The ride back was quiet. I couldn’t seem to get my wits collected. Not that there were all that many to collect. It was like being hung over on Beltane punch—everything sort of dreamy and unfocused.
I had this nagging feeling that I’d done something wrong, but every time I tried to put my finger on what, it wriggled away. I mean, I’d been enchanted. Felled by the use of magic in the hands of an expert. If I’d been similarly bested in the lists by Lancelot, I wouldn’t have felt bad or beaten myself up. So what was the problem here? Not to mention that I still hadn’t a clue how to woo Elaine.
After an hour of sulking, pondering, and racking my brain—an exercise that would have taken ten minutes at most if I’d had just one cup of kaffka—the best explanation I could come up with was that I felt guilty for enjoying my time with Morgan. Based on one kiss from a woman that I’d spent less than an hour with.
Guilt! Was there anything more pointless? Although the Christian priests seem to accomplish great things with it. Guilt over sex was their best seller. Christ, I wasn’t turning into a Christian, was I? No pun intended.
When we got back to the main road to Camelot—I hadn’t remembered turning off when we came this way, or even that we’d even encountered a fork, but we’d clearly gotten off the track. Magic, perhaps?—Oswald stopped his horse.
“Shall I return to Maleagans’ and accept his offer to become his page, Sire?”
His words were like being slapped in the face. Once the ringing noise subsided, I realized that I’d been so self-absorbed I’d spoken hardly a word to him since we’d left. What a jerk! So I got down off my horse and knelt in the dirt before his.
“Noble squire, it would serve me justly if you left my service for another more grateful. You rescued me from an unknown but undoubtedly terrible fate at great risk to yourself, and I’ve had my head so far up my own arse that I haven’t even said thank you. Will you forgive me?”
“Sire!” The shock in Oswald’s voice was, well, shocking. He quickly slid down off his horse. “You can’t kneel to me. You’re a Knight of the Round Table, and I’m a mere squire. It’s just not right.” He reached for my hand to help me up, and when I didn’t respond, he knelt down in front of me.
“The rules of court are that the less noble always kneels before the more noble. And in this escapade, you’ve clearly been nobler than I. So the code of chivalry demands that I not get up until you’ve forgiven me.”
“Forgive you? There’s nothing to forgive. I thought you were angry with me for breaking up your, um, is tryst the correct word, Sire? Breaking up your tryst with a beautiful woman, and a queen at that. Not at all, as you put it, a terrible fate. Sire.”
“Nay, Oswald. I was merely lost in the implications of spending an unknown amount of time in the embrace of the sister of the woman that I love.”
“Three days, Sire. Or rather, three nights and parts of three days.” Then recognition of what I’d said clouded his face. “Queen Morgan is Princess Elaine’s sister? That wasn’t very nice of her, was it, Sire?”
“Some would say she’s broken the oldest taboo in the world. But I get the impression that Queen Morgan doesn’t live by anyone else’s code.” I got up and helped him to his feet. “Come, let’s ride. We have a ways to go if we’re going to make Camelot by nightfall.”
I got the story as we rode. Oswald had come in and discovered Galahaut sleeping in the great hall and the rest of the place abandoned. He tried shaking Galahaut awake, even going so far as yelling at him and gently slapping him, but was totally unsuccessful. The smell in the room began to make him dizzy, so he went back outside to the stables, curled up in his blanket, and slept fitfully until morning.
The next day he found half a dozen servants scurrying around the manor, cooking and cleaning. Galahaut was sleeping right where Oswald had left him, still unresponsive, with servants stepping over and around him to sweep and scrub.
His first hard bit of information had come from Geoffrey. “Sir Kay retired with the Queen last night. The door to her chambers is still closed, so I assume they do not wish to be disturbed.” Oswald had met other queens, but the only one he was familiar with, Guinevere, also occasionally slept with a knight when the king was away. So nothing seemed too far out of the ordinary.
“People were too busy to give me any time or answer my questions. So I hung out until Sir Galahaut finally woke up. It was late afternoon when I was finally able to shake him awake. Man, he must have really been tired.” My own experiences had been akin to Galahaut’s, but I shed no further light on Oswald’s observation.
Oswald stayed with Galahaut for much of the next day. “He showed me how to best employ a short sword, a trick he’d learned from an old Roman armsmaster. It’s very much different than using a traditional longsword. The key is to stay very close to your opponent so he can’t get a full swing at you, because if he does, you’re a goner. You can’t even try to block a cut, you’ll just end up with a broken blade. So unlike the conventional practice, where swordsmen retreat from their enemy’s riposte, you always keep pressing forward. I got pretty good at it, Sire. Sir Galahaut was so impressed he started calling my sword ‘Viper’s Fang.’ I can’t wait to show you.”
“Well, we’re due a little break. So show me.”
He impressed me too, the little shit. After I saw the basis of his technique I could counter it, and as long as I was wearing armor and he basically nothing more than a thick leather shirt, I could have beaten him in a stand-up fight. Particularly considering I outweighed him by a hundredweight. But if I’d just stumbled across him in the wild and taken him for granted, he’d have stuck his little swordette through some opening in my mail before I knew what was going on and spitted me like a capon.
“Maybe we should swap weapons. I could use an edge like that.”
“Don’t think it’d be very helpful in a tournament. It’s sort of an all-or-nothing technique—either you kill your opponent quickly or he polishes you off whenever he feels like it. Plus I don’t think I’d be very helpful coming to your aid if I have to drag my sword along behind, Sire.”
Once Galahaut had accepted Oswald as more of a colleague that a snot-nose kid, they’d talked while they were resting or eating. That’s when Oswald had gotten his first impression that all was not well.
“We’d be talking just sort of normal right up until I’d ask something like, ‘How did you get here,’ or ‘How long do you plan to stay?’ Then he’d get this faraway look in his eyes and seem to lose track of the question.”
The stable boy provided the answer to how long Galahaut had been there. “Her majesty’s only been here a bit more than a week. Sir Galahaut rode in a couple of days after and has been here ever since. Hasn’t even taken his horse out of his stall.”
Oswald eventually tricked Geoffrey into spilling the beans. “I went into the kitchen late last night and told him and the cook I wanted to get some food for the road, since I was certain you’d be ready to ride out shortly after breakfast. They stared at me like I was crazy, then looked at each other and cracked up. I was getting mad but didn’t figure threatening them would get me anywhere. That’s when Geoffrey said, ‘Queen Morgan has a way with guests. They leave when she’s ready for them to leave, and not a minute sooner. Why, it’s almost magic!’ They both started laughing again, and when they finally stopped the cook mimicked his ‘why, it’s almost magic!’ and they started back up again.
“’Well, I’m a guest, and I’m ready to go,’ I told them. Geoffrey sneered. ‘You’re not a guest, you’re a nobody. You need to keep your mouth shut and stay out of sight or she’ll wiggle her fingers and speak some funny words and you’ll be a little dog running around yipping. Take heed, young man. You don’t want to piss off the queen.”
From that, Oswald had managed to put it all together and come up with his desperate plan to silence Morgan and force her to free me. Amazed the shit out of me. I’d have knighted him on the spot except I knew it wouldn’t work out well. The other knights would treat him like a running joke, and besides, he’d have to compete in tournaments.
For the next couple of hours, I would brood awhile on my trespasses against the code of love, and then Oswald would ride up beside me and get me talking for a while. Finally I decided to just quit fretting and get on with life. I shared with Oswald what I knew about Morgan’s sorcery and how weird it was to be enchanted, especially to know what was happening and still not be able to do anything different. I didn’t describe what I did while under her spell; he’s a little young for that.
The rest of the journey passed quickly. The weather was so nice it made me wondered if Morgan was powerful enough to conjure up a storm at night outside her castle to draw visitors in.
Just about the time the sun went down, we rode back into Camelot. The last thing Oswald said before we crossed the drawbridge was, “Questing is a lot more fun than hanging around court. We should do it a lot more often, Sire.”