Despite all my bluster about being able to walk out the door and have everything function smoothly in my absence, it was a few days before we managed to leave Camelot. Not so much the checking on the planning and logistics for the upcoming events. That took about ten minutes. I called my staff together, spent eight minutes bullshitting before we got down to business, told them I was leaving for a few days, asked if they needed anything, heard them all say no problem.
No, it was my new responsibilities for Oswald that delayed our departure.
All knights have squires, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a serious duty. You were responsible for making sure they got trained in the knightly arts—and more important, stayed alive long enough to practice.
“Hmm, don’t look like much,” Guardemaine pronounced. “How old are you, boy?”
“I’ll be twelve come October, sir.”
“Don’t call me sir. Do I look like I was born with a silver spoon in my mouth?”
“No, sir. I mean, no, um Guardemaine.”
“How big is your dad?”
“Well, he’s not quite as big as Gareth, but not all that much smaller.” Oswald looked down and shifted from foot to foot. “But I don’t look all that much like him. He’s got fiery red hair and a lot of freckles. I seem to take after my mother, who’s small and dark.”
“Any hair on your body yet?”
“Um, no sir.”
“Don’t call me sir.” Guardemaine had a well-deserved reputation for ferocity, as suited his position. But he was one of the key people that made Camelot run smoothly, so I’d made sure he had his own room with a fireplace and a servant. He might not rig a tournament pairing in my favor, but he’d do his best to take care of Oswald. Not that he wouldn’t anyway. Turning boys into knights was what he did, and he was the best I’d ever met at his craft.
“We can cut down one of the smaller chain mail hauberks to fit him. But he’s not really developed enough in the chest and legs to wear it.” Guardemaine squeezed Oswald’s scrawny pectoral muscle between his massive fingers. “So I don’t recommend it.”
“I agree. He’s more likely to survive if he’s quick and nimble than if he can’t move because of the weight of his armor.”
“Hmm. Think I have a leather vest around here some king’s boy outgrew, probably will fit him. Won’t stop a sword for sure, but might deflect a stone. And he’s got to start somewhere.”
“Perfect. What have you got for a lightweight sword?”
“That I can manage. Come see.” Guardemaine took us through to the back room of the armory and opened a rough oak cabinet. “I’ve been saving one that’s too good to just throw away, but not really big enough for a knight. Ah, here it is.”
The blade that Guardemaine drew from its diminutive scabbard made me immediately want to own it, although I have no idea what I would have used it for. It had an unusual coloration for one thing, a deep luster rather than the dull grey steel of well-tempered steel. But somehow I didn’t doubt it would hold an edge and stand up to a blow without snapping. The guard was woven rather than solid, and the pommel contained a dark green stone in a wire cage. When Guardemaine handed it to me, I was astonished at how light it was, even for a blade no longer than my forearm.
Oswald was staring, probably unaware that his mouth was open a little. I started to kid him some by telling Guardemaine that it couldn’t possibly do, but relented at the last moment.
“How long do you think it will take to give him enough of the basics so he won’t die the first time a brigand points a dirk in his direction?”
“I think three days should do, Kay. Although he probably won’t be good for much a couple of days after that.”
The last night I threw an impromptu going-away party at the Old Boar’s Head. Father Gascon with his wife and kids, Guardemaine, my three underlings who would be in charge of running Camelot in my absence. And a bedraggled Oswald who could barely lift a cup with a half portion of watered wine in it. But I never heard one word of complaint from him.
As the night went on, I noticed Lisle casting shy glances in Oswald’s direction. I leaned close and whispered in her direction.
“Should I be jealous of my own squire?”
“Oh, Sir Knight. Isn’t he just the most handsome thing?” Lisle let out a big sigh. The she narrowed her eyes. “I suppose you’ll be teaching him long division and won’t want to marry me after all?”
Actually, the thought hadn’t occurred to me. Did I want to teach Oswald long division? Probably not. No reason to curse him with the same stuck-at-Camelot-while-the-boys-go-off-to-play life that I’d lived, unless logistics and/or mathematics turned out to be a particular love of his.
“Nonsense, my lady. It doesn’t work like that. I mean, he may be bright and handsome, but in the end, he’s just a stinky old boy.”
“He is NOT!!!”
“So, which of us will you be giving your token to carry on our quest?”
“’Tis a puzzle, is it not? I shall have to pray to the Virgin Mother on that, Sir Knight.” But then she smiled and threw her arms around my neck to make sure I didn’t take it personally.
Esmeralda and her children departed as the party got rowdier. I was paying for the ale, so nobody’s mug ran dry. Cambry the bard knew dozens of songs unfit for mixed company, and I’d given him a gold piece to keep them coming. Gilda the barmaid had her sights set on Guardemaine; I handicapped the match at 7-2 in her favor. She had a weak eye, but her hips moved in the most interesting ways when she walked, and when she smiled her whole face lit up. She’d set those sights on me a while back and I’d been lucky to escape with my life—or unlucky, depending on your point of view—and in this particular arena, I was a whole lot more skilled than Guardemaine.
A stranger in a hooded cloak slipped into the room and took a table not too far from mine. Well, stranger to some; I would have recognized my foster brother anywhere. When the song ended in an eruption of laughter, I yelled over to him. “Come join us at our table, stranger. The ale is on me tonight, for on the morrow I leave the comfort and intellectual stimulation of the court of the greatest king that ever lived to take to the road and seek my fortune in the quest. I figure if I drink enough, I won’t be able to back out tomorrow.”
Arthur ambled over; Gilda swirled out of Guardemaine’s lap to fetch him a flagon.
“So, off on a noble quest, are ye? Don’t suppose you have need of a trusty companion. I haven’t been away from the court myself in quite awhile.”
“Sorry, old chap, I have all the company I can use. I’ve got a brand new squire—that’s him over there passed out in the corner—who our demanding Master of Arms has been working hard these last three days. Can’t disappoint him after all that work, can we?”
“I must say, I envy you, Kay.” By this time everybody knew that the man was Arthur, but we were all pretending not to so we didn’t have to get all formal and shit.
“I don’t suppose you can just appoint yourself the royal dogcatcher, can you?” I rapped on my mug with a knife, which could hardly be heard over the commotion, but others picked it up and eventually it quieted down enough so I could be heard.
“Gentlemen, and ladies too, if such you be. I propose a toast. I am departing on the morrow, come rain or shine, and abandoning the running of the castle, and much of the kingdom as well, to you three.” I held my mug up in the direction of my staff. Keep, a long lanky fellow whose bald spot was so high off the ground few knew it was there, nodded and raised his own mug. Stores, a fat little man who couldn’t talk without flapping his arms, waggled his hands and said something about the price of barley which was lost in the uproar. Cook grinned enough to show a couple of missing teeth—you can’t work in a royal kitchen every day and get excited about little shit, the stress would kill you. “If upon my return I discover that the king is not satisfied, well, I hear there are openings in Orkney.” Orkney was cold and wet during the summer, uninhabitable by civilized standards the rest of the year.
“Here, here. To Orkney,” Cook toasted. She could drink with the boys and looked to be the soberest of the three.
* * *
Ah, the road. I’d forgotten how good it was to be out away from the madness of court. True, I’d travelled with Arthur before, but that was merely changing the location of the madness. How long had it been since I’d ridden out on my own? Breathed air untainted by the privy smells that are a part of life in any castle? Slept where if you woke up during the night and opened your eyes, why, the stars were right there, waiting to be plucked. OK, that’s a bit of poetic malarkey. Even on the road, I’ve always been pretty much a stay-at-the-inn sort of traveler. Camping is for the Lancelots of the world. I never found that sleeping on the ground made me tougher in the morning, just sorer.
In any case, it had been the Grail Quest. What glorious madness that was. That’s the only way I know to explain it. We’d all been sitting around after the feast of Mabon—warm and dry, bellies full, mildly buzzed—when the blind poet stood up and began his saga. Within two days there wasn’t a Knight in Camelot except the dozen lucky souls who’d drawn the black pebbles and had to stay behind to guard the city. (Only they didn’t know it at the time; they’d bitched like they’d been sent to clean out the moat). I’d ridden for twenty-three days, heading toward Hadrian’s wall which I’d always wanted to see anyway, mostly on the theory that if the Grail was real and hadn’t been found before, it had to be along some road less travelled. Hmm. That’d make a good name for a poem.
I hold the theological hypothesis that all gods are, at their core, a touch sadistic. The way they toy with the humans they created. At this point it’s only a theory—there may be some delightful, generous goddess on some far away island somewhere that we up here on the British islands have never heard of. But any divinity who would hide a treasure out in the Northern Marshes was a truly sadistic son of Anubis. Twenty-three nights away from the most comfortable digs in the whole of Britain, in search of some chunk of precious metal only I’ll bet it wasn’t even silver if Jesus had drunk out of it—he wasn’t that rich. Probably plain pottery. But of course the bards didn’t sing about it that way; everybody pictured it as jewel-encrusted gold.
I was out under the stars that last night, except you couldn’t see any god-forsaken stars because it had been raining steady for four haggis-infested days and everything was too wet to even light a fire, and of course, the closer you got to Scotland the fewer inns there were because the men up there sleep with their sheep, literally and figuratively. And all of a sudden it hit me. This wasn’t fun, it wasn’t grand, it wasn’t even technically an adventure. I guessed the rain must have washed the madness out because before it was even light, I was on my horse heading home.
Four years—how the time has flown. Well, I wouldn’t be gone a month and a half this time. We were only traveling some forty miles in the direction of the southern coast. A long day’s travel for a horse carrying a mounted knight, unless you were bringing along remounts, which we weren’t. Two days, oops, let’s don’t forget about the Lady Lorena. Ladies didn’t ride twenty miles in a day, lest they bruise their delicate heinies. And we couldn’t have that, could we? So I’d planned a leisurely three-day trip, walking the horses at about the same pace we could just climb down and walk ourselves if some of us weren’t wearing armor.
* * *
May is the perfect time for questing. The Lady Lorena was drop dead gorgeous in her emerald riding cape and matching ribbon in her lush hair. She was also everything I’d feared she would be. She’d chat for a while with her lady companion, a frail little thing who blushed if I looked at her too closely. Then ride up alongside and remark about the weather before breaking into a new round of tears about poor Miffy. After a while she’d order her lady to pick her some flowers to cheer her up, then ask when we would be stopping for lunch, then breaking into tears again about how poor Miffy was suffering so from her privations (except Lorena would never consider using a word like privations, or any other word with more than two syllables). Her man at arms was even older than I was, and if he cared a fig about the state of his arms and armor, you couldn’t tell it by his appearance.
“So, Lady Lorena, what do you do at Count Maleagans’ keep?”
“What do I do, Sir Kay?” Lady Lorena looked totally nonplussed. “Why, I’m a lady, good knight.”
“Of course you are. But even ladies have hours in each day. How do you spend yours?”
“Oh, I am ever so busy. We sew, of course. And I play with Miffy, and teach her tricks. She can already sit and lie down on command. And I talk to Kella and instruct her when the other ladies are not around. Oh, and I do so like a brisk walk around the parapet.”
“Wow. I don’t see how you found the time to travel to King Arthur’s court.”
Which of course caused Lady Lorena to burst into tears again. “Oh, poor Miffy. Can’t we ride any faster, Sir Knight?”
Sure, we can ride faster. None of the rest of the party takes breaks to pick flowers. But then, none of us have delicate heinies either. That’s a lady’s job. A knight’s job is to be a hardass.
We stopped well before dark and pitched a pavilion for the Lady. Most knights would have brought iron rations, but I pride myself in turning simple food into a worthy repast, even when on the road. So we dined on squab stew seasoned with wild onions, accompanied by fresh berries that Oswald had found while Kella had been plucking flowers. His talent for acquiring little niceties that made life more pleasant was becoming more evident.
Morning broke clear, and other than a noticeable lack of kaffka, portended a perfect day for questing. Only someone truly depressed, or an airhead Lady pining over a fucking dog, could weep on a day like this. It probably wasn’t even a real dog, just some ratty little thing much louder than its size should permit.
And there was evening and there was morning, the third day. And well before time to stop for the evening, we arrived at the castle of Count Maleagans.