Camelot’s Great Hall was deserted. So were the hallways and smaller sitting rooms. The first live bodies I found were in the kitchen, where Cook and Stores were casting bones while half a dozen of the scullery help watched and shouted advice. A small pot of ale had been brought up from the cellar and everyone had a mug, but nobody was falling down drunk. The pots and pans had been scoured after the dinner meal and the floor was scrubbed, ready for the morrow. All was in order, as I’d been sure it would be.
“Sir Kay! You’re home.” Cook had the majority of the coppers on the table piled in front of her. No real surprise there—Stores was a lousy gambler and she cheated. “Nattie, grab that beef joint, let’s get some sliced for Sir Kay and his squire.”
“Nattie’s always grabbing somebody’s joint,” Sal tossed in.
“’Cept yours. It’s too small to get my hands on,” Nattie fired back.
Ah, when the staff is playing at bones, drinking, and swapping insults, all is well in Camelot. At least in my little part of it.
“So, where are all the ironclad ones tonight?”
Nattie looked up from her delicate knife work. “You haven’t heard? They’re all off chasing after the bloody Holy Grail again.”
“The Holy Grail?” I was flabbergasted. “I’ve been gone for less than a week, and come back to find the whole place mad. How did all this come about?”
“It was that new guy, Galahad.” Cook shook her head sadly. “Percival rode with him on his first quest. Rumor is that they got to talking about the glory days of the grail quest and how much fun it was except in the end it was a failure. Got the kid all worked up.”
“He shouldn’t even be back from Ashmoor yet.”
“Apparently he was so filled with righteous fury, he left The Lady Arlon behind with Percival and rode hell for leather to get to her castle. When he arrived, the front gate was unlocked. Pretty solid evidence how poorly things were being run by the young upstart.”
“Good thing too, or he’d still standing there outside the front gate, frothing at the mouth, all dressed up and no place to go,” Nattie tossed in.
Cook took up her tale. “Galahad kicked in the door of young Jude’s chambers, beat him with the flat of his sword until he begged for mercy, tied him up, tossed him over the back of his saddle, and headed back for Camelot.”
“Silly bastard has no idea how a quest is supposed to go,” Nattie sneered. “Lady Arlon is a fine bit of widow woman, even if her ass is a bit skinny for my taste.” She grabbed a handful of her own substantial haunch, to a chorus of hoots from the guys clustered around.
“She’s supposed to show her appreciation to her gallant knight errant by being a little errant herself,” Stores offered. He was wittier with words than the rest of the lot. “He could have learned a lot from a woman with her experience.”
“But the dumb little shit didn’t even bring her along.” Nattie leaned over like she was going to spit on the floor in disgust, but remembered who she was trying to impress and thought better of it.
“So how did Galahad sell the quest to the rest of them?” I wasn’t making much sense of the story so far.
“He spent a couple of days talking to anybody who would listen,” Stores answered. “He’s pretty convincing, actually, especially being all fired up and everything. But at first nobody was particularly interested, except for Father Ignatius. The two of them spent a lot of time huddled together, and Galahad began going to mass every day. On Sunday, Father Ignatius preached a fiery sermon about how the quest was a sacrament unto God. Then Guinevere wouldn’t allow us to start serving the midday meal until she’d finished a long-winded speech about the Holy Grail being man’s ultimate offering to God and Jesus. When she finally wound down, Agravain jumped up and started into how maybe he wasn’t the best knight in the lists, but before Jesus he was second to none. He swore an oath to leave the next morning and not return until the grail was found and returned to its rightful place. Which I suppose he meant to be Camelot, although he didn’t specify. After that, things pretty much got out of control. Before nightfall the next day, the place was mostly empty.”
“So they’re all gone?”
“Everybody except Lancelot, who the King left in charge.”
Oh ho, isn’t that convenient. The Queen stirs up the Knights of the Round Table, and ends up with nobody home except one knight to stir her own pot. Well, I was in no position to throw stones. I’d fallen in love with the King’s sister and spent the next three days boffing a different sister. I hoped Morgause didn’t show up any time soon. I could only imagine the mess that might turn out to be, what with no more self-restraint than I’d exhibited when it came to the King’s siblings.
Oswald was wrapping his portion of meat inside a slice of bread. “Sire, if you don’t need me for the next little while, I have an errand I need to run.”
I looked over at him fidgeting and immediately guessed what that mysterious errand was. “Well, you need to unpack our bags, polish my armor and oil yours, sharpen our swords, make sure our horses are well curried, and clean the road off our boots. After that, you should be free to do whatever you need.”
The stricken look on his face confirmed my suspicion. “Um, yes Sire. I’ll get right on that.”
“Oh, buck up. It’ll wait. Go tell the fair Lisle that you’ve returned.”
Oswald turned a bright shade of red. “Oh, I don’t mind making sure the chores are done first, Sire.”
“Maleagans may stand in the way of true love. Morgan may inhibit its natural ebb and flow. Even Arthur may be insensitive to its demands when compared with his own petty desires. But I, Sir Kay, stand in Tristan’s stead as love’s true and unwavering champion. I will never, ever get in its way. Off you go.”
And off he went, like the Saxons were after him.
I mulled the problem over as I went through the routine of being back home. I had no interest in chasing some mythical chunk of badly-fired pottery again. I had my own quest, except I hadn’t the slightest idea where or how to begin. And hanging around Camelot had about as much appeal as a meal at Maleagans.
Problems with no good solutions generally end up at the Old Boar’s Head. I was near the bottom of my third mug of ale but stubbornly resisting ordering another, thoroughly beaten in a game of chess but stubbornly putting off resigning, when Oswald slipped in. Gascon spotted him without looking up and winked at me.
“Kay, I am truly exhausted,” he spoke in a voice loud enough to be heard across the inn. “I would love to call it a night and go find my own warm bed. But my headstrong daughter told me in no uncertain terms not to come home until your squire left. Do you suppose you could drop by and speed him along?”
“You left your daughter alone with that rascal?” I shook my head slowly. “My friend, he’s not trustworthy when it comes to the weaker sex. Why only this morning he had a naked woman by the hair and refused to let her go until she had agreed to his demands.”
“Of course I didn’t leave them alone. Esmeralda is with them, keeping a close watch.”
“Yes, but she’s a woman too. Gascon, I think you’d better rush home and defend what is yours.”
Gascon shoved his chair back and leapt to his feet before pretending to notice Oswald for the first time. “Aha, there the scoundrel is now. What have you done with my daughter, vile fiend?”
“Oh, no, Father. Lisle is the most precious of treasures. I would die before I let harm or dishonor come to her!” He stood tall and straight as spoke, blushing furiously.
“That’s my betrothed you’re speaking so fondly of. By Frigga’s unwashed crotch, those are fighting words. Defend thyself, knave!” I snatched up a table knife and a metal plate and advanced on my squire, waving the knife furiously.
“But Sire. You’re in love with another!”
“Oh ho. Now it is plain who has played my daughter for the fool. Toying with her affections, and all the while with no intention of being true to your word.” Gascon snatched up the other knife and clashed it into my plate, which I was holding sort of in the vicinity of where a shield would be.
“Boys, boys!” Gilda shrieked. “There will be no swordplay at the Old Boar’s Head. You know the rules. The penalty is no ale for a month, so I suggest you put your weapons down and make up.” By this time Gascon and I were down on our knees, whacking each others’ plate furiously and laughing until tears streamed down our faces. The innkeep’s dog started barking, while a drunk over in the corner raised his head to see what all the commotion was about before passing back out.
“No ale for a month? God’s wounds, Gascon. This wench plays a heartless game. Nonetheless, I fear we must cease our duel to the death before we bring down the curse of sobriety upon ourselves.” I stood and helped Gascon to his feet. “Here, Father, let us kiss and make up.” I pursed my lips in his direction before suddenly redirecting my attentions and kissing Gilda’s cheek soundly instead. She pushed me away and shook her finger at me, but her eyes were twinkling.
When the uproar had settled and Gascon had said his goodbyes, Oswald took his place across the chessboard and began resetting the scattered pieces. “So, squire, what shall we do? The King and his loyal knights are all off in search of a mysterious cup that probably doesn’t exist. A messenger was sent to intercept King Marcus and tell him not to come, so my calendar of social responsibilities is empty. If we stay here you’ll pretty much have Sweet Lisle to yourself, except the Queen will discover that we’re here and find plenty for us to do.”
“Lisle will wait for me. She promised. I think we should go questing, Sire.”