Galahad’s coming out party turned out to be a quiet affair of a couple hundred of The King’s closest friends. Tradition demanded that initiates spend the night in contemplation before being sworn into the Fellowship of The Round Table on the morrow, but Galahad got to eat and tell his story before heading to the chapel. I was too busy to stand around and listen, so I posted Oswald to get the skinny and report back.
“His mother was a barmaid,” he told me later that night when things had quieted down. “Elaine. She caught Lancelot’s eye when he was home during a break in the Saxon wars. Lancelot forgot about her by noon the next day. Never even knew she was pregnant.”
“So how did he learn to fight like that?”
“Elaine starting filling his head with tales of the Knights of the Round Table while he was still nursing. When he turned five, she took up a position as a maid in Ban’s castle so he could be around fighting men. Rumor got around that he was Lancelot’s bastard, so Ban gave him armor and a sword and all the training and practice he could handle, after he’d finished his chores for the day.”
“He didn’t get all that fighting prowess in the practice yard. We’ve seen knights with a lot more training make fools of themselves in the lists.”
“No, Sire. He was fourteen when King Ban died. After that, he left home and joined a free company to fight the Burgundians in the service of King Clovis. He’s been learning at the school of hard knocks for five years now. Clovis himself knighted him two years ago so he could lead the company.”
“I’m still amazed that he’s as good as he is.”
“He is Lancelot’s son, Sire.”
“There is that.”
Oswald continued to surprise and delight me. His memory was impeccable: He could listen to a conversation and recite everything that had been said several hours later. But he had sound opinions as well.
“So what have you learned about Queen Morgan?”
“She left without her son Yvaine. Nobody seems to know why she left or where she went.”
“Curious.” Looks like I’d have to investigate that further on my own.
* * * * *
Pentecost morning was a time for the granting of petitions and requests. I was standing at the front of the line when Arthur made way to his formal throne, looking much the worse for not having a morning cup of kaffka.
“Brother!” Arthur rose and embraced me. He’s never forgotten that early bond we’d formed growing up, not even when fame might have gone to his head. “You never have to stand in line to ask for a boon. What can I grant you?”
“A very small request, Sire. I would like one of the young court pages to be reassigned as my squire.” It wasn’t a totally small request. The assumption was that someday a squire would be knighted, which in Oswald’s case would not have been automatic considering the status of his parents, who were ‘genteel’ but not ‘landed.’ But the rules were pretty flexible, and Knighthood was the most common path to the nobility.
“Sir Kay requesting a squire? Does that mean that you will be going out questing soon?”
“One never knows, Sire. ‘Tis best to be prepared.”
Guinevere had slipped in and taken her seat, while her husband and I had been hugging, I suppose.
“If courage in the defense of his knight is the true test of nobility, I think you could just skip the squire stage altogether and knight the young scamp,” The Queen interposed. “Young Oswald has nothing left to learn in those matters. You should have seen him stand bravely in the face of scorn and put an entire bevy of ladies to shame.” At Arthur’s encouragement, she told the tale.
“That’s my brother, all right,” the little cherub look-alike spoke from behind Guinevere’s throne. “He was never afraid of anything growing up, M’lady.” She wiggled with excitement until Guinevere cleared her throat to stop such foolishness.
“Well, summon the young man,” Arthur boomed. Might as well make it official.”
I’d told Oswald to stand by without giving him a hint why. When Arthur sternly charged him with the sacred duties of the squire, serving and supporting his knight even in the face of sure death, it totally ripped away his straight face and stiff upper lip and replaced them with first astonishment and then a huge grin. Well, it was good to see that something could still surprise my young hero.
“Before you go,” Guinevere commanded with a stern face, “hold your hands up so we can be sure your fingernails are clean.”
* * * * *
Arthur had decided that we couldn’t begin the actual Feast of Pentecost until we’d heard of some adventure. It had all started at the feast two years ago when some minor lord had showed up claiming that his lands had been overrun by an epidemic of giant wolves and that he was becoming impoverished by their rampage. Sir Elyan the White had been tasked to deal with the matter, along with Sagramore who had asked to accompany him. The epidemic had turned out to be three scrawny wolves led by a giant mastiff who’d escaped the kennels of some unknown lord. But on the way home, leading the mastiff by a piece of rope, Elyan and Sagramore had come across a longboat of Irish raiders just landing. The two knights had charged to the beached ship, easily dispatched the handful of raiders who’d already unloaded, and then flung the mastiff onto the deck. The Irish, who would face any foe bravely as long as they’d had a chance to stoke their courage with a secret tipple known colloquially as ‘Irish Whisky,’ hadn’t been at the flagon yet and cowered in front of the snarling beast, who weighed almost as much as one of them. Sagramore built a fire under the ship’s prow while Elyan stood guard. Eventually the whole lot of them surrendered and was brought in chains to the court. Arthur was delighted all out of proportion to the deed. He’d named the mastiff Gunwale and given him the run of the place. Dozens of the local bitches had whelped half-mastiff puppies, and if we could figure out how to train them as fighting dogs a fraction as fierce as their sire, we’d be safe for yet another decade.
Then during last year’s feast, a sunburnt vagabond had turned up and told a tale about being a knight from Brittany shipwrecked and washed ashore on the coast of Cornwall and having to fight his way through hostile Cornwall just to get to court. Of course, nothing would suit Arthur except to bathe him and dress him in fine clothes and give him a place at the table. Turned out, he was nothing more than a highly imaginative bard who’d lain out in the sun to give veracity to his tale. But his escapades won him a permanent position among the entertainers, so I guess he’d accomplished his quest as well.
Now we had a tradition exactly two years old. But Arthur had drawn the sword from the stone only twenty-six years before (not to mention that we’d been a kingdom in reality as well as name for even less than that), and two years was a significant 7.7% of those twenty-six years. Merlin had said that the Roman Empire lasted for a thousand years, and so it would have equated to a tradition of seventy-seven years to them. Not that any of that mattered, if Arthur wanted something.
So Arthur did the sword bit with Galahad, welcoming him to the company. We toasted his success and health, along with Pernis from Gwynedd, a scarcely civilized region in the north of Wales. Then we sat around waiting for an adventure to show up. And lo and behold, one did. I think it was rigged.
A stately middle-aged woman all in black entered and curtsied before the King and Queen. She was accompanied by a teenage girl who looked to be her daughter, along with a meanly-dressed servant.
“Greetings on this feast of Pentecost, Noble King. My name is Arlon, Lady of Ashmoors, and I come to seek justice.”
Arthur gestured for her to continue, and so she did.
“My husband died three years ago, and my eldest son Braddock has been ruling over our holdings in a wise and virtuous manner ever since. His younger brother Jude has been clearly jealous, voicing his disdain and comporting himself in a rude manner. He keeps to his room much of the time, where he bellows out something vaguely akin to music. From the crack under the door seeps the smell of some foul weed burning at all hours of the day and night. Finally, Braddock forced the door, tossed his brother’s lyre and his foul weed into the moat, and sent him with a burly servant to bathe. Jude was furious and vowed vengeance. A few days later, while his brother was sleeping, Jude and some of his ne’er-do-well friends seized him, tied him up, and locked him in a cellar dungeon. He then proceeded to get roaring drunk, and when I slapped him and told him to behave himself, threw me and my daughter out of the house.”
Well, it was an adventure of sorts. Better yet, it was exactly what Oswald and I needed to get away from the castle and back into the questing business. Spank this young pup soundly, free his brother, and ride back to Lisle’s wild acclaim.
So I leapt to my feet. “Sire, such foul treachery and intemperate behavior cannot be allowed. Pray allow me to accept this quest and right this wrong.”
There had been a bit of a buzz in the room—once the knights had gotten the gist of the story they’d pretty much stopped listening and gone back to drinking—but my request silenced it utterly. Even Guinevere, who was even better than Oswald at not showing any emotion on such occasions, breathed what might be interpreted as a tiny gasp.
Arthur had no such straight face, and he was clearly discomforted. He stood and, walking around to where I was sitting, placed his hand on my shoulder. “Ah, Kay. You haven’t been adventuring in a long time, and this indeed sounds like the perfect quest for you. However, I am loathe to let you go. We have two parties next week, and the week after that King Marcus is bringing his entourage from Cornwall for a visit of state.”
“Sire, my staff can handle such small events without my presence; they’d probably not even notice that I was gone.”
“Nevertheless, good Seneschal, I would prefer that you stay. Galahad.” Arthur’s voice rang across the room. “Will you accept this quest as your initiation into the Company of the Round Table?”
“Of course, sire. I’ll be gone at once.” Galahad had been leading a free company against the Burgundians for two years; seemed like overkill to set him against a truculent kid. But it was decided. Arthur wouldn’t even look at me as he went back to his place and called for the feast to be served.