The gloomy weather, darkening skies, and twisted oaks formed the perfect backdrop for my growing sense of unease. A wolf even howled somewhere far off in the distance. All we needed was some scary music—maybe one of Tristan’s sad ballads where you believe doomed love is going to happen to you instead of him. And when we finally our destination, I fully expect it to be a dark and misshapen castle that exudes the color and odor of dung. Wait! I’m describing Maleagans’ place.
Except when the source of the light finally came into view, it was absolutely nothing like what I’d pictured. I couldn’t get a great look at the building because of the growing darkness, but from what I could tell, it was a walled manor house in the Roman style. Built in a more peaceful time; definitely not designed to withstand a siege. A stone wall with a stout gate, but without moat or drawbridge a battering ram would have had attackers inside in moments. And no guards present.
Well, the Saxons were under treaty and sea raiders were not as common as they once were. And this close to Camelot, bandits would be just as scarce. Still, I was surprised that the manor was intact and apparently undamaged.
A leather thong that stretched through the lintel rang a bell inside when I tugged it. A few minutes later I heard footsteps, then the latch being lifted.
Standing in front of me was a man in some small degree of distress. Hair tousled, dark circles under his bloodshot eyes, clothing disheveled, belt hung over one shoulder, boots missing. At least he looked reasonably clean, so whatever battlefield he’d been on, there’d been no Saxons there. In contrast, the naked sword in his hand was well-tended, and he held it with an easy fa-miliarity.
I peered closer. “Galahaut?”
Galahaut threw his arms around me. Totally caught me off guard. I mean, admittedly, Galahaut was more emotional than your average Knight of the Round Table. But he and I were pretty much on a nod-as-you-pass basis.
“Welcome. Welcome man. Come on in, get out of the drizzle. I’m so glad you’re here.” He hugged me with such enthusiasm that the pommel of his sword dug into my back. OK, enough. I worked my hands between us and began to push, and finally he released me.
“Considering how foul it’s getting out there, I’m glad to be here too. Where’s here?”
Galahaut looked a little puzzled by my question. “Why, here is right here, of course. Let’s get your horses taken care of and you in where it’s warm.” He stuck two fingers in his mouth and whistled, and a moment later a stableboy appeared to lead our mounts away.
“I’ll make sure of the horses and meet you inside later,” Oswald muttered before fading into the mist.
We walked down a short stone walkway through a pleasant courtyard. There was just enough light left to see that no weeds poked through the cracks, and the dirt to either side was well packed and free of debris. Someone cared a great deal about appearance here. Wild roses grew within careful limits on either side of the doorway at the end of the path. Sturdy iron hinges allowed the stout oak door to swing in without so much as a squeak, to reveal a hallway lit by sconces. So far the only disheveled thing I’d seen was Galahaut.
“Your Majesty, we have a guest.”
A woman’s voice replied from inside what I assumed was the great hall. “Well, I hope he’s not standing on ceremony. It’s a little late for affairs of state. Show him in.”
We passed through a curtained doorway and into a hall that wasn’t all that great, if by great you mean big. But the décor was resplendent. A warm fireplace with a marble hearth actually warmed the room, unlike the big drafty fires in Camelot’s great hall. A table and chairs for a dozen filled the center of the room, with little clusters of comfortable furniture in various corners.
Galahaut led me over toward one of those clusters, where a woman reclined on a couch, her features hidden by the shadows. Several paces away we stopped so that he could bow before announcing me.
“Your Majesty, may I present Sir Kay, Knight of the Round Table and Seneschal of the Court of King Arthur.”
The woman rose to a seated position and held out the back of her hand, clearly expecting me to come forward and kiss it. “Ah, Kay. Welcome to our party, which is growing by the day.”
Just before I reached her outstretched hand, I recognized who she was. “Morgan?”
“Sir Kay, may I present Queen Morgan of Gore, half sister of the high king, priestess of the sis-terhood of Avalon, known and loved by all as ‘le Fay.”
The woman in front of me, even allowing for the dim light, could not have possibly been more than twenty-five. Her face was unlined, skin perfect, hair rich and full. The hand that I kissed was unmarked by age, unlike her sister’s that I’d encountered in similar circumstances the night before, and far warmer than the fire could account for. She laughed a rich laugh that made me a little uneasy, despite its seeming warmth, displaying small, perfect teeth. Even though my head knew that she was some six or seven years older than Arthur, my eyes refused to believe it.
“Some wine for our guest,” Morgan called out. “Please, Sir Knight, be seated.” She pointed to a comfortable cushion on the floor not far from her feet. “We get so few visitors out this way, we try to pamper and spoil each one of them.”
There was an iron brazier on a low table in front of the queen. Morgan reached into a nearby jar and extracted some chips, which she sprinkled onto the tiny mound of glowing coals. Immedi-ately the air was filled with the strong odor of cedar and lavender, and other scents I didn’t rec-ognize. A servant holding a jug shuffled in and proceeded to fill a silver goblet for me, then re-filled those in front of Morgan and Galahaut.
“So, Kay. What brings you to my little domicile?”
“Curiously, your majesty, I am on my way back home from a quest where I met your sister.”
“How intriguing. Morgause lives nowhere near here, and my little cottage is definitely not be-tween Camelot and Orkney. And unless the rumors are all wrong, you’re not noted for taking long journeys to the far reaches of the isles. So tell me more, Sir Knight. I’m all ears.”
“Not Morgause, Majesty. Elaine lives a mere day’s journey south of here.”
“Elaine.” As intended, I had surprised Morgan. She covered it well, but with my long experience in court manners and mannerisms, I wasn’t fooled. “I hadn’t realized she was anywhere near here.” Morgan shook her head. “No, why be dishonest? I haven’t seen my oldest sister since our paths diverged. Haven’t even thought of her in a decade, probably.”
“How long since you saw her last?”
“Ah, Kay. Don’t you know better than to ask questions like that of a woman? With your exalted sense of numbers, you could easily compute my age if I answered. How old do you think I am?”
Galahaut spoke up from the other side of Morgan’s couch. He’d been so quiet, and I so intent on the queen, I’d frankly forgotten about him. “Twenty-two, I’d say.”
Morgan leaned over and tousled his hair. “You’re such a dear boy. Kay, would you care to ven-ture a guess?”
“Should I be gracious and flattering to show off my skills in diplomacy, or cold and calculating?” Morgan opened her palms up, then made a come forth gesture with her fingers. “You are a few months from your 49th birthday.” Answered that way, it gave me the most leeway; she could be 49 already, or her birthday coming up.
“Aha! Well done, Sir Knight. Galahaut, darling, you’ve been cavorting with a crone who’s almost a half century old. What does your knightly pride think of that?”
“I don’t believe it, that’s what I have to say.”
Morgan reached down and gently tugged his ear, causing Galahaut to blush. “Isn’t he lovely?” It was becoming clear to me that the two of them shared something deeper than courtly love. Something about half a foot deeper.
The queen fed some more chips onto the brazier, speaking some words under her breath as she did. She then picked up the jug and refilled my goblet, speaking to Galahaut as she did.
“You’ve had such a long, trying day, dear boy. Why don’t you just take a little nap so you’ll be refreshed for the morrow?” Galahaut didn’t answer but meekly moved to lay his head down on his cushions. In a few moments he was breathing deeply.
“So how did you find my sister, Kay?”
My head was spinning a little, which I attributed to the wine and the warmth following a long day in the saddle. Mild curiosity about Oswald flitted briefly through my thoughts but didn’t linger.
“Truthfully, Majesty, I found her to be the most intriguing woman I’ve ever met.” As those words left my lips I realized that they were both true and horribly indiscrete. One never admits in front of a woman that he finds another woman more fascinating, even if both of you know it’s true. Which in this instance wasn’t even the case; only I had known before I’d given away valuable information for free. Oops. There goes that ambassadorial appointment.
“Really. How interesting. Here, move your cushion closer so we don’t have to shout so. What did you find so intriguing about her?”
“She was so bright and learned, yet full of playful wit.” Discretion and diplomacy seemed to have totally abandoned me. In a way, it was like I was separated from the conversation, hovering a little above my body, watching myself answer Morgan’s questions. “Not to mention that she can read!” As I said those words, the me that was watching realized that if Elaine had learned be-cause of her father’s indulgence, Morgan probably read as well. I shared that tidbit with the me that was talking.
“Aha. I’ll bet you can read, too.”
“Of course. Morgause, too. Three of us reprobates, flung into the world to give lie to the intellec-tual limitations that all men believe women have.” Morgan took a sip of her wine, then refilled my goblet, which somehow had become empty again. She spoke a few low words again, as if speaking to herself, but I dismissed it as insignificant.
“It sounds as if you were quite taken by her. Hmm? How fun! I’m dying to see what my sister looks like after all these years.”
“I would be happy to escort you there, your majesty.”
“Happy to see her again, you mean?” Morgan chuckled deep in her throat. “There are much faster ways, Kay. Come, I’ll show you.”
She rose gracefully and stretched out her hand for mine as I scrambled up from the pillows. It was fortunate that she did, because I found myself a little unsteady on my feet and might have fallen back without her steadying touch. Her hand seemed even hotter than I’d remembered from before.
With her free hand she gathered up the little jar of chips, tucked them somewhere I didn’t note, then picked up the brazier by its slender chain. “Geoffrey,” she called as we stepped toward an-other curtained doorway opposite where Galahaut and I had entered. “Please bring the wine and goblets to my chambers, and then lock up for the night. I’ll see to our guest.”