Maleagans led me on a rather desultory tour of the kitchen and dining areas to ‘inspect our goblets and such.’ Having no heart for the task, I didn’t even pretend to be interested as we went through the motions. Of course the Holy Grail wasn’t there. If it was an object of great power, it would have transported itself to somewhere less tasteless. If it wasn’t, well, who the fuck cared if it was there or not? I certainly didn’t.
The household was assembling for the evening meal by the time we’d finished. Needless to say, there was no sign of Elaine. “I’d invite you to stay for dinner, Kay. Even I’m not such a savage as to send a guest out into the dark hungry. But I sense your heart is sore and vexed, and you’d resent the gaiety of our company. So the cook has prepared a packet for you to take on the road.”
In short order I found myself back on my horse, gingerly holding a dripping cloth from which emanated an odor that, with enough imagination, could be associated with real food. The count personally led my steed out through the main gate. There, mounted on his mare with his hands tied to the pommel and a cloth covering his mouth, was Oswald. A burly armsman in a babyshit brown tunic held the horse’s reins, while another had a firm grip on his leg.
“Ah. Here is your squire, Kay. I’m returning him to you, safe and sound.”
“What the hell is he doing bound and gagged?”
Maleagans shrugged. “He was caught skulking through the hallways, up to who knows what. But it would doubtless be considered an insult to the king if I’d had him thrown in the dungeon and fed stale bread and moat water, as I was accused of doing to the hound. And then, I’m sure you would have ended up back here with some new law at your disposal to free him from my clutches. So I’ve saved you from having to return for such a trivial reason.”
As I neared Oswald, the armsman dropped the reins while his fellow slapped the horse on the rump. With a whinny of protest she surged forward and began galloping off down the road away from the castle. Fortunately, she eventually slowed to a trot and allowed me to catch up; otherwise, I’d have had to chase her all the way to Camelot.
Oswald was spitting mad when I removed his gag and began to untie the bonds securing his hands.
“That little smart-ass pretending to be a page never went anywhere near the Princess’s room, Sire. He hung out around the doorway for a few minutes and then returned with a fake message. And when I went to find out what the Princess’s real answer was, they were hiding outside her room waiting for me.”
I guess I should have been furious as well. But I was so relieved that Elaine hadn’t responded to my offer with a cursory, “Of course not,” it was hard to stay angry at Maleagans’ treachery.
“For some reason the count seems to have taken a serious disliking to us, Oswald,” I mused. “What do you think we should do about that?”
“Ride back to Camelot, return with the Company of the Round Table, a host of footmen, and a trebuchet or two. Batter his castle to the ground and haul him before the king in irons.”
“Sounds like a plan to me. Oh, except that he didn’t break any law. Arthur would never go to war with a vassal outside the sanctity of the law. Not to mention that he and all his knights are scattered to the far corners of Britain in search of the Holy Grail.”
“Well, how about if I slip over the wall and skewer him in his sleep?” Oswald was not turning out to be much of a turn-the-other-cheek sort of guy.
“Even better. Except that if you weren’t successful, the count would hang you. And if you were, Arthur would be forced to. Then I’d have to find a new squire, and that would be so much trouble I’d probably just give up my newfound love of questing. But I couldn’t stay in Camelot because Lisle would make my life a holy hell. I’d have to exile myself to France, condemned to a life of drinking wine and eating such oddities as snails and frog legs.”
Oswald wasn’t over his anger by any means. “As you command, sire.”
“Just remember the old saying: vengeance is a dish best served cold.” That earned me a weak smile.
We rode pretty much in silence for another hour before stopping to camp for the night.
Sitting around the fire I discovered that, even choking down the swill that Maleagans’ kitchen had packed for us and without having so much as a glimpse of my lady love, I was content. Elaine hadn’t spurned me after all, and although I still had no idea how to go about pursuing the object of my emotions, I figured something would come up. It always had before (although there was this little nagging worry that it hadn’t happened so far). Spring was out in force, with balmy days and nights without danger of frostbite. And I hadn’t fretted over some petty concern of The Queen for a fortnight.
Oswald, on the other hand, remained a gloomy shadow of the normal indomitable personality I’d come to enjoy so. Finally I had enough.
“OK, squire. You’re coming along quite well in your lessons in the knightly arts.” I was nowhere near the teacher that Guardemaine was, but I’d made time to drill my young pupil every day and could see definite improvement. “You’ve demonstrated steadfastness, creativity, and a larcenous imagination in keeping us well fed and nicely groomed, with enough left over to produce a timely handkerchief for a lady in need. But in the matter of graciously accepting defeat and moving forward, you’re displaying a frightening lack of knightly resilience.”
I was speaking from personal experience now, which made me perhaps the best teacher in the realm. “With that attitude, you have no hope of success. Because the cold, cruel truth is, unless you’re Lancelot, there’s always someone better than you are. So every time you enter a tournament, you’re ultimately going to lose. And then instead of enjoying the challenge, toasting the victor with good grace, and working to get better, you’ll sulk and ultimately sink into an ineffective despair. So get your shit together and buck up, young man!”
Oswald managed a shrug and another weak smile. “I guess I really don’t mind getting caught all that much. There was no way to get into the Princess’s chambers on short notice with guards posted everywhere. But I hate the idea of going back to Camelot.”
“Back to Camelot? Whatever gave you that idea? We’re not going back to Camelot. We’re on a sacred quest in search of the Holy Grail.”
The long face immediately disappeared. “Yes! We’ll probably be the ones to find it, too. With your brains and my larcenous imagination, how can we fail?”
“At this point, it’s only a matter of deciding where to head next.”
We spent the next hour discussing the possibilities. Oswald had never been much of anywhere and was full of ideas, mostly based on the romance and adventure attached to the names. Londinium, Caerleon, Orkney, York! Why not Avalon? With no real appreciation of the distances involved, all places sounded equally attractive.
But I’d gotten the germ of an idea, and the more I toyed with it, the better I liked it. “I have a better idea, lad. Let’s travel to Tintagel.”
“Excellent choice, Sire. Where is Tintagel? And why there?”
“Tintagel is a fortress on the north shore of Cornwall, maybe a hundred or so miles from here. But our journey will be longer, because we’ll have to ride northwest until we hit the coast, and then follow it along. Cornwall is much less tamed than Arthur’s realms, and we’ll have to be ever on our guard against bandits, raiders, and wild beasts. But that’s just the sort of place where knights find adventures after all.”
Oswald’s face was all smiles. “So we will be on the road for a week or more, just to get there?”
“That’s about right.”
“Then I guess I’d better get to sleep so I’ll be fresh for adventure in the morning.”
He was rolling up in his blanket before he reminded me. “You never did say why we’re going to Tintagel, although I guess it really doesn’t matter.”
I looked up at the vast expanse of stars and sighed before answering. “Because that’s where the Princess Elaine grew up.”