A retelling of Arthurian myth for the age of Brexit and Trump, from World Fantasy Award-winner Lavie Tidhar, By Force Alone.
Everyone thinks they know the story of King Arthur and his knights of the Round Table.
The fact is they don’t know sh*t.
Arthur? An over-promoted gangster.
Merlin? An eldritch parasite.
Excalibur? A shady deal with a watery arms dealer.
Britain? A clogged sewer that Rome abandoned just as soon as it could.
A savage and cutting epic fantasy, equally poetic and profane, By Force Alone is at once a timely political satire, a magical adventure, and a subversive masterwork.
Please enjoy this excerpt of By Force Alone, on sale 08/11/2020.
Kay steals a glance. He watches Arthur, watching the gathered dignitaries. He knows—he thinks he knows—what Arthur thinks. How he hates them all and how he longs to be like them. To be a made man. To be a knight.
It’s the highest honor they can give you, it means you belong. Arthur could never be one of them, he could never be made. To be a knight is to have family. It’s to be known. They’re all here today, to see Kay knighted. The Frankish Mob and the Wolves and the Knights of Bors. He tries not to look to where Young Bors is standing. To Kay, all this just means his dues. He was always going to be knighted. But for Arthur it means something deeper, it means no one can fuck with you and you can fuck with anybody, long as they’re not also a knight.
But this is Kay’s day today.
“Well, come closer,” the Guv’nor says. Kay does, obediently.
Sir Carados, the Guv’nor, shuffles forward. His smell is rather overpowering. Like ripened cheese and something that’s been dead too long down in a ditch. Plus cooked chicken.
The flat of the blade lands on Kay’s shoulder. He tries not to wince. The sword rises. The Guv’nor’s hands are not the steadiest. The sword descends again, touches Kay lightly on the other shoulder, then withdraws.
“Rise, Sir Kay,” the Guv’nor says.
Kay rises. Everyone cheers. Suddenly he’s surrounded by well-wishers, clapping him on the back, shaking his hand in the manner of the Greeks, voicing congratulations. The Guv’nor sits back with a grunt. Waves his hand—it is done.
Kay finds Arthur. The boy is always so still. They hug.
“Sir Kay,” Arthur says.
Servants bring in food. The knights descend on the offerings like starved orphans. There’s chicken and pheasant and boar. There’s wine and beer, breads, cheeses. There’s asparagus and radishes and plenty of fish.
On the other side of the court, Kay catches Young Bors’ eye. Bors gives the tiniest nod.
Arthur and Kay slip into the shadows. They find themselves next to that curious rock with the sword in the stone. Kay, on a whim, tries to pull it out, but it’s stuck fast.
“Well?” Arthur says.
Kay says, “Day after tomorrow.”
Arthur nods. They watch the assembled dignitaries gnawing at the food. The music crescendoes and grows wild. Dancing girls emerge into the courtyard in flimsy robes. The robes fall down. Kay blushes. The knights and lords reach for the girls with greasy hands. Wine amphorae crash to the ground. The air is filled with the smell of spilled wine, bad breath, men’s sweat, women’s perfumes. The knights copulate with the whores like pigs in a litter. Kay watches Arthur.
“Look at them,” Arthur says. “They are like dogs tied to a cart, and compelled to go wherever it goes.”
It occurs to Kay that his friend is quoting Cleanthes, the Stoic. It is not that Arthur is entirely free of the passions of the body. But rather that mere animal sex is not enough to arouse him. He lusts not for women but for naked power. Sharing room and bed together as they do, Kay knows his friend does not even perform self-release on himself. And Kay thinks, He must be wound so tight, it can’t be healthy, not to let out your seed. Sir Hector’s always mocking Arthur; he once sent his wenches to try and seduce him, but Arthur politely turned them away.
So Arthur only watches, with distaste, the other knights. Kay knows he thinks them weak. And as for Kay, there’s nothing here he wants. His interests lie elsewhere.
They slip away. No one will miss them. Outside the palace it is night, the witching hour. But Kay’s a knight now. He’s not afraid, for once he’s not afraid of puckles or cutties or nickers or trolls.
And so he doesn’t even notice, in the shadow of a wall, the figure watching them, a youth wrapped in the silver haze of moonlight, with eyes like a lizard’s. Merlin, the watcher, hisses, and his tongue darts out and he tastes for something nebulous, like a Greek wine taster at court. And whatever it is Merlin finds, he finds it well, for he smiles.
It is the real thing, he thinks.
He walks inside the governor’s palace. The guardsmen start, yet move aside for him. Merlin’s not unknown here, at the court of Sir Carados. He helps himself to a piece of fruit from the food tables, and skins it halfheartedly with a small silver knife. He watches the fornication. It makes him miss his old master, how fond Uther was of fucking. It was his downfall.
There’s power here, in this room, but it’s hard to taste over the stench of body odor and semen. These men are like humping dogs, they’re quickly spent. It’s not much of an orgy, Merlin thinks. A young man stumbles past him and pukes onto the ground, just missing Merlin’s feet. Merlin kneels and gently pulls his head so he could throw up more comfortably.
“You’re Bors the Younger, aren’t you,” he says.
“I know you?”
“I know you,” Merlin says, with unassailable logic.
“Get your fucking hands off me, man,” Bors says. Then he retches again. Merlin takes a step back, looking at this young knight crouched naked on the ground, his bare back shining with sweat. The short-cropped hair, the wicked arms, that flaring temper. He nods.
Then he goes and finds the Guv’nor, who has fallen asleep in his stone throne. He shakes him awake, none too gently this time.
“What? What!” Carados says. “Oh, it’s you.”
“Did you tell them?”
“About your stupid stone?” A look of cold amusement suffuses the Guv’nor’s eyes. “Not yet.”
Merlin scans the courtyard. Notices the new wood cross erected in the earth. He shudders.
“What’s that?” he says.
“It’s a cross, Merlin. What does it fucking look like?”
“Why do you have a cross, Carados?”
“Had some fellows over here a couple years back, wine merchants from the Old Country. You still get traders willing to make the passage even out here to the back of beyond. Christians, apparently that’s the height of fashion in the Empire these days. Figured, what’s the harm, right? Do as the Romans do, and all that. What! Don’t look at me like that. They said this Jesus of theirs came here, of all places, after he died.”
“Well, that’s a likely story,” Merlin says. He claps his hands. One last knight gives a shuddering thrust and the rest are already pulling up their pants and reaching for drinks.
“Listen up!” Merlin says. “Listen up, you fucking degenerates.”
“What did you just call us?” one of the Frankish Mob shouts, confused.
“I said listen up, good sirs and knights,” Merlin says. There’s something so calming in his voice, like a murmuring brook in your memories of childhood. Like Mother’s voice as she lulls you to sleep. Like the chirping of birds in an enchanted forest, full of light.
It works. They all calm down, turn expectant eyes on him. For just a moment, these ruthless, savage men are vulnerable like children.
And so he delivers it upon them: the prophecy. It is the oldest grift in the book, and still one of the best. He thinks of that Hebrew wizard, Moses, who learned his magic in the temples of Anubis and Ra. Those Egyptians, he thinks, had a neat line in sorcery, like the old staff-to-snake transformation routine.
Merlin would have loved to go there.
Yet Merlins are not great travelers, as a rule. Too much binds them in place, to the land and its memories, like some sort of spiritus loci.
But this Moses, anyhow, had the whole prophecy gig down pat; and when Merlin was a kid being shunned and tormented by his peers, had not the power of prophecy rescued him, allowed him to become the king’s own man?
So he lays it on them, and he lays it on thick.
“The Empire has fallen,” Merlin says. “And for too long have the people of this land fought each other, like rats scrabbling for scraps at their dead master’s table. Now a new threat is coming, from beyond the sea. Foreigners coming to take our land, our livelihoods—our wives!”
“Our whores!” someone shouts. Merlin ignores him. He scans the crowd. They’re listening, he sees. They’re nodding in agreement. They’re starting to mutter.
It occurs to him that this sort of patter will never quite fail. Perhaps in centuries hence, a millennium from now, this sort of crap would still light up people’s hearts. Hatred, after all, is so very comforting to have.
“Foreigners!” he says, savoring the words and their effect on his captive audience. “Angles and Saxons, coming over here, to fight and pillage and— and rape!”
Even the Frankish Mob guys are nodding. They may have been Germanic originally but by Nodens these guys are Londinium born and bred.
“I was King Uther’s wizard,” Merlin says, and he can see them exchanging looks, can see them shifting, these half-denarius strongmen. They know power, he thinks. They know Uther.
“He died. He died nobly—”
Died shitting himself, what other way was there to die, Merlin thinks but doesn’t say.
“Died nobly to unify this land, to bring it back to—glory! I had seen this, I had delivered this very same prophecy onto King Vortigern, the usurper— yes, I see you nod, yes, I see you know the truth of what I say. I had told him a true king will be born. A true and royal king will rise, to unify this warring land, one king for all of Britain!”
He has their full attention now. One guy had not even remembered to shove his cock all the way back in his trousers. It still drips a little bit of cum. Merlin magics light, a little ignis fatuus or will-o’-the-wisp, and it floats over the enraptured audience to the rock with the sword in it.
He watches them, how they follow the foolish fire. Like a conjurer he turns their attention where he wants. Good, good, he thinks. For all the while they’ll be busy here, while the real magic trick takes place elsewhere.
“Behold!” he bellows. “Behold the sword! Behold the sword in the stone!”
“What make is it?” someone asks.
“Is it a gladius?”
“The workmanship is very nice on the grip,” someone says.
“Why is there a bloody sword stuck in a bloody stone?” someone else says, one of the Bors boys, he thinks.
“This is the true king’s sword!” Merlin bellows. He has to sell it. This is the hard part now. “For so it has been prophesied—”
By me, he thinks, but doesn’t say.
“It has been prophesied, that only the true king shall have the power to pull the sword, and in so doing, declare himself to one and all the king!”
He looks at them. He watches them closely. And he knows that they want to believe him. This is how true magic is made, in letting people see what they want to see.
In the shadows, under the crumbling arches of the old palace, a street cat watches him with cold, amused eyes. She licks a paw, delicately. She sticks her tongue out at him.
Fucking Morgan, he thinks, but doesn’t say. Don’t spoil this right now for me.
“But . . . but who’s the king?” a knight shouts. One of Sir Hector’s crew.
“It sure ain’t you, Lucan!” one of the Frankish Mob says, and someone sniggers.
“Only one way to find out!” this Lucan says. Emboldened by drink or the crowd’s attention he strides to the stone and lays his hands on the pommel of the sword. He pulls. Then pulls again, harder this time, then grips with two hands and strains against the rock, one foot against the stone, pulling so hard that he ends up flat on his arse.
And that’s how it’s done, Merlin thinks. Then they’re all at it, each trying their luck, and when Merlin next looks to the shadows, the watching street cat is gone.
He kneels beside Sir Carados’ throne. The old fat man shakes his head.
“A sword in a stone,” he says. “That is the dumbest fucking thing I’ve ever heard, Merlin.”
Then he grins, and pats Merlin’s hand.
“Nice one,” he says.
Copyright © Lavie Tidhar 2020
Pre-Order Your Copy