Castles are supposed to be utilitarian rather than beautiful, but even so, the castle Maleagans was without a doubt the ugliest building I’ve ever seen. From a little distance, it didn’t look all that different from the wattle-and-daub peasant huts that huddled not far outside the walls. The main building was squat, formed from some strange combination of piled stone and untrimmed wood poles sticking out at random. Where there was stone or wood, it had been colored a streaky, dark yellow-brown, looking for all the world like it had been wiped with soiled baby nappies. The moat was a foul ditch that wouldn’t have slowed an attack by virtue of breadth or depth, but the persistent odor of some fiend from Father Ignatius’s hell that had been slaughtered, drained of ichor, and left to rot beneath the black scum, would quail men brave enough to face a Saxon shield wall. A tower in one corner leaned precariously out over the moat—probably why it was unmanned.
The lone guard peeking out from behind the earthen parapet was wearing a cloak that perfectly matched the baby shit motif of the walls.
“Halt. Who be it?”
“Who be it? What kind of half-assed challenge is ‘who be it?’ Where the hell did you grow up, the island of Jersey? Do you not recognize the device on my shield? I am a Knight of the Round Table, or else somebody strong enough to kick a Knight of the Round Table’s ass and take his equipment. In either case, we are worthy of more dignity than “Who be it?”
“Sorry, Sire. Out here in the sticks one tends to get careless. Who be you, Sir Knight?”
About that time Lady Lorena joined me before the wall. “Rood, just open the gate.”
“Lady Lorena.” Rood doffed his leather cap, leaving a filthy mat of hair sticking up at odd angles. “Sorry, didn’t see you back there, hiding behind his honor here. I’ll tell the count you’ve returned, see if he wants you back or merely on your back.” His laugh revealed black and missing teeth. I wasn’t close enough to smell his breath but suspected that was a boon like unto salvation.
After what seemed like much too long, the gate swung inward and we trotted into the keep.
Someone had cultivated vines to grow over the inside of the walls, but although the tendrils should have been leafing out by now, they remained brown and gnarly. Two crows were having a desultory conversation among the tangle.
“This place could really use a woman’s touch,” I muttered to Lady Lorena. What did you say your position here was?”
I should have known better, because of course she started weeping again. Sweet Aphrodite’s perfect pink areoles, could this woman do nothing save snivel? I could feel an eruption building. And then help arrived from an unexpected place. Oswald rode up to her, looked her directly in the eyes, and said, “Lady, stop.”
And just like somebody had dammed up the spring, she stopped. With a look of utter amazement, like she’d been struck. But at least she stopped.
“Your melancholy is affecting Sir Kay and making it less and less likely that he will secure the release of your hound. You must do your part and be courageous.”
A fly lit on my tongue, making me realize that I was sitting there with my mouth open.
“Thank you, good Oswald.” She wiped her eyes on her sleeve. “It seems I have quite forgotten my responsibilities.”
“Much better, m’Lady. Here, use this.” Oswald handed her an embroidered handkerchief, filched from who-knows-where.
Oswald winked as he rode by. “Amateurs.”
Unwilling to let such cheek go unchallenged, I called him back. “Come here, squire. Let me see your fingernails.”
Of course, they were spotless.
A scruffy lad of Oswald’s age but possessing none of his poise, wearing a shirt the same babyshit color as the walls and the footman’s tunic, came to take our horses to the stable. He walked close enough to sniff, and there was no aroma of shit other than is normal for a stableman, which I suppose is shitty enough. So the color had to be intentional.
Lady Lorena spoke up. “To answer your question, good knight, I am a reluctant guest here. When my husband, the Baron Hywel, was killed in a questing accident, he died without an heir. Count Maleagans deeded our holdings to his cousin, leaving me homeless. He then invited me to live here until a suitable marriage could be arranged. I am not unpleasant to look at, I’m told, having kept my girlish figure and complexion well into my twenties. According to the count, however, no suitable husband has been forthcoming. It seems that my failure to conceive, as well as my advanced age and lack of a dowry, has put off the younger nobility. Of course, there are always older men with grey beards, bulging bellies, and tottering gaits who would marry me just to have someone young and pretty to warm their beds at night. But I confess that I find those creatures most repulsive.”
Lady Lorena glanced around and then lowered her voice. “So now the count is pressuring me to prove that I am fertile with him, and perhaps he’ll make me the countess. But my mother warned me that men such as the count would never buy the cow when the milk was free. Thus far I have managed to refuse his advances.”
Actually, from a practical standpoint, the count’s proposal seemed like a reasonable arrangement to me. If she were barren, sleeping with the count would repay his kindness without the reputation-damaging consequences of pregnancy. Or perhaps reputation-enhancing consequences, in her case. It’s not like she was contributing one lick to the upkeep of the place, other than a few garments sewn. But using her dog to compel the lady was unacceptably boorish. Perhaps a few discrete words to Maleagans on the advantages of seduction versus duress, plus a quick tip or two on how it’s actually done, would solve things to everyone’s satisfaction. Not that I had any tips, but I could send somebody like Gawain back.
A servant showed us to our rooms to freshen up. Although there’s a limit to how fresh a knight can get without taking off his armor, and I wasn’t removing mine until after my audience with the count. I didn’t anticipate things coming to blows, but it’s best to be cautious. The room was clean, the bed comfortable, and continuing the theme of the castle, the décor was the most tasteless I’d ever encountered. There was a hanging on one wall that looked like somebody had tied twine around a gray blanket and dunked it alternately into vats of blue and red dye. A squat orange pottery pitcher, well matched with a misshapen basin, sat on a rough table covered with a square of linen the same color as the rest of the cloth in the taste-forsaken place.
What is taste, exactly? I mean, besides not wearing stripes and plaids together. Is there some absolute standard of what is comely and what is gauche? Take women, for example. Some men like them meaty and broad of hip, others prefer the dainty-waisted. But all men want Guinevere, and only the truly desperate would take a poke at Poxy Polly, the pot scrubber. You’d be far better off taking your rod in your own hands than putting your life in hers. So: does the same apply to color? Shape? And is such decreed by the Aphrodite and the other deities who care about such things (all female, I’m guessing), or is it coincidence?
Such ponderous thoughts made me sleepy. So I napped, chain mail and all, with faithful Oswald standing guard, until a servant summoned us for an audience.
* * *
Unlike the servants, Maleagans was elegantly clad all in black: waistcoat, leathers, high boots polished to a deep luster. His eyebrows slanted down, while his lips curled up in a permanent sneer. With a trim black goatee and dark, piercing eyes, he could easily have been Satan, the minor deity Father Ignatius describes in such lovingly hateful detail as waiting eagerly for your soul. Normally I’m open-minded in my encounters with other men—one can’t judge a scroll by the artistry of the opening letter, you know—but I disliked and distrusted him instantly.
“Things must be slow in Camelot for a Knight of the Circular Table to leave his soft bed behind for the poor accommodations of the wilds of Dorset.”
“Not at all, Count. Spring is progressing nicely, shearing has begun, and the fields are bursting out in green. The king’s annual Pentecost tournament, won by Sir Dinadan by the way, was one of the best so far. The king is healthy and the queen beautiful as ever.”
“I suppose he hasn’t knocked her up yet, since that wasn’t the first story out of your mouth. Maybe you’ve come to tell me that, having seen Lady Lorena, he plans to put Guinevere aside and take Lorena for his bride.” He guffawed at his own poor joke. “Maybe he even got to sample the wares. After all, he is the bloody king, not a mere country count.”
Lorena, sitting on a stool a little distance away with some of her ladies, blushed but didn’t start weeping again. I gritted my teeth, determined to meet his insults and his crudity with sangfroid aplomb.
“Nay, your Lordship. The king and queen are like newlyweds, as they’ve always been.” Court life has taught me to lie with a straight face. Perhaps Arthur should promote me from seneschal to ambassador. Or maybe I should become a lawyer.
“So then, what does bring you to my hall in full armor, Sir Knight? Have I somehow caused offense that you plan to right with a yard of good steel and your strong right arm?”
You never know about a man’s fighting prowess until you’ve seen him in battle. Maleagans might be slow of foot and clumsy with the blade, but somehow I doubted it. Every man except the fool knows of his own strengths and weaknesses; Maleagans, unlikely a fool, would never put himself in a position to fight me if he doubted he would ultimately triumph. On the other hand, a man’s ego is a strange thing, and ultimately makes fools of us all. All fighting men believe, deep in their hearts, that they can beat anyone not named Lancelot, and a lot of them die trying to prove it.
Even I have an ego. There. I’ve out and said it. I’m not proud of getting my ass kicked in every tournament, and sometimes I dream of being a great knight. But the difference is, I’m practical in the care and feeding of my ego, and unlikely to die in individual combat to prove I’m a better man than Maleagans.
“Nay, Count Maleagans. I’m a lover, not a fighter.” Both of us chuckled at that old salt. “But as the king’s seneschal, I’m well versed in the laws of the land. Good damned thing—there seems to be more and more every day. Makes a man wish the Saxons were back so there wouldn’t be so much time to pass laws.”
Maleagans looked wary. “Go on.”
“In this case, the law is called ‘Eminent Domain’.”
“What the fuck does that mean?”
“It means that a subject may be forced to sell something to the crown for the good of all, even if he doesn’t wish to sell. However, he must be given fair compensation for that sale. If he is unsatisfied with the price, he may petition the king in person.”
Wariness had been replaced by confusion. “So, our beloved Arthur wishes to own a rundown summer castle in Dorset? By the gods, man. Why didn’t you say so? Quickly, what price does he propose for such a rare treasure?”
“Nay. As much as I’ve relished the accommodations and your hospitality, and will report such back to the king, you may keep your home and holdings. They are well run, and the rents are paid, um, on demand.” Notice I didn’t say on time. The records showed that Maleagans was notorious about not paying until a tax collector showed up at his doorstep and insisted.
“So if it’s not my castle nor my guest the fair Lady Lorena that the king has need to purchase for the good of the state, to which of my belonging does he intends to apply this new law?”
“In the name of our king Arthur, I hereby proclaim that the Lady Lorena’s dog Miffy is subject to Eminent domain.”
“A dog? Arthur has sent you out into the wilds to purchase a dog?” It took all my experience in the courtly arts to keep from laughing.
Maleagans shook his head. “’Tis the strangest tale I’ve ever heard.” He turned to a servant. “Go fetch the brachet Miffy.”
I braced myself for a long wait as the servant traveled to the lowest dungeon to recover the dog, followed by a deluge of Lorena’s tears at some half-starved mongrel, fur matted and ribs showing. But it was only a couple of minutes before a hubbub of joyful noise and tumult entered the room, eventually sorting itself out as two small girls in pretty white frocks and a fluffy white puff of a dog sporting a blue ribbon around its neck.
“This is Miffy?” I looked over at Lady Lorena, who kept her eyes affixed on her needlework. “Arthur was lead to believe that this dog was being held in a dungeon and fed on stale bread and moat water.”
Maleagans looked abashed. “The mutt has become a favorite of my daughters, who would make my days a living hell if they were not allowed to pet and pamper it every waking moment.”
Now what? “Oswald. My compliments to the Lady Lorena, and would she be so kind as to call her dog.” Oswald strode across the room with a dignity that only a page trained by Guinevere could manage. Everyone in the room stopped whatever they were doing, sewing or chatting or merely standing around, to stare at his unflappable bearing.
Lorena looked at the jumble of girls and dogs, clapped her hands sharply, and called. “Miffy. Come, Miffy.” The puffball looked up with a “how dare you interrupt my play” expression on her face before returning to her frolicking.
“So, Sir Knight. What price does our king offer for this poor, abused dog?”
“I was going to suggest five coppers, but I can see that I’ve sadly undervalued the creature. So I offer as a fair price two gold Caesars. With the admonition that the dog called Miffy be well cared for, should Arthur wish to visit it or summon it to court.”
Maleagans stared at me for a long while before speaking. “I cannot make heads or tails, nor anything in between, of this matter. My first conclusion is that one of us has lost our wits. Maybe both. Come, let us retire to our evening repast while I ponder whether to accept your mad offer or to march on Camelot over legal ownership of a dog.”