be another Arthur, but at least he might have been followed by a decent king if Bors had been his heir.

What if Guinevere and Lancelot had run off together before the wedding took place? It might have caused some problems and hurt for a while, but then, perhaps, Arthur might have married Lyonors instead. In my world, he’d wanted to, but hadn’t been allowed; as King, he would need a politically convenient match. That might have been different with Guinevere out of the picture. By then, he was old enough to please himself. And after all, Lyonors had given him a potential heir.

I told the goddesses where and when I wanted to go. I had been a lady in the escort that had gone to fetch Guinevere, but the goddesses would ensure my other self was out of the picture temporarily.

I stepped away from the tapestry and waited…
 And I was in the dun of Leodegrance of Cameliard, hurrying along with Guinevere's women as they carried linens, gowns and household goods towards two carts piled high with personal belongings and dowry goods.

Guinevere herself appeared, coming down the outside stairs on her father’s arm. Leodegrance, an otherwise sensible man, a shrewd ruler and fighter, was besotted by his only daughter. She would look good beside Arthur, I had to admit, tall and slender, with cornflower eyes and a spectacular head of golden hair. What was inside that head was another matter.

"Lady Nimue!" she called. "You will ride with me, won’t you?"

"Certainly," I agreed. Try to stop me, I thought.

Lancelot, who had been supervising the loading of the carts, approached Guinevere and her father and held out a hand to help her down the last steps.

"Now, take care o' my little petal, won’t yer?" Leodegrance rumbled. He leaned over to kiss her cheek. "I'll be with yer in a month, honey-bee. Soon as I've finished arrangin' fer the patrols an' guards to protect Camelliard while I’m away. Don’t hold the weddin' wi'out me!"

“I will protect your daughter with my life's blood," Lancelot promised a little exaggeratedly. He was a reasonable officer, but his second-in-command did most of the work in battle; his real skill was in the mock-battles the men of Camelot used to keep themselves sharp, under the admiring eyes of the ladies. At least one silly girl, the Lily Maid of Astolat, had killed herself because he'd worn her favour and then shown no interest in her afterwards. Whatever you thought of him, he was a good-looking man, better-looking than Arthur, with black curls and olive skin that suggested Roman ancestry. In many ways, he and Guinevere suited each other. How they had ever been distracted from themselves long enough to notice each other I'd never understood.

We set off soon after, with Lancelot helping the blushing Guinevere up on to a pretty bay mare chosen for her by Arthur, and I began work. Riding beside Guinevere made things easier for me, but Lancelot joined us now and then from his position in front, with the escort. He looked at me suspiciously, wondering what we were discussing; he knew I didn’t like him.
While he rode ahead, I praised him to the skies. I invited Guinevere to agree with me that he was the handsomest man either of us had ever seen, the best fighter (well, in the mock-battles, anyway). He played the harp (badly, and he’d only learned to impress the ladies). He composed poetry (with the help of a paid poet).

“Will I see him often at Camelot?" she wondered.

“I think you may not," I said with a kind but regretful smile. “He is, after all, Arthur’s right-hand man, and is often away on patrol with a war-band. But I’m sure he will return as often as possible once you are there."

She blushed.
She asked me about Arthur. They had met, of course, when her father had supported him in the War of the Eleven Kings, but he’d been very young then, and she only a child, so she had taken no notice of him.

“Arthur is...a good man."  I spoke reluctantly. "He will look after you, but...”

I had to take this carefully; if I failed to change her mind, he would eventually learn I had spoken badly of him.

So I explained, truthfully, that Arthur would be away from Camelot most of the time and would expect her to look after the place. There was a huge bunch of household keys waiting for her. I hoped she was good with herbs and a good housekeeper.

Of course, I knew she wasn’t. She had never had to take charge at her father’s holding; the older servants knew their jobs and had been doing them since her mother’s time. She would be good with diplomats, true, and the warriors would vie for a smile from her. That was a skill in itself, but her popularity in that respect would lead to more trouble than it was worth. She couldn’t prepare medicines to save her own life, let alone anyone else’s.

I spoke in great detail about the aftermath of battles, when wounded soldiers were brought back to Camelot to recover. Merlin and I did most of the work there, along with the army surgeons, but I "forgot” to tell her that. I watched her fair face go even paler.

My casual mention of Arthur's two sons – Bors and Mordred - was her biggest shock. She hadn't expected him to be a virgin, but to be already supplied with children before she even had a chance to start was a little too much for her. Royal bastards are often favourites with their fathers.

The second day I left her mostly in Lancelot's company. I didn’t think she would ask if anything I had said was true, but nothing was totally untrue. And if he did say anything, it would be only to assure her that he would look after her, endearing himself even more.

They took meals together, in the pavilion we set up each evening. With satisfaction, I saw them warming to each other.

Next, I began work on Lancelot. It would not be easy, since he and I had never been friends, but I'd made myself pleasant over the last two days. I sympathised with his situation. Younger son of a Gaulish kinglet, he would never rule. It must be hard on him, I sighed. And now, here he was with the most beautiful woman since Helen of Troy and he had to hand her over to his best friend.

His eyes looked thoughtful at the name of Helen. With luck, it would give him ideas without reminding him of what happened when Paris took off with someone else’s woman.

Hesitantly, he told me of a message he’d received before leaving Camelot. His elder brother had been crippled in battle. If he didn’t recover Lancelot would be heir. He had considered visiting Benoic to see how the land lay as soon as he had delivered Guinevere.
He almost choked on the words "deliver Guinevere".

By the fourth night, when we were only half a day’s ride from Camelot, within reach of Arthur’s patrols, they were becoming desperate. In my own world, they hadn’t gone this far, though they had been casting yearning looks at each other.

I found them in bed in her pavilion.

They started up, staring at me in dismay. I had to fight to keep the delight out of my voice, as I apologised for interrupting them and turned my back for them to dress. They were holding hands defiantly when I turned back.

I put down the linen which had given me the excuse to visit the tent and said, "Lancelot, may I speak frankly? I have seen the love blossom between you and Lady Guinevere these last days. I believe it is time to make a decision."

“I know," he said. “I must give her up, but it’s so hard...”

"On the contrary," I snapped. "When we reach Camelot, a group of midwives will inspect the bride - thoroughly, believe me. There can be no chances taken on this - what if she bears a son who has no right to inherit the throne?  And then there will be insult and perhaps war between the High King and a ruler who has always been loyal to him. No. I have another suggestion. Your personal escort are all your own men, Gauls who came with you when you arrived at Arthur’s court, aren’t they, Lancelot?” He nodded. “Well, then, Paris..." I waited for him to catch on.

"But then Arthur will declare war on my father.” He was not bright, but this had occurred even to him.

"Arthur has more important concerns right now. He will be angry for a while, but he is too sensible to be crossing to Gaul when he needs to defend his own country.”

"But my father will...” he began to squeak.

I smiled. "Did Priam kill Paris for bringing Helen home to Troy?”

Guinevere preened; she enjoyed being compared with Helen.

They were gone the next morning, leaving a badly-spelled letter from Guinevere, who had somehow learned to read and write in her childhood when not looking in the mirror. The escort sent by Leodegrance grumblingly escorted her ladies back to Cameliard.

My job was done.

And there was the orchard again, and the Spinners.

Once more, Atropos waved me over to the tapestry and again I looked, to see what my changes had done.

I had been right that Arthur didn’t wish to travel to Gaul over this matter, but Leodegrance had been furious with his daughter for her behaviour and was all for going over to drag the hussy back, by her hair if necessary. She’d be going to a convent if he had his way, now she was no longer fit to be High Queen of Britain. Arthur held out against the pressure for a while, but eventually found a better excuse for the journey: the Roman War. I'd forgotten about that. Merlin and I had been far to the north at the time, making friends with Pictish tribes for Arthur.

The Roman legions had pulled out long ago, but the newest Emperor kept sending messages demanding tribute. At least Arthur had had the support of the Gaulish rulers, in my own world, but with the business of Lancelot and Guinevere, Ban of Benoic was worried it was an excuse for an invasion and called in his allies. Arthur found himself fighting on two fronts. Instead of the huge victory I remembered, he was ingloriously defeated and dragged off to what was left of Rome to be executed.

Gawain led the surviving British troops home, only to find the frontiers over-run while our men were committed elsewhere, his mother entrenched in Camelot, ready to fight him for the sake of his youngest brother, Mordred, who was still a child.  Chieftains who had been prepared to accept Arthur as high ruler and call themselves his knights became restless and started fighting each other again. Civil war.

And the Sea Wolves invaded.

I slumped over the tapestry frame.

"Don't feel too bad," Clotho consoled me. "You did not create these worlds, they already existed somewhere. When you leave Avalon, all will be as it was. Here. Somewhere else..." She shrugged.

"At least, here," said Morgana, walking through the trees behind me, "my brother had a measure of glory. He will never be forgotten"

"Small comfort to those left.”

"But it must happen, whatever we do. And they will live easier for remembering that moment of brightness he gave them."

The Spinners faded, leaving only Morgana and me, and the soft tinkling of silver bells somewhere.

"Go,” Morgana said. "He needs you. I'll be there soon, with my sister and the boat, to do what we can for him."

I left through the fog once more, in a boat lent me by Morgana. Time had passed differently in the other world. The sun was setting over a bloody battlefield. There were bodies of the dead and the living, carpeting what had been a green meadow.

"Nimue!" It was Pelleas, his armour battered and covered with blood I hoped wasn’t his, leaning on his spear. "Thank the gods! You're alive." Pelleas was used to my long absences and thought nothing of seeing me step from a magical boat which floated purposefully away with no one rowing it.

"Are you wounded?" I asked.

He shook his head impatiently. “A scratch or two. Come to the king. With Merlin gone, only you can save him, if anyone can."

He escorted me. They had tried to make Arthur comfortable on a pile of cloaks and a banner or two, but I could see at first glance that he would not be returning to Camelot.

"What happened, Pel?"

He shrugged. "What you’d expect. Mordred exposed Guinevere and Lancelot. She was sentenced to death. Then Lancelot came to rescue her and killed poor Gareth in the process. It was an accident, but Gawain wouldn’t rest till he’d had revenge. Arthur wanted to make peace, but Gawain wouldn’t let him, so we followed them to Benoic. And when we got back from Gaul, we found Mordred's troops waiting. Only twenty, but he knows how to manipulate men. The irony is, Gawain is dead and Lancelot is back fighting for Arthur. Was, anyway; I don't know where he's vanished. Go to Arthur, Nimue! There’s no time for chat!"

The surgeon had his tools out. I washed my hands, having found it helped, and took some herbs from my belt pouch, to crumble into hot water, but I knew I could not help now.

Arthur looked up at me. He was tired, more than anything else. The life had gone out of him long ago. I grieved for the golden boy I had seduced in another world, for the glorious man who had given his people hope while his own life had been in tatters.

"You're tired, my lord," I said. "You need rest. You must find it elsewhere."

"What are you talking about?" snapped Bedwyr, Arthur’s childhood friend, who stood by.

"Bedwyr," I said patiently, "nobody must know what happened here. Take Excalibur and throw it in the water. As far out as you can. Now."

He was dumbstruck, but Arthur nodded; he knew what I meant. Bedwyr snatched the sword and stamped off.

“I can help you in Avalon," I said. “Anyway, it will give us a chance to try; time passes differently there. If you stay here, you will certainly die and if your enemies know...”

“I understand," he whispered. And from Avalon, I might still return one day."


"Do it, then."

Morgana’s boat was already pulling in to shore. She was there with her sister Elaine, waiting for us.

I turned to the surgeon. "Will you trust us?"

He sighed. "Why not? He’s beyond my skill now.”  And he ordered his king to be lifted gently aboard, where a bed waited for him. I followed.

As we left the shore, I gazed into his eyes, thinking wonderingly, A measure of glory - it was a choice after all...



I originally wrote this story to submit to an anthology called The Doom Of Camelot. It didn't get in, alas, but I resubmitted it to ASIM, and had the joy of seeing it as the cover story, with a gorgeous cover by Les Peterson, who is doing covers for HarperCollins books these days. That issue sold out quickly - if you ever find a copy for sale at a convention or on eBay, grab it!

The idea came from two places. I had already sold ASIM a story called "The Sword From The Lake" which I haven't been able to find on my computer or I would have included it in here. I may have to retype it from the published copy. It, too, was about Nimue, and I always felt she had been given a raw deal in fiction - even Malory says she married one of Arthur's knights and took over as court wizard and you don't do that if  you've locked the previous one in a tree or a cave. Sooner or after someone would ask questions. The other thought was related to the Doom of Camelot theme - what if it was simply unavoidable, no matter what you did? Some time I'm going to put all my Arthurian/ Nimue stories together and rustle them into a novel. Some time...

Of Loaves, Fishes And Mars Bars by Sue Bursztynski

First Published In Andromeda Spaceways Inflight Magazine Issue 29, edited by Dirk Flinthart

“You’re a night early, you know,” said the innkeeper as he laid the Passover table. “I know,” said Yosef. “But tonight is the Essene Passover and the Teacher agrees
with them. He spent some time in their community a few years ago.” The innkeeper snorted. “The Essenes! That bunch of crazies? The sun by the Salt Sea dries up their brains!” Yosef merely smiled and the innkeeper sighed, continuing to set down dishes. “Ah, well, a good thing you booked for tonight. Tomorrow everyone and his dog will be in Jerusalem for the feast and I couldn’t have accommodated you. How did you manage to get the lamb sacrificed early,
by the way?” “I have a friend in the Temple who also has Essene sympathies.” “Ah. Friends in high places...Damn. I’m a cup short. I’d better get one from
downstairs.” “No need. I have one we can use.” Yosef went to his pack and pulled out
something wrapped in linen. As he unwrapped it, the innkeeper saw a simple vessel, well-polished, if a little battered.
“Is that a cup? Looks like a bowl to me.”
“It will do. The Teacher has used it before.” Yosef smiled reminiscently, remembering the loaves and fishes...and that wine at the wedding. “It’s special, even if it doesn’t look much. I brought it back from Britain on my last trip. They called it a cauldron.”
“A cauldron?” The innkeeper burst out laughing. “That little thing? I use a cauldron to cook supper for my customers!”
“Nevertheless.” Yosef put the cup tenderly by the Teacher’s place-setting.
“Well, I’d better finish up here and bring the wine. Your friends will be here soon.”
Yeshua and his disciples arrived soon afterwards. It was a memorable evening.
“Tea, Gandalf?” The teddy bear didn’t reply, but Elanor didn’t expect him to. His real name was Jean-Claude and he had been her mother’s bear. When she had needed an extra guest for her dolls’ tea-party in the cubby-house out in her grandparents’ back yard, she had grabbed him from the display in Mum’s old room.

The other dolls were her own. Nana had been horrified when Elanor had cut off her Barbie doll’s hair and glued it back as a beard. After that, she’d only bought Elanor cheap supermarket dolls. They now sat on the table where she had placed them, staring at her from under their beards. Each was named for one of Tolkien’s thirteen dwarves. Barbie was Thorin Oakenshield, of course.
She’d run short of teacups, though, and recruited the silvery bowl in which Pops kept the change for newspapers and bus fares. She knew that it had been in the family for a very long time, but didn’t think her grandfather would mind. She had tipped the coins out carefully to be put back later.
Pity the party didn’t include any real scones, seed cake, chicken, pickles, raspberry tart or any of the other things mentioned in Tolkien, she thought as she pretended to pour tea. She was hungry, but dinner at her grandparents’ place was at the same time every day and it was an hour away. Even a Mars bar would be nice right now.
She lifted the silver cup to her lips, pretending to drink, and was startled when something fell out of the cup and hit her mouth.
“Ouch!” The something fell on to the table.
It was a Mars Bar. Puzzled, she looked into the cup — empty — but when she tipped it up another chocolate bar clunked on to the table.
Elanor had recently read the story of Aladdin and wondered what would happen if she rubbed the bowl. When strenuous rubbing failed to produce a genie she shrugged and ate one of the sweet treats, keeping the other one for later.
Over dinner she asked Pops about the bowl.
“What, this old thing?” He looked surprised. “I’ve had it since just after the war. Your gran and I got it with our wedding gifts from the family back in England. We have relatives in Somerset.”
“Isn’t that where King Arthur lived?” She’d been reading some of her parents’ books.
“Could be. If he existed. There’s a place called Cadbury where Camelot might have been - there was a fortress there, anyway. And there’s Glastonbury, where he’s supposed to have been buried. Our family has been farming out that way for centuries. I don’t know where the bowl came from, but I got it from a cousin. He inherited it from another relative who died in London during the Blitz - that’s when England was being bombed by the Nazis. He said he didn’t want the responsibility, whatever that meant, and that I should take care of it. Can’t see why. It’s pretty cheap and tacky-looking, isn’t it? But I do feel sentimental about it.” He smiled affectionately at the bowl. “Funny thing, though. I always seem to have enough money for fares and papers, even if I haven’t put anything in for a while... Why do you want to know, anyway?”
“Oh, just wondered...” She wasn’t going to mention the chocolate; her grandmother would complain if she had spoiled her appetite for dinner. “I played with it today. You don’t mind, do you?”
“No, of course not.” He helped himself and her to more salad. On the television in the corner, the Doctor and Romana fled a monster...

“Look, I’m sorry! What else do you want me to say?” her sister Lorien protested. “You weren’t there and someone had to clean up. Nana wants to sell the house and go to a retirement village as soon as she’s out of hospital. She can’t take sixty years of junk with her.”
“You don’t have to make it sound as if I was away on purpose,” Elanor said. “You know perfectly well I was reading a paper at a conference in Oxford. I did want to come back as soon as I heard, but I couldn’t get a flight straight home. Mum said I’d miss the funeral anyway and I might as well carry out my commitments, that Pops would have wanted me to - which he would, by the way. Look, I don’t care about the rest of the stuff and I’m sorry you had to do the clean-up by yourself, but he was going to leave that bowl to me.”
“Well, how was I supposed to know?” Lorien argued. “I’d never have thought that would be in his will. I mean, an el cheapo base-metal bowl he used for change? It went to an op shop, along with the cheaper crockery and those kitsch lamp-stands. There was so much stuff in that tiny cottage, I can’t even tell you which op shop — I divided it among three.”
Elanor shook her head mutely. What was the point of griping? What point, now, to tell Lorien that she’d taken the Holy Grail to an op shop? She’d never believe it anyway — Lorien was so mundane, she’d called her children Susan and John, the most prosaic names she could think of. She even called herself Lauren.
Elanor decided she might as well just get the op shop addresses from her sister and see if she could find the thing.
She’d been reading a paper on the subject of “Arthur: from Epic Hero to Master of Ceremonies In Middle English Literature” at a conference in Oxford. There, she had, of course, made pilgrimage to the Eagle and Child, where Tolkien and his Inkling friends had been in the habit of going for a pint and then, because it was too late for the funeral anyway, had contacted her relatives in Somerset. Her grandfather’s cousin, Brian, and his wife Mary now lived in Glastonbury, where she had visited them. They had made her welcome and Brian had been willing to answer her questions; he was the one who had given Pops the bowl.
“It’s pre-Christian. No, lass, we don’t know where it comes from. We aren’t even the first family to look after it. I can’t tell you why it’s survived so well, but then, it is...what it is. Remember that scene in Malory’s Morte D’Arthure where the Grail comes floating into the great hall in Camelot and suddenly, every knight has the food he likes best?”
Thinking of the Mars Bars, Elanor grinned and nodded.
“Well, there are stacks of stories about horns or cauldrons of plenty, and not only in Celtic myth.”
“No indeed,” agreed Mary. “There’s the Greek myth of the horn of plenty. There’s even a Norse story about a mill that ground out food until someone wanted salt and forgot how to turn it off; that’s how the sea got salty.”

“So there’s nothing especially holy about the cup,” Brian said. “ Anyone can use it, can’t they? Which is why it has to be hidden. What if some government got it? Or an industrialist? Or someone who wanted to do chemical warfare? So, after Arthur’s knights made fools of themselves chasing the thing, my guess is that some peasant took it. What was he going to use it for, if he didn’t know what it was? Maybe it made his beer taste better, or last longer. And it looks cheap, yes, but it’s tough. It was going to last. Let’s say he passed it on to his son and — well, you get the picture. Eventually someone worked out what it was and decided to keep it hidden. The best way to keep it safe was to make sure ordinary people had it.” He saw the look on her face. “Oh, come now, lass! You didn’t think it was somewhere in the desert, guarded by a mystical order of knights, did you?”
Elanor had imagined that, actually. Hollywood had a lot to answer for.
These days it was safe because no one believed in such things any more. Well, it had been safe until her sister had given it away. Oh, well, at least it hadn’t gone to the tip.
She sighed and put on her coat, took an umbrella from the rack in the hallway of her sister’s home and went out into the rain, feeling a sudden wry amusement at the notion of being on a quest for the Holy Grail.
The first shop was run by an organisation that bought old computers for Job Club. The woman at the counter didn’t remember, but checked on her computer the records of the last couple of weeks. That reminded her and she said that everything had been packed in cartons and had taken hours to sort.
The bowl wasn’t on her list.
Elanor went to the next shop, which was run for the benefit of the local church. The shop was small, cramped and dark and didn’t have a computer. The woman there said she was only part-time and hadn’t been there when Lorien came in. But she waved a hand at a corner where more recent donations were stored till there was room for them and invited Elanor to look. It wasn’t in any of the boxes and the hand- written sales records didn’t mention it.
By now it was nearly five p.m. and the dark clouds from which rain was still drizzling turned day into evening. She doubted the third place would be open and, whether or not the bowl had already been sold, going the next morning wasn’t going to make any difference. She would have tea and a toasted sandwich and go home to mark some first-year student papers.
St. Kilda was not short of food places, from expensive restaurants for the yuppies who came for the Sunday craft market to fast-food outlets and dubious burger joints where drug deals took place. Although it was an expensive place to buy real estate, it was also a place where street folk roamed and families lived in poverty in shabby buildings that had once been part of a Victorian era seaside resort.
Elanor entered a small greasy spoon cafe and sat by the window, gazing out at the rain. As she sat there, a craggy middle-aged man walked in, shaking the rain from his umbrella, and smiled at her. The four other tables were full, and he asked if he might share hers.
“Thank you,” he said as she waved a hand in invitation. “I need a quick meal before I go to work for the evening.”

“They know you here, do they?” she asked as the waitress waved, inquiring if he wanted the usual.
“Oh, yes, I’m a regular. I do a lot of night shifts and just don’t have time to cook.”
He smiled again and she warmed to him. She liked his face, despite the broken nose that he’d never fixed, for whatever reason. It was — kind. Like her grandfather’s, really, if not as old. She missed Pops badly.
“So, what do you do?” she asked, actually wanting to know.
“My day job? I fund-raise quite a lot. I’m on about six committees. If I didn’t get paid for that, I couldn’t do what I really want to do.”
“Which is?”
“Oh, help out people on the streets. There are a lot of them here, as you probably know. Tonight I’m helping the local mission distribute food and warm clothes.”
“ It must be good to be doing something important.” She meant it, too. Somehow, what she did seemed — irrelevant. “I’m a university academic specialising in Arthurian literature. That just doesn’t seem to matter when people are going cold and hungry.”
“But that’s going to happen anyway,” he pointed out. “Someone has to be interested in more than just surviving. We need food for the soul too. Why not King Arthur?” He chuckled. “Do tell me about it while we eat. My name is Leo, by the way.”
“Elanor.” “Like the Queen of England?” “No, like the flower in The Lord of the Rings. E-l-a-n-o-r, no second e. My parents
are Tolkien nuts.” “Really? I love that book. I read it when I was in hospital once, recovering from
boxing injuries. It told me that ordinary people can be heroes and you can’t imagine how important that is to me, even now.”
Now she thought of it, she’d heard of him. Leo somebody, a former boxer who was now doing social work. He was living proof that an ordinary person could be a hero, if anyone was. Street kids and old winos alike loved him. He didn’t judge. Mind you, his boxing background probably came in handy when someone was hurting someone else, or when they resented his “meddling”.
She told him about her studies, enjoying it all the more because he listened with real interest. Finally, though, he looked at his watch and stood up.
“Sorry, I’m due at the food van. If you’d like to come and help out, you’d be very welcome.”
“I’d love to, but not tonight. I have some essays to mark and you can see I’m not really dressed for it.”
“All right, then. I’m going again tomorrow night. Why don’t you meet me here about this time and we’ll go together?”
“Sounds good,” she agreed impulsively. “I’ll be here.”
He gave her a card in case she needed to call him and was out the door before she realised she hadn’t given him her information.
Next morning, she had some time before she had to be at work and went to the third shop, which was run for the local street mission. The place was unusually large and airy for an opportunity shop, filled with goods of all kinds, from clothes to crockery and books, many of them in decent condition. The woman at the counter, a motherly soul, looked up from her knitting and smiled.
“Yes, dear? Are you looking for anything in particular or just browsing?”
“Actually, I was looking for a specific item,” Elanor said. “My grandfather died a little while ago and some of his things were donated to your shop by my sister. One of the items was of — sentimental value to me. I’m quite happy to buy it back,” she added.
The woman frowned thoughtfully, putting down the needles and wool. “Can you tell me what it was? We had a large donation not long ago, a deceased relative. It might have been your sister who brought it.”
“A metal cup about yay big.” Elanor held her hands apart. “Have you seen it?”
The woman’s face changed. Elanor wasn’t quite sure how to describe the expression. Startlement. Panic. Worry. Guilt. She wasn’t sure which. Maybe it was all of them. Of two things Elanor was sure: the woman had seen the cup and she knew what it did.
Now what?
The lady smiled and resumed her knitting. “Yes, I did see it. I’m afraid I sold it yesterday. I’m so sorry. Is there anything else I can help you with?”
Elanor wasn’t giving up just yet. If she had to, she would follow the woman home, but in case she had misread the other woman’s expression, she tried again.
“It really was important to me. My grandfather let me play with it when I was a child. He said I could have it one day. Is there any chance you’d know who bought it?”
“I don’t keep records of my customers’ addresses and in any case, it would be confidential.” Seeing Elanor’s face, she said honestly, “The gentleman is one of my regular customers. I’ll speak to him when he comes in next, if you’ll leave your phone number. But I can’t promise he’ll give it back. He liked it and said he could do with something to keep his keys in. He’s always mislaying the things.”
There was a ring of truth about that and in any case, there wasn’t much she could do for the moment. Elanor left her phone number and went to her classes, fully intending to do some investigation.
That night, she returned to the cafe in Fitzroy Street, thinking at least she could spend the evening doing something worthwhile. But when she arrived, the waitress, seeing her, said, “Oh, you’re the lady who was here with Leo last night. He left you a message because he didn’t have your number. He had to leave early, but he’d still be pleased to see you at the food van tonight. I’ll give you the directions, okay?”
It was a lane behind the shopping centre. Elanor knew her way there and didn’t need the details. Thanking the waitress, she wrapped herself in her heavy coat and set off.
Turning the corner, she worried at first about her safety. These small streets were unsafe, usually dark and inhabited only by people doing drug deals and other dubious transactions.
Except that this particular area wasn’t unpopulated, and it wasn’t dark. Young mothers, punks, elderly winos, thin teenagers, all came and went, and they were carrying more than a cup of soup and a sandwich. There were entire bags of groceries in the arms of those coming towards her. One woman with a pram had supplies of nappies and tinned baby food as well.
And the light coming from ahead was a strange shade that didn’t look to her like street lighting. There was an odd glow about it.
Over the heads of the crowd, she saw the van, a large one about the size of a caravan, with open flaps. Leo and two others were handing out groceries. One of the volunteers was the woman from the op shop.
The glow came from the van, but it wasn’t caused by the electric light. It came from an old, cheap-looking bowl made of a metal no one could identify. It was a lot bigger than the cup she had lost. Perhaps it stretched when necessary, which explained the bags of groceries. A cauldron indeed.
Somehow, she had known, deep down, where she would find it.
Elanor remembered what Brian had said of the Grail and agreed with him. It wasn’t especially holy. It just did what it did. It was safest with ordinary people who didn’t know what it was for. She had worried: what if someone in power got hold of it? Used it for the wrong thing? Even now, she panicked, as she made her way through the crowd. The word would spread. Police would hear about unusually large amounts of goods being handed out and want to know where they came from, in case they were stolen. And from there...
Leo looked up from his work and, seeing her, smiled and waved her over to the van.
Oh, the hell with this. It wasn’t Tolkien’s Ring, after all, which must never be used. It was a cauldron of plenty that had been around for a very long time, being wasted on improving the taste of beer, making change for an old man’s newspapers, producing chocolate for a small child. Perhaps it was time someone took a chance and let it be used the way a Holy Grail ought to be used. Well, maybe not Malory’s version. That Grail, if recovered by Arthur’s knights, would have ended up in some monastery church, being worshipped by monks.
But she was quite sure that a certain left-wing radical from Galilee would have approved of this. He would probably have had something pithy to say about the waste of his cup over the last few centuries; he certainly wouldn’t have wanted it lying around a museum — or a church, for that matter.
Elanor climbed the steps of the van. “Sorry I’m late,” she said. “What can I do to help?”



My original idea for this was "What if the Holy Grail turned up in an op shop?"  That didn't work and I couldn't finish the story. So I scrapped the original draft and started again with, "What if it had been hanging around in the one family for ages and nobody knew what it was?" That did work. I couldn't believe how quickly I finished it once I changed the angle and created my characters(Leo is inspired by a real person, whose name I won't mention here, who went out with my sister briefly). In the end, I was very glad I had changed it, because when the story was already about to be published I came across a Neil Gaiman story that started with the Holy Grail in an op shop. It was very different from this one, but still, people would have made comparisons and my story would have been considered a ripoff.