A little time passes! And then Arthur gets word from King Rience of North Wales — remember that guy? Nobody liked him?
Seems King Rience has been making trouble in Ireland and Wales. Seems he may or may not have defeated Team Lot & Mister 100 in battle, Malory is cagey about that even though he asserted earlier that Team Lot & Mister 100 slew Rience, you may remember from Part 18. Now Malory is Mister Flippety-Floppity saying that no, Rience defeated eleven kings. Maybe not the same eleven kings as Team Lot & Mister 100, but maybe it was! Only time and further
textual inconsistencies continuity errors shocking twists will tell!
Rience’s methodology here is entertainingly novel. He tries to meet the king in battle and force his surrender, and if the king won’t ride out to battle him, he’ll just wander through the king’s territory setting serfs on fire and rustling cattle. Either way, he lays out an ultimatum: the king can either shave his beard and turn it over to Rience as a symbol of his emasculation, or else Rience will also accept the king’s severed head.
“This guy sounds like a real piece of work,” says Arthur. “No wonder everyone hates him. I should have killed him back when I rescued Leodegrace from him.”
The messenger coughs politely, as he is still waiting for Arthur’s response.
“You tell that guy that he’s an ass, and that I said so,” says Arthur. “And I’ve barely gotten old enough to grow a beard, no way I’m shaving it off for him or anyone. I’ve met Rience in battle but never had a sit-down with him, and it sounds like I dodged a bullet there. You tell him that I want him to surrender to me, although I’m not interested in any of this thinly-veiled homoerotic ritual shaving nonsense. Now get out.”
The messenger leaves, and everyone starts tut-tutting about this turn of events. Arthur writes RIENCE on his royal whiteboard in red marker, and underlines it.
“Anyone here know anything about Rience that I don’t? Raise a hand. Merlin, I am not calling on you, I don’t want to hear it.” Arthur says. “You, there, Sir… uh…”
“Sir Naram, sire,” whispers Sir Ulfius.
“Naram, right, a good man. Sorry, Naram. Didn’t recognize you there with that helmet on.”
“I’m not wearing a helmet,” says Sir Naram.
“That’s terrific,” says Arthur. “So, you had your hand up. You know Rience?”
“Yep,” says Sir Naram.
“And? What can you tell us about him?”
“Rience, well…” Naram stares off into space, thinks about it. “He’s tough,” he finally says.
“Great, thanks,” says Arthur. He writes TOUGH on the whiteboard, under RIENCE.
“Okay, I think we’ve learned a lot today,” Arthur says. “I don’t doubt this crucial intelligence will prove key in defeating Rience, great job everyone.” He dusts his hands off, looks around. “So is that the end of Book I?”
“Not quite,” says Merlin. “I’ve got one last bit of news for you. It’s got nothing to do with Rience.”
“Am I going to like this?” asks Arthur.
“Depends. The one who will destroy you, he’s been born, not too long ago, and his birthday is the first of May,” says Merlin. “Hint, hint.”
“I feel like we’ve already talked about this,” says Arthur. “But I blocked out the details. Someone destroying me rings a bell, though.”
“First of May,” says Merlin.
“Okay, here’s what we do. We get everyone whose birthday is the first of May,” says Arthur. “All the little kids.”
“Then we load them onto a boat, and we send them away to die at sea!” cries Merlin.
“What? No,” says Arthur. “We should… um… darn it, I can’t think of a good way to end this sentence. Fine, we’ll do it your way.”
So that happens, and Arthur calls for all the boys whose birthday is the first of May to be sent to his court, which they are, all of them who live in places which have sworn fealty to Arthur, anyway. Also Queen Morgawse, Lot’s wife, Arthur’s half-sister whom he slept with, you remember? Mordred’s mother? She sends along infant Mordred, too.
All these babies show up at court, it’s so babies, totally babies, and some of them are almost a year old, some of them are a month old, some of them are less than a month old, Malory tells us (apparently he’s forgotten how birthdays work) and Arthur loads them all up on a ship and they sail off into the ocean, where they hit a rock and the boat springs a leak and it sinks and everyone aboard drowns.
Sole survivor is Mordred, little baby doom-of-Arthur Mordred, who washes ashore and is found by a kindly fisherman and we’ll hear from him again much later in the book, when he’s a sullen teenager.
When everyone hears about how Arthur took their sons and sent them off to die at sea, they get good and mad, although mostly people blame Merlin for giving Arthur such lousy advice rather than the young King himself. Since they like Arthur and they fear Merlin, they don’t rise up in revolt or complain too loudly, except for King Rience, that ass, who decides it’s a good pretext to invade, as told in BOOK TWO, the tale of Sir Balin the Thug!
On Monday I’ll give some thoughts about Book I, and then we’ll move on to Book II.