Sleep was a lost cause.
Not that I was too full to be comfortable. Not too full of swill, in any case. Too full of emotion, mayhap.
An oath is a funny thing. When you swear fealty to your lord, you generally do so in the name of something you hold sacred. A priest might swear on the splinter of the true cross purchased from a wandering merchant at the little pissant market town of Lourdes, although only Yahweh and perhaps a couple of his drinking buddies know how such a thing got there in the first place. Knights of the Round Table swear their oath to Arthur holding their swords, which were pretty damned sacred back when there was a Saxon behind every tree and most men could only afford a spear. In the old days a man would swear while holding his own balls. Which I guess, when you get right down to it, is about as sacred as it comes (no pun intended).
So when you don’t really hold anything sacred, an oath should be pretty easy to break. Right?
But for reasons that I can’t articulate, it isn’t. Oh, I rationalize that order and civilization depend on allegiance to oaths. Except that treaties are broken all the time. That’s why a treaty always involves the exchange of hostages: so the aggrieved party will have somebody to slaughter if you go back on your bargain. Kings usually leave a kid that they don’t like all that much as a hostage. I heard that King Hroth actually broke a treaty just to get rid of his wife’s favorite brat that he couldn’t stomach being around.
But an oath is sacred, independent of what you swore it on. My father, the patient and loving Sir Ector, drilled that into my head early and often. It is now stuck there, too deep for me to extract without an axe.
Finally, after an hour of pacing, I rationalized that I wasn’t actually considering breaking my oath. At least not right away. What Maleagans had forced me to swear is that I wasn’t “going to try to take his nanny like I did the dog.” (The idea of taking his nanny like a dog briefly crossed my mind, but only as a pun, not a real image of an actual deed. I’m too old and sedate for such thoughts.)
“Oswald. I have a message to be delivered, but you need to promise to be really, really careful. There are guards out there, and you can’t afford to get caught. So if there’s the slightest chance of discovery, abandon the whole idea.”
“A page abandon his charge, Sire? I thought you said that a page never abandons his duties.”
“Well, that was in theory. This is in practice. Sometimes they’re not exactly the same.”
Oswald looked dubious. “If you say so, Sire. Deliver the message, but be extremely cautious and take no chance on being caught. Got it, Sire. What is the message, and to whom should I deliver it?”
I swear Oswald winked as he said those last six words. Thor’s mighty fore¬skinned hammer, did he know everything?
“My compliments to the Princess Elaine, and I would be pleased if she deigned to meet me for a walk and idle conversation.” Oswald clicked his heels and raced the three paces to the door. Then he abruptly stopped, eased the door open, held his finger to his lips, and slipped out.
I didn’t really need to worry about Oswald. It’s not like some babyshit-attired armsman was going to skewer him, or that he’d have to face a fully-armored Maleagans in the morning with only his finely-tempered swordette. But I did anyway. Somewhere between when he’d first summoned me to attend the Queen and now, I’d grown quite fond of the cheeky little bastard. Or maybe it was just that I didn’t want to have to break the bad news to Lisle, not to mention the cherubic twin sister. So I continued to wear a path in the stone floor of my chambers.
Then he was back. “The princess’ compliments, Sire, and she would be most pleased to meet you in the back garden at the statue of Andromache in a quarter hour.”
“How will I recognize her?”
“Sire? She will look about the same as she looked at dinner, I suppose.”
“No, Oswald. Not how will I recognize the princess. How will I recognize Andromache?”
“Um, I have no idea, Sire. I assumed you would know. I can go find out.”
“No, don’t bother. Just testing to see if there were limits to your knowledge. How did you get in to see the princess so quickly?”
“The armsman outside of her door was lying on the floor snoring, with a flagon of wine and a spilled cup, Sire.”
Hmm. Guards at Camelot weren’t given wine to help them pass the night, nor where they commonly flush enough—or daring enough—to bring their own. I didn’t suppose the Castle Maleagans was a lot different in that regard. But I let it go for the nonce.
Tossing a dark cape over my tunic, I headed for the garden with Oswald a step behind. I started to tell him to stay but decided he might be useful.
Although my life is hardly ever like one of the stories the bards spin, the moon was up and almost full. In the silvery light, babyshit brown was just another shade of gray. The garden was a small alcove with a path easily visible in the moonlight. Near a small pool, a waist-high statue of a woman looked up at the moon with her arms folded over her breast. I didn’t know anything about Andromache except that Achilles had killed her husband Hector and dragged his body around the city behind his chariot, and the Greeks had thrown her son from the walls. This statue looked sad enough to have experienced those things. It could also have been any of a thousand British women who had lost their husbands and children to the Saxons. The artist would have had a vast choice of models, had there been anyone in Britain who could carve such a statue. But since there hadn’t been for a hundred years, I supposed it was Roman.
“Prompt as well as witty.” The Princess’ voice from the shadows startled me. “Not to mention daring. Do you have every trait a woman desires in a man?”
“That, dear princess would be impossible. From my experience with women, were one ever to find everything that she desired in a man, why she would merely conjure up a few more wants.”
“Ooh, the night grows older and the moon wanes, but the wit remains ever the same. So much better to have wit than mere virility, which sadly wanes quicker than the moon. Wouldn’t you agree?”
“It is common for beauty to wane as well. But now I discover that there is a beauty that, like the hills and the moonlight, is ageless. How does a mere mortal woman come to possess such a thing?”
“Perhaps you have made a brash assumption, Sir Knight. But thank you for your appreciation all the same.”
“Ah. I have stumbled across a goddess. Well played, princess. Does that mean that your sisters are immortal as well? That would certainly explain Morgan’s visage. When I saw her the other day, she could easily have been half her age.”
“You saw Morgan? How is my willful, headstrong baby sister?”
“She was visiting the court at Pentecost, but then disappeared before I could speak with her. So I have no idea how she is, except ageless like her sister.”
“Good bloodlines, I suppose. Although in Morgan’s case, if only a fraction of the rumors are true, hers are augmented by the arts.”
“The arts, Princess? As in, the womanly arts? How to walk gracefully and expertly apply plant extracts to darken the lips and make the cheeks appear to be blushing?”
Elaine laughed, much more honestly than the very restrained titter she’d exhibited in Maleagans’ dining hall. “Of course not, silly man. Even I use those arts. No, I mean the magic arts.”
“Morgan is a magician?”
“I think “witch” is the term commonly bantered about.”
“Ah.” Perhaps I had heard that rumor long ago, but dismissed it as mere peasant chatter. One thing I didn’t do was pooh-pooh the concept of magic. I’d lived around Merlin too long not to believe in magic. But it wasn’t a belief like the ignorant and the superstitious have. I’d seen him light a fire with his forefinger, not to mention all of the predictions about the future that came true. He didn’t show off his prowess intentionally, but he’d gotten used to my being around, and flint and steel could be such a bother. No, magic is real. But it is also very rare. So Morgan dabbled in the arts as well? That would certainly explain her youthful looks.
One thing I knew for certain: it was a very unusual family.
“How long has it been since you’ve seen your baby sister, Princess?”
“I have an idea, Sir Knight. Here we find ourselves in this most extraordinary situation: out in the garden, bathed by this intoxicating moonlight which the bards all describe as romantic. And alone for all practical purposes, although I suppose your delightful page is lurking out there somewhere, waiting for an opportunity to be useful. But the night wanes, as do most things as I noted earlier. Let’s not waste this precious hour talking about my family.”
Sounded like a come-on to me. Yet I didn’t think the Princess Elaine was asking me to throw her down in the grass and haul her dress up around her waist. I mean, I’m not the world’s most experienced judge of women—and as far as I can tell, even the most experienced judge of women is only right about half the time. But the Princess struck me as the ‘I only fuck in bed wearing a clean, white nightgown’ sort. Or perhaps I was merely hopelessly prejudiced by the word ‘princess.’
“And a beautiful garden it is. So out of style with the rest of the castle. I wonder how it came to be here? And while I’m idly wondering, I wonder how your guard happened to be drunk.”
“And so with all of your purported mathematical expertise, have you put one and one together and come up with how the two are related?”
“I could speculate that you designed the garden, Princess. Particularly since I know that it is you who insist on the daughters being dressed tastefully. But it would be bold, perhaps even inappropriate, to suggest that it was also you who plied the guard with strong drink. To what end, I would have to ask next? And the only answer I can come up with is that you wanted him out of the way so Oswald could deliver my invitation. But the implications of that simple conclusion boggle the mind. And so I keep adding one and one and coming up with two and a half.”
“So perceptive, and yet so self-deprecating, Sir Kay. How charming. Sir Gawain would have immediately assumed that I drugged the guard so I could experience walking with him in the moonlight.”
“Many a woman has gone through much more to walk with Gawain in the moonlight, Princess.”
“And yet, how many books do you suppose he has read in the last decade, Sir Kay?”
Elaine looked up at the moon, stroking her chin as if a man deep in thought. “I have another idea. Let’s drop these silly titles and just be ordinary men and women, if only for tonight. I’ll pretend to be Elaine, and you can be Kay.”
“How daring, and yet how freeing, . . . um, Elaine. I stand in awe at your willingness to toss convention aside, even for an hour. Most people, when they’ve shed the garments of title and position, why there’s nothing left behind.”
“Exactly. So, Kay, when you’ve shed your garments, what position is left behind?” The wicked grin that crossed Elaine’s face suggested that the double entendre was absolutely what she’d intended. Perhaps I’d been wrong in my earlier assessment.
“Certainly not the position of authority. It is a garment that I’ve put on unwillingly, like a pair of tight boots. I find myself most eager to shed it.”
“So, ordinary and garmentless, you’d submit to the authority of a mere woman? Even out of the bedroom, I find that unlikely.”
What do women want most? I’d had that conversation with Sir Gawain one night after some bard had told a bawdy tale about a knight marrying a loathsome woman in order to find the answer to that question for King Arthur. Imaginative, but silly. What would Arthur need of such an answer? “To have her own way,” Gawain declared with total confidence. “A woman wants nothing more in the world than to have her own way. More than love, more than respect, more than riches for her husband and happiness for her children.”
“Having never been in such a situation, I can only imagine. How does one take off a lifetime of garments? Even in the bedroom, where gown and trousers are easily shed, removing position would be far more difficult. But let us imagine privacy far beyond a mere bedroom door. The privacy of our own space, a rocky islet out in the ocean of the imagination, free of custom and convention. In such a place, why not be more daring yet? Why cannot a man and a woman be equal partners?”
Elaine reached out a finger and touched my lips. “That is the boldest thing I’ve ever heard a man utter. You must be a fearless knight indeed to even think such a thing, much less say it out loud.”
“And yet thoughts such as those are no rarer than a noble woman who reads. How did such a thing come to be?”
“I can only speculate how you came by such bravery, Kay. Knowing nothing about you except the rumors, which so far are all wrong. They speak of a cowardly man who hides behind his position as Seneschal to cower in the kitchen instead of venturing forth in the real world. A man without graces of any sort who exists only to be unhorsed in tournaments by real knights. But speculate I can, and I will. Growing up under the influence of Merlin and the guidance of Sir Ector, even in the shadow of Arthur, you developed a deep sense of self-worth which you hold dearer than life. And holding virtues dearer than life is what engenders fearlessness.”
Confused at first by Elaine’s answer, I realized that she had deliberately misrepresented my question, “How did such a thing come to be?” And yet her answer was eerily accurate. Well, two could play that game, as we seemed fated to do.
“I too can speculate, and I will. Having a family of all women, your gentle father, who doted on his daughters, determined that they would not be held down in the world by their inability to read. And so at great expense he hired a tutor to teach you the scholarly arts. At first you were cautious, having frittered away so much of your early childhood learning how to align stitches. But to your surprise, you discovered that you loved knowledge. And so you have since spent a lifetime reading every book and scroll you could lay your hands on.”
Elaine sighed when I was halfway through my soliloquy before breaking into a smile that caught the moonlight and set her face aglow. “Merlin clearly taught you some of the Arts yourself, so accurately can you read the past of which you cannot know. My husband was also a good, gentle man who indulged my every whim despite my coming to the marriage bed soiled by my stepfather’s uncontrolled lust. The duke had no personal interest in knowledge that couldn’t help him best an opponent or improve his lot in life. And yet he would buy me manuscripts, and then sit and suffer in silence, feigning interest, while I read passages to him aloud.”
Her use of the past tense—not to mention the fact that she was living here at Maleagans’ castle—led me to the conclusion that her husband was dead. “When did he die?”
A trace of bitterness leaked through Elaine’s burst of laughter. “A long, long time ago. He was thirty years older than I, already grey when we wed. Still, we had a happy decade together. That’s more than most people get, I think. Even people who have been married twice that long.”
“A decade of marital bliss is right at ten years more than I’ve had.” A lifetime of hiding emotions kept any hint of bitterness out of my voice.
“Ah, Kay. What a pair we are.” Elaine touched my face again, her fingers tracing the lightest of lines across my forehead, then my eyebrows, and then once over each eyelid. “Alone except for our books.” She touched my forehead again. “Whenever we are around people, books seem so much more appealing. People’s heads are so empty, their vision so parochial, their knowledge so limited. But in the wee hours, alone in our beds, are books enough?”
I dared to reach forth my hand to stroke Elaine exactly as she had touched me, soothing her eyebrows, closing her eyes one at a time with the faintest touch I could manage. She kept her eyes shut, raising her head as if drinking in the moonlight, even after I had moved my hand away.
I’ve been wounded before—what warrior who ever stood in a dozen shield walls had not? Felt the shock of a Saxon’s axe break mail and rend the tender flesh beneath it, wondered if I were dying. But never had I experienced so mortal a wound as Eros’ arrow which came slashing through my breastbone and cleanly pierced my heart.
“Elaine.” That one word, packed with so much joy, so much anguish, was all I could manage.
“Kay.” Her voice, softer and gentler and higher though it was, could have been mine. A tear leaked out of the corner of each closed eye.
“What is your oath to Maleagans?”
“To remain with his daughters until they are wed.”
“Jesus and all the other gods. And I am sworn to make no attempt to steal you.”
“Even foresworn, do no swear so, my love.”
And then she was in my arms, her lips on mine. Fierce, consuming, burning away the last of my careful restraint. A kiss fueled by the vast holes in our lives from all that we’d missed, emptiness burning hotter than oak.
“Sire.” Oswald’s hiss cut through my utter inattention to everything else in the world. “Someone approaches.”
Elaine’s gasp was almost inaudible, but I could feel it across the tiny space that separated our mouths. She brushed my lips once more, tears freely streaming down her face. And then she slipped out of my arms and disappeared into the foliage.