The Horsemen of Avallon

After that the voices of men could be heard in the valley, and some of them seemed to be softly weeping.

As I travelled I planned my destinations with little thought, almost randomly. Perhaps it was because I was an inexperienced traveller, or perhaps because I felt that losing myself was a way to escape... but I never had any regrets. So I made my way through France like a leaf on a stream. I moved through Chartres, stayed for a few days in Orléans, on to Auxerre in the Burgundy region, and then to the small town of Avallon, where I planned to spend two nights.

I decided to take a bus to Avallon to save money, and it left Auxerre as the sun went down. The vehicle was obviously reaching the end of its useful life, and as it back-fired and clattered miserably up the hills I began to fear we would arrive after my hotel was closed for the night. There were only a handful of other passengers - they seemed grim and weary, as if they were on a journey to somewhere they didn't want to go. The wind was gusting, pushing the bus from side to side, and in the headlamps I could see the scrub on the sides of the road reaching out at us like claws. It seemed as if we would never get there, as if the town had disappeared. By the time we finally arrived, I was exhausted.

The wind had died, and the air had become dusty and still. The town was silent. Fortunately the hotelier was still up, and he prepared a simple but mercifully tasty supper of beef and vegetable stew. My room was small and smelled stale, but I paid little heed, as I was tired, and fell into bed.

Despite my state of exhaustion, I struggled with the warped mattress and the creaking old bedsprings, and couldn't sleep properly. As the night drew on I lost all sense of time, I may have dozed, I may have slept a little, but I didn't dream. There was no other sound. Long after I had gone to bed, I was still restless, longing for just an hour or two of sleep.

Then, when it seemed like the night would never end, I began to hear soft noises - coming from some distance, I could hear what seemed to be the trampling of horse's hooves, not galloping, but certainly moving with purpose. Gradually the sounds became fuller, until it seemed as if there was a great host on the move. I went to my window, but could only see fireflies, dancing near the river below me, and nothing but darkness beyond that. I was unable to discern anything beyond the rough direction that the noise was coming from. The sound of the horses continued for about half an hour, then it died down. After that the voices of men could be heard in the valley, and some of them seemed to be softly weeping. But the town about me was asleep.

In the morning I couldn't remember if I had heard the horses, or my fatigue caused me to imagine them, or if maybe the reality had dissolved into the dream.

After breakfast I wandered through the town. As one walks about, Avallon seems like any small French village, with narrow, cobbled paths and old, steep-gabled buildings jammed against each other. But the town sits high on a promontory, and the surrounding lands of the Cousin valley are a steep drop, so that if one descends and looks back, the town looks like a castle. I walked about in the valley until the afternoon, but could find no signs that a host of horsemen had moved through. It occurred to me that such sounds might often travel long distances on a still night, but I was not inclined to scour the surrounding countryside to satisfy my curiosity, so I decided not to think any more about it.

I climbed back up to the town, and as I was searching for some lunch I saw a man wearing a wide straw hat, slouching on a battered chair beside a building adorned with the French flag. He was roughly dressed, with a face gone unshaven for some days, and he had a chessboard on a soapbox beside him. When he saw me looking in his direction, he gestured an invitation at his board. Such a whimsical offer couldn't be refused, of course, and as I wandered over, he hid the kings in his hands. I chose the white. We began to play, without a word being spoken. He took his time playing his moves, and every so often he would roll a cigarette with cheap tobacco and smoke it as he pondered the game.

I have never had the patience to think of all the possible moves while playing chess. Life seems too short. Consequently my game has never been strong. My opponent, on the other hand, had strategies all over the board. By the time I was checkmated, I was left with my king and two knights, and he had half of his pieces still on the board. Yet he made nothing of it, and set up the the gnarled pieces again. I was quite happy to continue, even if I was facing certain defeat. He insisted on playing black again, but our game seemed to progress in an almost identical way, and again I was left with a king and two knights.

It was enough for me, and I had other things I wished to do. But as I shook his hand I asked him,

"I heard the sound of horses last night, m'sieur. Did you hear them? What was happening? It sounded as if there were a quite a lot of them..."

"Ah! Horses, ah?" he answered, with a voice like a jeering crow. "Riding from the west? And men crying like girls?"

"Yes, exactly!" I said.

"Aaaaaah. The king and his warriors."

"The king? Which king?"

"Which king? Well, you would call him Arthur. But he was the king here too, and he was loved just as much."

He gathered the pieces into a rough wooden box and took off his spectacles. I wondered if his peculiar answer implied he just wanted me to go away, but after a moment he went on...

"Arthur. What is a man today, if his name is Arthur? Just a name. But Arthur, he was a king, a great king, as great as any. He and his men defended their lands on horseback, in the old Roman ways. Before he came, for a hundred years, nobody sowed a field, nobody learnt or wrote a word. Why would they, when the barbarians kept burning it all? But Arthur brought his countrymen together, and for years he gave them the courage to stand against their enemies, and enjoy a long time of peace."

The lazy warmth of the sun made my thoughts drift a little from what he was saying, and whether or not it made any sense... It seemed as if the man had sat forgotten in this street for many years, and, spurred by something that had meaning for him, these were the first words he had said in a long time.

"Well, it didn't stay like that forever," he continued. "Arthur came to Brittany with twelve thousand men to fight the Goths. But he was betrayed by the Roman prefect, who told the Goths about the weaknesses of Arthur's army. Arthur heard about the treachery, and realised he was facing certain defeat. But... sometimes a man must go to a battle he knows he will lose. Perhaps he saw the end of that golden age of which the stories tell, and decided to say farewell to it with honour. So he rode to meet his enemy for the last time. When the fields were strewn with the dead, he gathered the remains of his men, and after a long, desperate ride they came here. They had ridden for hundreds of miles, they were too exhausted to ride any further, so they asked the people of Avallon for refuge. What a tiny place it was back then! But I'm sure the villagers did what they could for them."

He paused to make another cigarette, and as he smoked it he contemplated the streets of his town, as if he was proud of its place in the history of many centuries ago...

"But nobody knows what happened to Arthur after that," he sighed. "Maybe the king's wounds were too terrible to survive that last wild ride. Maybe his death was kept a secret by his lieutenants, so his enemies would not lose their fear of him, and his countrymen would not lose hope."

"But, you know, every English schoolboy reads Le Morte D'Arthur," I said. "All the legends say that the Isle of Avalon is Glastonbury. Are they all wrong?"

"You doubt me, ah?" he carped. "Of course the Englishman always knows better than the Frenchman. So you will not learn, and then the memory of your beloved King Arthur has been confused by ignorance, so that now some say he is just a prince from a story, a hero of always. No, he was real. And he came here, I assure you. Somewhere in this town, he vanished from history, and into the realm of myth. But you know, they say that sometimes, on a still night, when the fairies are in the mood... you can hear King Arthur and his horsemen end their final journey."

He chuckled, and began to roll another cigarette. I suppose he was mocking me, but I couldn't be bothered arguing with him. I gave him an empty smile, and wandered away.

I stayed in Avallon for an extra day, and wandered for a long time outside the town. I found nothing but unspoiled hills and meadows, as far as the eye could see.

December, 2015

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