I would like to claim that I didn’t run after Elaine because I considered all of the ramifications and decided it wouldn’t be a wise plan. But the truth is, I didn’t follow Elaine because I was too flummoxed to do anything. And then once I managed to pull my head out of my ass, I immediately spotted the moon and that set me to sighing like I was, well, moonstruck I guess is the best word. Plus I kept clawing at the burning in my chest where the arrow had pierced.
In other words, I was seriously fucked up. To put it mildly.
Of all the Knights of the Round Table, the one I liked the best was Tristan. He was a great warrior, of course, but beloved by the masses—and the ladies—as a poet and a singer. But beneath all that he was level headed. Capable of holding up his end of a conversation over an ale. And yet after he fell in love with Iseult, he never again was able to think clearly. “Tristan, she’s married to a king who’s a valuable ally to Arthur. Give it up, man,” I would beg him. “Women fall at your feet like Saxon corpses. Surely one of them will do.” And he would shake his head sadly at my lack of understanding and weep as he begin picking out the beginning of another love song on his lute.
How little I understood.
Not even Merlin was immune to the dreaded disease capable of turning the smartest man who ever lived into a bumbling teenager. But I was. Let others play the fool in the service of that crazy little thing called love. Sir Kay would always be clear-thinking and cold-hearted.
I touched my lips that still burned with the memory of Elaine’s kiss and tried to do some simple arithmetic problems to clear my head. 7 times 98 was 686. 411 divided by 3 was 137. But Elaine and I divided by two oaths was still zero.
“No, Sire. There is no one here except Sir Kay.” Oswald’s voice cut through the fog. “Sir Knight is walking in the garden, clearing his head.” He lowered his tone to a stage whisper that I could still hear clearly. “Although he’s a great knight, I dare say he’s a very strange man. Likes to make up problems about knights departing various towns at different times and riding toward each other at different speeds.”
‘Sire’ could only mean Maleagans. He spoke a couple of sentences in a very low voice; the only word I could make out was ‘Princess.’
“No, Sire. There is no one here except Sir Kay. I give my word, on my honor as a squire and formerly a page in the court of the King.” Since Oswald wouldn’t besmirch his honor except possibly to save my life—and then only if he couldn’t think of a way to spin the truth to accomplish the same thing—I took that to mean he’d seen the Princess slip by. “I also swear that Sir Kay has not been anywhere near The Princess’s chambers, nor has he given wine to any of your armsmen.” I could picture in my mind Oswald standing with his hand on his heart, or maybe his swordette. Certainly not his testicles.
Another burst of conversation too low for me to hear. But the words clearly shocked Oswald. “Oh no, Sire. I am deeply honored by such an offer, but I am sworn to Sir Kay and would never consider leaving his service.”
The bastard! Here I was dying inside over an oath given too casually about a woman I hadn’t met yet—who would have guessed I would fall so deeply and totally for her?—while he tried to steal my page! If only he’d sworn not to try to steal my page. That would have cancelled all oaths and made any ploy fair game. I considered challenging him on the spot, but didn’t see how dying would help anything.
“Pity.” Maleagans had raised his voice enough for me to hear. “You’re a plucky lad. I shall regret seeing you leave on the morrow.”
And on top of that, the bastard was kicking us out in the morning. No chance for any more romantic walks or witty repartee with Princess Elaine.
“Good night, Sir Kay,” a woman’s voice called out. It took me a moment to realize it was Lady Lorena. Out walking in the moonlight with the count. I guess now that her brachet was safe and could not be used as leverage to pry open her legs, she was free to negotiate her own conditions. Well, good for her. Nothing warms the heart so much as a quest successfully completed.
With nothing left to hide, I began walking back toward the castle.
Oswald gasped when he saw me. “What happened to you, Sire?”
“Nothing happened. What does it look like?”
“Begging your pardon, Sire. You look as if you were struck with a heavy beam. You are unsteady of foot, and your eyes are glazed.” He peered at me closely, then took a step backward. “Did the Princess strike you, Sire?”
“Not with something more physical than the force of her presence. I’m not surprised that it marked me, though. I fear that I have felt the icy touch of love, Oswald.”
His cherubic face lit up, making him look about eight again. “How exciting, Sire. Will the Princess be accompanying us to Camelot in the morning?”
My gasp was quickly controlled. “I fear not, Oswald. I swore an oath to Maleagans that I would not attempt to steal his nanny. Unfortunately, taking her with us would qualify.”
“Surely the Count is noble enough not to stand in the way of true love, Sire.”
“I fear that any man who would decorate his holdings to look like shit and prefers wild boar to a good cut of beer could not care less about something as sublime as true love.”
“The Count was here, as I’m sure you heard. He believed you to be walking in the garden with the Princess, based on a certain drunken guardsman in front of her chambers. Fortunately, I was able to persuade him that you were not.” Oswald didn’t bother to mention that he’d bent the truth to accomplish aforesaid persuasion. “Then he tried to hire me to stay and work for him. I was flattered and outraged at the same time, but of course I refused his offer.”
A sad look crossed Oswald’s face as he spoke those words. Then he quietly added, “I could agree to become his page in exchange for the Princess.”
If I had not loved him before, I surely did at that moment. I reached out and ruffled his hair, fearing that a hug might be too personal. “Such drastic action, however noble, is not required. We’ll think of something.”
Oswald looked at the ground, and then back at me with a mischievous twinkle. “If we ride out of here in the morning and dawdle along at one league per hour, and the Princess follows two hours later riding hell bent for leather at three leagues per hour, how long would it take for true love to run its course?”
* * *
The gloom of dark clouds and a steady drizzle perfectly echoed my mood as we milled around the courtyard the next morning. I wanted to be on the road, riding hard away from the intensity of my feelings. And yet I kept finding excuses to hang around: a saddle strap that needed repair or a canteen not full. Then when I finally resigned myself to going, Oswald had disappeared. Maleagans poked his head out of a door and wished us a speedy journey for the fourth time. My horse stamped his feet in frustration, his breath forming clouds in the damp chill.
And then my squire was back. Swinging up into his saddle as nimble as a squirrel, he eased his way to within low-talking distance before saying anything.
“The Princess sends her compliments, Sire, and eagerly awaits your return, however long it takes.”
We were passing over the drawbridge as he delivered these words. I was so astonished I almost fell off my steed and to my sure death in the foul moat. When I recovered I looked back and there she was, standing on the wall over to the right, an arm around each of her two white-garbed and ribbon-festooned charges. She raised one hand in a shy wave before pointing us out and saying something to the girls.
And that was it.
I repeated Elaine’s words over and over again in my mind as we rode. Thinking of things I should have said, things I should have done. And mostly, things I should not have done, such as given that stupid oath. On the other hand, Maleagans would never have introduced us in the first place had I not. I tried to imagine an alternate outcome where I would have suspected what a treasure the nanny was in time to refuse the oath, then sought her out and carried her away. But my common sense, what little there was left of it after Eros had wrung me out and left me gutted and drained, refused to engage in such folly. Stop being such a wimp and come up with a plan, you Nancy.
Meanwhile, the weather got nastier by the hour. A few miles from Maleagans’ castle we turned onto a different road toward Camelot, one that seemed to offer more shelter due to the sprawling ancient oaks. But as the clouds gathered and the darkness deepened, the twisted branches seemed more threatening than sheltering.
And then as the darkness closed in and it looked as if we would be spending a cold, wet, miserable night, I saw a light ahead in the distance.