I awoke to a steady drizzle and feared for The Queen’s picnic, but it all blew over in favor of blue skies and sunshine by nine. The bards sing that there are laws governing the weather here, which of course is total male bovine excreta. Even Merlin at his best couldn’t control the weather, much less a mere decree by Arthur. But perfect days happen when you need them so often it does make you wonder.
Oswald was waiting outside my door, sipping a cup of warm broth and holding one for me. When Merlin returned from the Middle East and showed up at my father’s doorstep, he brought a supply of the most wondrous beverage imaginable, which he occasionally shared with me. He called it kaffka, which sounds more like a symptom of consumption than the beverage of the gods. By which I mean the little-g gods, those who look down from Olympus and eat ambrosia and drink kaffka, not the big-G God that the Christians worship.
The Christian God does NOT drink kaffka; He sits on his throne in a place called heaven and looks down scornfully on our human frailties while seraphim sing to him to try to get Him in a better mood so He doesn’t flood the earth again. And His Son Jesus, who the priests tell us is the same God only different, doesn’t drink kaffka either, although he lived in the Middle East. Jesus drinks wine and turns it into his own blood, or else he drinks water and turns it into wine. I’d be much more likely to be a Christian if Jesus turned water into kaffka. Anybody can make wine with some fruit and a little yeast, even if the quality isn’t always good.
Hope God doesn’t decide to flood the earth again, because if He picks the greatest man alive to carry on the human race like He did last time, it’ll no doubt be Arthur. And if big-G God tells Arthur to build an ark, rather than writing down the dimensions or asking a lot of dumb questions, Arthur will summon me and command me to build a fucking ark. That’s been more-or-less my place in the world since we drove the Saxons out of southwest England and won ourselves a decade of peace: run the household and do the impossible tasks. I can hear the bards singing a popular ditty with the drinkers gleefully joining in on the last line of the chorus: “And there ain’t no gopher wood in England.”
Oswald was wearing loose-fitting greens and browns instead of livery. Looked like he’d raided the huntsman’s wardrobe. But when I asked where he’d come up with it, he merely smiled. “If we’re going to campaign together, Sire, you should get out of the habit of asking questions like that.” He was right of course. A squire capable of a little creative acquisition is an underrated blessing.
“Good point. Can you get hold of some kaffka?”
“I will try, Sire. Where does one get kaffka?”
“Never mind, Oswald. Some things are even beyond your vast abilities.”
Cook had pretty much followed Oswald’s suggestions. I’d sent him to relay the Queen’s instructions for the picnic to her; no reason to waste talent like that. The only difference was that she’d substituted berries for the apples. “Ah, well.” Oswald shrugged and grinned. “It was at best a long shot to get one of the few apples left in the larder.”
I gave Oswald a lesson in practical Seneschal-ology while we waited: no matter what, do not go to where the ladies were gathering until time to meet them. Noblewomen are perfectly capable of doing things on their own—well, not exactly on their own, but with the help of their servants and ladies-in-waiting. But show up and they’ll feel obliged to put your ass to work on some meaningless chore. “Good Sir Kay, my palfrey’s bridle is worn. Please be so kind as to find me another.” On the other hand, keeping them waiting was not acceptable. Guinevere has specified eleven, which meant the earliest possible time that they’d be ready to leave was half past. So at quarter past we rode into the courtyard, leading a packhorse laden down with picnic victuals, along with blankets, cutlery, and all of the necessities.
By the time the seven ladies—four queens, a countess, and two baronesses—and their entourage were ensaddled or loaded into the wagons and ready to ride, we could have just had lunch there in the courtyard. But of course, we had to be outside the walls for it to qualify as a picnic. So off we went.
The smart place for an escort was in the van. Not that we were going to encounter any brigands this close to Camelot—those had long since been killed or scarpered to greener pastures. Even the no-legged snakes were smart enough to slither elsewhere. But still. I’d escorted many parties in the two-and-a-half decades I’d been serving the king. By Iðunn and her magical apples, could it possibly be that long? And other than Guinevere, they were all content for me to lead. But not The Queen. Unless Arthur was around she followed no one. And The Queen rode on horseback—a beautiful white mare—not bumping and lurching along in a wagon. I kept as close as I could, sword loose in the scabbard, and cautioned Oswald to keep a keen eye out.
The picnic was a swimming success. The ladies got giggly on May wine, their shrieks over this and that echoing off the monster oaks. Everyone ooh’ed and ahh’ed about the food and kept asking Guinevere for her chicken recipe. Of which she had no clue, needless to say, but rather than summoning me for the information she blithely claimed it was a Leodegrance family secret and she’d be disowned if she revealed the ingredients. Keeping a straight face is one of the requirements of the job, so I kept one; Oswald was even better than I was.
After lunch the women played catch with a ball of yarn, picked flowers, gossiped, and had a grand old time. But inevitably, they got bored.
I could hear them chatting to themselves. Well, it wasn’t like they were whispering. They were ladies and the rest of us were hired help, even if I was a Knight of the Round Table.
“I wish we had some music. Wouldn’t that be nice?”
“Isn’t it just our luck that Tristan isn’t here? That man has the voice of an angel, and when I see his fingers plucking the strings, I get all wet just thinking about them on me.”
“Oh Morwenna, you’re SO naughty.”
“Oh Aderyn, don’t pretend to be so naïve. Every time you hear him fluttering his tongue like on that warble he does, you’re probably wet from imaging . . .” Shrieks covered up whatever Queen Aderyn was supposed to be imaging and left it to the imagination.
“Well, at least Sir Kay is here.” More laughter.
“Wonder what he could possibly do that might be entertaining?”
“I have an idea. We should have him gallop across the meadow so we can watch him fall off his horse.”
“No, here’s a better idea. He can do impersonations. Paint somebody else’s crest on his shield and we can try to guess who he really is.”
“We could tie him up with the yarn and see who comes to rescue him.”
I was wrong about Oswald being better than I at hiding his feelings. He’d turned away from the ladies, but his face was getting redder by the giggle.
“Hey.” Oswald looked up at my hiss, and I gave my head a little shake.
“This is bullshit.” He was whispering but it was a stage whisper. If the ladies had all hushed at the same time, they could have easily heard him. On the other hand, if my Aunt Hilda had balls she’d be my uncle.
I shrugged. “It’s not a big deal.”
“It is a big deal. They are being cruel and unfair when you’ve done everything possible so they could have a good picnic.”
I found myself having a bit of trouble keeping my emotions off my face at his words. Who was the last person that had demonstrated they cared about me? Well, besides Father Gascon. Merlin? “I could ride across the meadow and fall off my horse.”
“You could ride across the meadow and skewer their ball of yarn with your sword. That would shut them up for a minute or two.”
“Yes, but would it entertain them?”
“Oswald!” Guinevere’s command cut through our whispered conversation. Oswald was so frustrated there were tears in his eyes, but he wiped them dry with his fingers, took a deep breath, and stepped through the lush grass with his dignified page march to where the Queen was sitting. I didn’t think there was a chance in hell that he’d been heard, but I followed a few paces behind just in case Aunt Hilda had suddenly become Uncle Harry.
“Yes, your highness?”
“Oswald, cross the battlefield and inform Sir Kay that we are ready to return to the castle.” Guinevere’s eyes twinkled as she turned to the others. “Watch this.”
Without a word Oswald took off across the meadow, racing and dodging imaginary Saxon axes while the ladies looked on in amazement; a few clapped lightly. Reaching the other side he touched a tree, then weaved and sprinted his way back. The proper five paces away he stopped running and stepped off the distance between us.
“Sire, The Queen sends her best, and is pleased to inform you that the women are finished running down the noble knight who provided their picnic and kept them safe from harm while they ate, and are ready to return to being ladies once again, as well as departing for the castle.” He paused a bit longer than four beats, during which there was total quiet in the meadow. Even the birds had quit singing. “Will there be a reply, Sire”
Guinevere began laughing before I could answer. A couple of the ladies joined in with a polite twitter, but nothing like the queen’s honest laugh. I stared at her while Oswald kept his eyes fixed on me with scarcely a blink. It transported me back to the old days. Back to when the queen laughed a lot, before she became quite so obsessed with her own importance. Or infertility, whichever had squelched her laughter first.
When she could finally speak, it wasn’t “Off with his head,” one of the potential replies. “I think no reply is necessary, dear. Or even possible. Come, ladies.”