Camelot was filling up fast, and Pentecost was still two days away. Pentecost is Arthur’s favorite feast day. Hard to say why, exactly. The Court wasn’t Christian by any means; in fact, a decade ago we only heard of the new religion through stories told by sailors from faraway places. Arthur didn’t celebrate Easter, so why Pentecost? My theory is that Pentecost fell on Arthur’s birthday the year that Monsignor Dagrezia arrived and began to teach the basics of Christianity to any who would listen, and the king had adopted it on the spot. The Holy Spirit descended on the disciples, Arthur descended on Britain. Sometimes the High King was a self-absorbed prick, but I think that comes with the office. Other times he had a wonderful sense of humor. This seemed to be a little of both; at least, that’s the best explanation that I could come up with.
But Pentecost is a pretty stupid choice for a feast day, if you ask me—it moved around every year. The old sun days were easy to keep up with. Shortest day of the year, that’s Yule. Any druid-in-training with a stick could measure its shadow and tell within a day or two when the days started to get longer. Close enough, right? Carve a notch in a stick every time the sun comes up. Forty-five notches later, it’s Imbolc. Ninety-one more, Beltane, everybody’s favorite holiday. Time to lay restraint aside and get baked, to howl at the moon and rut for the health and fertility of the land.
But nobody could figure out when Pentecost was. It was fifty days after Easter, which was the first Sunday after the full moon after Ostara, only the priests never said Ostara, they called it the Vernal Equinox. Ostara was a pagan feast day; God would condemn them to burn in hell for all eternity if such a word ever crossed their lips. Or at least a thousand years in purgatory.
Not only that, it was critical to celebrate Easter on exactly the right day. Within a day or two absolutely would not do. Some Council of Big Muckety-Mucks in Rome had so decreed. Thus Monsignor Dagrezia possessed a carefully-guarded vellum with all the dates for Easter for the next hundred years. Some smart guy back in Rome had calculated them, and a gaggle of scribes had made a bunch of copies.
When I told them I could figure out when Easter was, they didn’t need to take the word of some dead guy in Rome, they almost fell over. Father Ignatius wouldn’t even entertain the idea. I was a heathen, headed straight to hell, and if he had his way he wouldn’t rely on God but would happily speed the process along himself. I shudder at the thought of what life would be like if the Father Ignatiuses of the world ran things.
Father Gascon doesn’t take himself nearly so seriously. He has a sturdy Gallic peasant wife who laughs a lot, although not as much as he does. Father Ignatius would cut his own tongue out if he was in danger of laughing—and he’d cut his own prick off if he was in danger of getting married. “I’m a warrior for God,” was his favorite expression. Warrior, my ass. You’re a warrior if you’ve ever stood in a shield wall trying not to shit yourself, knowing there was a fifty-fifty chance that before the day is over you’d be lying in the mud with your gut ripped open, praying that death gets there soon. A sense of righteous indignation does not qualify one to be a warrior.
Anyway, Father Gascon “borrowed” the scroll one day and that night at the Old Boar’s Head challenged me to tell him when Easter would be five years from now. I didn’t try to act like it was some big secret. Even showed him how to calculate it. A lunar month is 29.5 days, Merlin had told me, and a year is 365¼ days. I don’t know who figured that out, but if Merlin said something you could count on it being true. So twelve lunar months would be 354 days, so you start the next year 11¼ days early and so forth.
Gascon clearly thought it was magic when I gave him the correct date. “How do you know how many days are in twelve—what do you call them—lunar months?”
“You multiply twelve by 29½.”
“I don’t understand what that means.”
“And yet it’s God’s command. ‘Be fruitful and multiply.’ I wouldn’t think you could become a priest if you weren’t going to obey God’s commandments.”
Gascon’s eyes glazed over, but when I looked away I caught him crossing himself out the corner of my eye. Well, that was exactly the same reaction I got anytime I tried to explain mathematics to someone. Although this wasn’t exactly mathematics; it was merely arithmetic. But it had been the same for Merlin. “I have been able to teach multiplication successfully to maybe a half dozen clever lads,” he told me once, “but long division can be done by exactly one other person in the whole of Britain: you.”
OK, think about that a minute. Your cavalry element has one hundred and twenty-seven horses, each of which needs 21 pounds of hay and 1½ pounds of oats per day. And exactly one person in the entirety of this island can figure out how many wagons it will take to carry fodder for a 30-day campaign, assuming no horses die? Much less if the white knight leaves Caerleon riding 3½ miles per hour and a half hour later the red knight gallops out of Bath and averages 4¼ miles per hour, how many miles west of the Avon do they meet up?
“It’s easy to calculate when Easter falls, once you know the date of any full moon and any Sunday. But what I want to know is, how do they know what year it is?”
Gascon looked smug. “Our Lord was born in The Year of Our Lord One. So you just count forward from there. That makes this The Year of Our Lord five hundred and twelve.”
“Um, that I do not know. Perhaps the magi counted? They were supposedly quite learned. I think that’s what the term ‘magi’ means: wise one.”
“Balthazar, maybe? I like that idea. When he was on his deathbed, he told his son what number he was up to so his son could continue counting. Perfect. Except for just one question: what year was Balthazar born?”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, suppose Balthazar was forty years old when he first laid eyes upon the infant Jesus in The Year of Our Lord One. So what year is forty years before one?”
“Stop, you’re making my head swim. Here, let me buy you an ale and thrash you soundly at a game of chess.”
“Well, if you can just declare it to be a particular year, then I, Sir Kay, Seneschal to the Court of Arthur and the Kingdom of the Greater Severn Valley, declare that the year Arthur drew the sword from the stone to be The Year of My Lord One. So this The Year of My Lord—by the sacred fishhook of Saint Andrew, can it be that long already—Twenty Six. And I was born in . . . let me see. The Year of My Lord Negative Twenty.”
“Negative twenty, indeed. You can forget the ale. You’re clearly destined to be insufferable today.”
Perhaps I was. As with many new things, the concept of negative numbers was brought by Merlin from the East. It even took me a while to grasp it—I was fifteen at the time, and more interested in the chambermaids than numbers smaller than nothing—but eventually I did. And here I was showing off in front of poor Gascon, who’d had no teacher other than some priest assigned the chore.
“My humblest apologies, dear friend. Here, I shall buy the first round and sit here quietly and meekly before your fierce assault.”
* * * * *
Arthur would be holding court pretty much all day. On the morrow would be the great tournament, and the day after that the feast. Lots of people—lots of food, lots of booze, lots of sleeping arrangements. The castle was packed and so was the town outside it. A lesser man would throw himself off the north tower or drown himself in the moat—or at least drown himself in ale.
I strolled through the kitchen to see how things were going, checking the larders and pantries to make sure all the deliveries were in. Kitchen helpers were manhandling a cask of ale up from the cellar; O’Donnegan, Camelot’s Irish brewmaster who I had lured away from King Mark, was mixing up a new batch to replace the vast amounts that would be consumed the next three days. In the cattle pen out back, a dozen steers selected to join the festivities contentedly chewed their cuds.
Everything was humming along smoothly, just as the kitchens and chambers of Camelot were supposed to. Stressed workers make mistakes, and stressed beef simply doesn’t taste as good. The great feast of Pentecost, our largest party of the year, was running without any action on my part other than an encouraging word here, a taste and a smile there.
I wandered into the great hall to see what was happening there. This late in the afternoon, the gadflies and layabouts would be long gone, seeking entertainment elsewhere. Most would be watching the knights practice—Lancelot making pass after thundering pass at the quintain, Gareth swinging his half-a-hundredweight iron bar to limber and tone his massive muscles, Dinadan leaping and balancing on the standing poles. I’d had a cask of ale tapped out there to keep the crowds happy and out from underfoot; a dozen serving girls were drawing mugs for the spectators. A few of our guests would be wooing or being wooed—practicing their courtly love, as it were; a fortunate few would be in deeper than was appropriate for courtly love. A handful napping, storing up for the days ahead.
As expected, the audience in the hall was spare. Arthur was on his throne—that in itself was a bit of a surprise; after lunch he normally abandoned his formal perch for something a little more comfortable. Even more surprising, Guinevere was on her throne beside him, her face a stone mask but her body tense. Two other heavyweights were in attendance: Bedivere at Arthur’s side, Monsignor Dagrezia hovering nearby. My curiosity immediately quickened.
Standing in front of the throne was a stunningly beautiful woman in her early twenties. Raven hair tumbled from beneath a golden tiara, framing eyes that were smoky blue and piercing, lips that were full and inviting. Her azure gown set off her eyes perfectly.
I’d seen her before, but it took me a moment to place her. Then it hit me: she looked just like Morgan le Fay the last time I’d seen her.
Morgan! Twelve years ago Arthur’s youngest half sister had stormed into the court, along with a half-dozen wagon loads of stories, half-truths, and rumors. Stashed in a nunnery by her mother to keep her out of her stepfather Uther’s lusty paws, she’d disappeared without a trace for more than two decades before reappearing. With youth and beauty to rival the queen’s, although she’d been at least fifteen years older and inexplicably shy around men. Morgan had never confirmed or denied even the wildest of the tales, answering every question, no matter how pointed, with her maddening, mysterious smile. I’d never been around her except on formal occasions, having been in a dreary little muddle of courtly love myself at the time. My last, if I recall it correctly—I was pretty done with the games and the tears when it had finally ended.
Rumor had it that Morgan had survived a marriage to the boorish King Uriens and was currently ruling Gore as Queen Regent.
But this couldn’t possibly be Morgan’s daughter, unless she’d been born a decade before her mother was married off to Uriens. Was it possible that juicy bit of gossip had been hidden away all this time?
Beside the woman was a boy of perhaps eight who appeared to be her son, although he bore an uncanny resemblance to Gawain. An unknown knight in full kit stood motionless a step behind them. She and Arthur were talking in quiet tones that I couldn’t make out from where I was standing.
“By the deadly arrows of Cupid, who the hell is that?” I asked of the herald who was standing stiffly beside the door.
“That is Arthur’s half sister Morgan, sire.”
“No fucking way. She must be pushing fifty by now. That goddess can’t be half that old.”