In the tales the troubadours tell, a Knight of the Round Table often wins the admiration of a fair lady through an adventure that begins with a dwarf. Lancelot in particular seems to be unusually susceptible to the overtures of dwarves. But I guess that’s not unexpected, since Lancelot is the hero in half the tales. Sir Kay stars in . . . well, none so far. But now that I was spending more time away from Camelot, I was cautiously optimistic.
I’ve been a Knight of the Round Table for eighteen years and I’ve hardly ever even seen a dwarf. An old dwarf used to travel with Largee the jester. A rotund fellow with short, stumpy legs and bad knees. Rumor was that he’d once been part of the act because people naturally love to laugh at the less fortunate, but when I knew him he was too grumpy to laugh at any more and too hobbled up to lead knights off on adventures.
But sure enough, we were riding along a nearly overgrown road when a dwarf poked his head out of some bushes and frantically beckoned for us to follow him. Throwing caution to the wind because, well, because that’s what we knightly sorts do, we galloped through the bushes where he’d disappeared.
As things worked out, the troubadours aren’t going to tell about this one either, so I’m still going to have to wait. The dwarf turned out to be a chubby, humpbacked kid about Oswald’s age, although chubby peasant children are every bit as rare as dwarves. He led us to a misshapen hovel from which the sounds of rude laughter and an occasional cry rose over the squealing voices of pigs and the bawling of the other children clustered outside.
Since no self-respecting evil knight would enter such an environment in search of wealth or entertainment, I cleverly deduced that our foes were likely bandits. As it turned out, they were mere ruffians instead, not even rising to the level of organization of banditry. Three of them—one searching for anything of value among the poor belongings, one cuffing the farmer around, and the third gleefully raping the wife.
I was wearing mail, bracers, and greaves—if searching for adventure, one should be prepared to find it—and so there was a certain amount of rustle and clatter as I entered the hovel. The two not engaged in carnal fulfillment exchanged a look of “Oh, shit” and scrambled for their weapons, which were stout oak cudgels. Clubs? They were going to take on an armored knight with clubs? Well, what were their options? I was blocking the doorway so flight, the obvious strategy of choice, didn’t appear to be an alternative. In less time than it takes to tell about it, their souls had left their mortal remains and the packed earth of the floor was soaking up their blood.
The third ruffian snatched up a crude dagger and held it to the throat of the woman. “Don’t come any closer, or the slut dies. I swear.” He worked his way to a standing position as he blustered, holding his terrified victim close and in front of him. He wasn’t going to be much of a challenge with his trousers down around his knees, but he certainly could make good his threat to kill the woman.
Oswald had slipped through the door behind me. “Please, good fellow. The woman you are holding is an inadequate hostage in so many ways,” he spoke calmly as he wormed his way past me into the crowded room. “She is nothing to this knight, who will not even blink before deciding to kill you, even if she dies in the process. Here, take me instead.”
The ruffian gaped in astonishment at Oswald, who by that time was close enough to sweep his little swordette from behind his leg where he’d held it hidden. The painstakingly honed edge easily severed the hand holding the knife from the arm supporting it. The man had just enough time to cry out before Oswald’s second slash opened his throat, separating his vocal chords from the air powering them and abruptly shutting off the noise. He pulled the woman toward him and away from the spray of blood, although her dress was already spattered with the first blow.
“Dear lady, I, uh, regret that we arrived too late to prevent thy discomfort. Pray forgive our tardiness. Hopefully, our actions re. . . have redressed your grievance adequately.”
The woman stared at Oswald as if he were some creature from darkest Africa. Well, in her world, I supposed he was, with all his fancy words that she likely had no inkling of their meaning.
After that, there was little we could do. We couldn’t undo the rape, and we’d prevented anything worse. Hopefully we’d interrupted the coitus before he knocked her up. I guess we might have helped drag the bodies outside, but that was seriously beneath our class so we didn’t. I did give the man a gold coin, which was much more than the woman would have earned if she’d sold herself instead of being forced. The ersatz dwarf got a silver piece and a pat on the back from a real live Knight of the Round Table for a job well done.
Such are adventures since the Saxon treaty. Lancelot gets the giants and trolls, we get ruffians with clubs.
“That was some pretty slick sword work,” I complimented my squire when we were back on the road. Oswald had a grim expression and was looking a little green around the gills. “I wasn’t sure how I was going to finish it without the woman being harmed. Unless we let the man go, which would have offended all sense of right and justice. But you managed to wrap everything up most satisfactorily.” I didn’t necessarily want him to dwell on just having killed a man, but what the heck. He was destined to be a knight in a few years, and that’s what knights do. Tournaments are just a way to keep busy and in shape until the lord needs somebody else killed.
Oswald shrugged. “He forfeited any consideration of mercy when he discomforted the woman. The King said it best: might doesn’t make right. Truly, if they’d been merely hungry, they could have taken a pig and been gone before we got there.”
We rode a short distance further before he dismounted and hurried into the forest. Moments later I heard the sounds of retching. But when he returned he had the faintest hint of a smile.
“A little offering for his wicked soul. I think I’m all done with him now. Let’s find some more adventure.”
Ah, Oswald. Where have you been all my life?
* * *
Compared to the interior of southwest England, Cornwall was a bleak and desolate landscape. We reached the coast at an unnamed little fishing village where on a clear day you could look across the choppy water and see Wales. Not that a day like that occurs very often, even in June. The water was cold, and the wind that never stopped blowing across it sucks the heat right out of your bones. Plus the coast is rocky and uninviting.
Unfortunately, I’d never been this way before, and the only sure route I knew to Tintagel was to follow the coast until you stumbled across it. Even then, it turned out to be such a pissant little place that it would have been easy to miss—except for the fortress.
Standing on the narrow finger of rock leading to the castle, it was easy to see that a small, determined force could have held out indefinitely against a vastly superior enemy attempting to storm the walls down that tight passage. You could fit about six abreast, while the hundreds behind suffered through an endless barrage of missiles while waiting their turn. Plus no way could you get any siege equipment there unless you towed it in by barge. Behind the wall was a stone tower sporting what looked like a ballista, no doubt provided by the Romans before they abandoned us for warmer parts.
No wonder Uther had resorted to trickery to gain entrance to the stronghold and seduce the sultry Igrane, who had addled his wits completely. Merlin had told Arthur and me that story one night sitting around the flickering fire in his cozy cottage while rain beat at the shutters. “Ah, Artie, t’was a night just like this when you were conceived,” he began the tale in which he disguised Uther to look like Igrane’s husband, Duke Gorlois. Gorlois had been Uther’s loyal ally before the high king had treacherously declared war on him for the sole purpose of stealing his wife. Well, kings would be kings. It was hard to tell them they couldn’t do something.
Arthur would have been about Oswald’s age. Telling him the details of Uther’s perfidy seemed a little harsh, but Merlin wanted Arthur to know exactly the kind of man his father was. I didn’t realize it then, but this was but one of the lessons enroute to the idea that a king shouldn’t do something that was wrong just because he could get away with it—a radical idea being attempted for the first time with the reign of Arthur.
I’d met Igrane a quarter century before, at the feast where Arthur was crowned high king. A slender raven-haired beauty who might have been pushing fifty but carried herself with an ageless dignity. She never raised her voice but people fell all over themselves to fulfill her every request. Igrane must have passed some of her allure on to her offspring. I’d fallen arse over ankles for one of her daughters, spent a long weekend boffing another, and sworn a lifetime of fealty to her son. Not bad, if I say so myself. Wished she was still alive so I could confer with her about her eldest daughter.
The entire place looked deserted.
Tintagel was part of King Mark’s domain, so I wasn’t surprised by its rather slovenly appearance. Mark was your typical, old-fashioned warrior king in the tradition of Uther: disciplined and ruthless on the battlefield, bored and slipshod during times of peace. At least the guard who finally hailed us wasn’t wearing any shade of brown—that would have been more than my still tender heart could have withstood. And unlike the surly Rood, he recognized the device on my shield and opened the gate for us without an extended inquisition. Unfortunately, there was nothing there for us. I paced the expanse of the grand hall and tried to imagine my love living there as a girl, but nothing came to mind except the echo of my footsteps. There was no magic left, only cold.
“The Princess Elaine grew up here?” Oswald asked as he stood in the middle of the great hall and turned a circle. The guard contingent, numbering about a dozen and a half, lived in the guardhouse near the tower. The keep was utterly abandoned except for the mice and the spiders and the pervasive smell of mildew. “This place is a dump. Wonder how she turned out to be such a remarkable woman.” Oswald had something of a skewed perspective, having lived the last half of his life in Camelot. But I can’t say I disagreed with him.
The village itself lay down a muddy track across a finger of the sea from the fortress. It was in about the same state of disrepair as the castle, with rotting, abandoned buildings in abundance. Apparently quite a few of the tradesmen and the like who’d made a living servicing the duke’s and later the king’s household had moved on to greener pastures. Now there were half a dozen grubby fishing boats, a smattering of peasant hovels, and an open-air market place where three listless women offered limp vegetables and the occasional loaf or pie.
I bought the freshest looking loaf of bread, which back at Camelot would have been immediately relegated to the pigs. “Here, squire. You may begin lunch while I converse with this woman.” Oswald gingerly took the bread with a look of resignation at the fundamental unfairness of life. And he was right, of course, but as the junior man, it was his job to take one for the team.
“Good woman, I am seeking information about the history of this place. Who has lived here the longest?”
Knight or not, I was still a stranger and entitled to absolutely nothing for free. But eventually, for more money than the bread cost, she allowed that Old Marga was the one I needed to talk to and pointed out her dwelling. I was happy to pay; the information was a lot tastier than the bread.
Marga turned out to be everything I’d hoped, except possibly for the almost deaf part. I bought her a cockle and parsnip pie, and Oswald added a cabbage and some leeks he’d acquired from who knows where. Then we sat around and yelled at each other for an hour. Marga had worked at the castle off and on when the high king was in residence and additional help was needed. So she wasn’t closely associated with the family but had seen many things first hand and learned more from ‘reliable’ gossip. In the end, ears ringing and head pounding, I didn’t know much more than I’d started with. But here’s the meager collection of information scraps that I gathered.
I learned what Elaine had meant by “soiled by my stepfather’s uncontrolled lust”—she had been forced by Uther when she was fourteen. “Should have been safely married off by then,” was Marga’s accusatory opinion. The following year, when the situation came to Igrane’s attention, Elaine had been wed to the Count Barnwell, who’d outlived four wives and was out hunting for a fifth. Morgause, still unsullied by virtue of Elaine’s sacrifice, ended up with King Lot. Morgan, because she was still too young to marry, was sent to a nunnery until she came of age.
When Elaine was “six or seven, maybe,” a scholar from Rome had come to live at the household. He’d stayed even after the Duke had been killed and Uther installed as the lord of the household. Marga often heard the girls reading to each other and believed it to be the work of “a devil” (I suspected it wasn’t the Devil described by Father Ignatius, but didn’t inquire) since it wasn’t proper for women to read.
Elaine’s favorite color was blue. She loved to have her hair tied up with blue ribbons. Even a single slender scrap of blue cloth could convert a teary day into a party.
There had been a cluster of songbirds that lived in the little grove outside Elaine’s window. She loved the birds, and would stand there for hours and listen to them sing.
That was it. We spent another day asking around and found one other person who’d lived in the village when Elaine was at Tintagel, and who had enough wits left to talk about it. But no new tidbits.
That last night, Oswald and I sat lingering in a drafty inn in front of the dregs of two bowls of filling if bland meat stew. No experienced traveler ever asked what the mystery meat was; it wasn’t gamey enough to be rat, so I didn’t really care. And I knew that from personal experience—I’d eaten rat stew before, and been powerfully grateful for it. Oswald offered up a small handful of berries to degrease the palate.
I was a bit bummed out by how little I’d learned from our trip. Even worse, I still had no idea about what to do next. Subconsciously I’d been hoping that the foray into Elaine’s past would unlock my imagination and release a brainstorm, but no such fortune. So I sat blooding and uncommunicative, not caring enough to do something about it.
Which Oswald put up with graciously for just long enough for me to finish my ale before leaping to his feet and racing from the room. I thought for a minute that he’d developed watery bowels from the stew, but it hadn’t been long enough. And then he was back scooting through the door and halfway to our table before transitioning into his distinctive page strut.
“Compliments from the villagers of Tintagel, Sire. At the risk of being offensive, I must point out that in the matter of graciously accepting defeat and moving forward, you’re displaying a frightening lack of knightly resilience.”
It took me a moment to get my dropping jaw to shut. I hadn’t come up with a suitable response before he continued. “And besides, it isn’t really a defeat. You’ve learned four things about the princess that you didn’t know before we came here. Plus we saved a peasant family from no small degree of unpleasantness along the way. And although we didn’t find the Holy Grail, you already said we wouldn’t. So I would say that our quest has been an unqualified success.”
I shook my head as the idea of him using my own words against me. “No, you’re right as usual, squire.”
“And besides that, not once were we summoned by The Queen.”
I slept much better with Oswald’s sage observation.
The last thing we did before leaving Tintagel in the morning was to drop back by the castle. The little grove was still there, tucked into a corner where it was protected on two sides from the lash of the sea winds. The sun was shining, and as we stood at the window one audacious little warbler, the great-times-who-knew-how-many grandson of one of the songsters that had enchanted my love with his melody, threw back his little tufted head and began singing for whoever dared to listen.