We made our way north and east along the Cornwall coast, back in the direction of Camelot. Not because either of us particularly wanted to go there, but it was between Tintagel and pretty much anywhere else we might want to go. The area we were traversing had been pretty devastated by raiders—mostly Irish, but freebooters and some Germanic tribesmen as well—back during the Saxon wars when no forces could be spared to counter them. But the land was clearly coming back since the treaty. Little fishing villages dotted the coastline whenever the rugged cliffs and rocks relented enough to permit an inlet or a beach to exist. Plowed fields were in evidence, women had babies on their hips and toddlers underfoot, and a few contented cows watched us without concern. Only once did we see signs of destruction, a handful of burned hovels that were being torn down as we rode by.
The border between Mark’s realm and Arthur’s was demarked (no pun intended) on Arthur’s side by a stout wooden tower surrounded by a barracks, stable, and hall. Commanded by a knight, Sir Gorag, a dozen mounted men-at-arms and another dozen footmen stood ready to defend any section of coastline within riding distance.
“It’s been quiet here, Kay,” Gorag shared during dinner after I’d inspected the contingent and watched a well-rehearsed mounted drill. “You probably saw the signs of the only fight we’ve had this year. Saw the smoke, rode hard, caught an Irish raiding party pillaging a village half a mile from their ship. The crew they’d left aboard managed to unbeach their vessel and get away before we could torch it, but that left a score of raiders abandoned and without any hope except to die well. They did, I suppose. We lost two killed and another wounded so badly that he’ll never be able to swing a sword again. Plus a horse. Fortunately, the bastards still haven’t figured out an effective way to fight mounted men-at-arms. Mostly they don’t get too far from their ship and run away at the first sign of resistance.”
“How long have you been stationed here?” Oswald wanted to know. The meal was informal, and he’d been invited to share our table instead of being relegated to the furthest one in back as usual. Gorag’s squire, a couple of years older and markedly larger than Oswald, was seated with us as well, but spent the meal with his head down, shoveling food in without speaking.
“Arthur rotates us every year so we don’t get stale or too bored. Of course, that policy is hard on the course of true love that inevitably takes place when soldiers and villagers spend a year together. One or two of the troops quit the army every rotation to stay with their new families, and another couple of women abandon the only home they’ve ever known to go with their new mate. The rest of the men mope around for a while before starting the process over in some new place. The rest of the women start over with a new man, I suppose. But there’s a silver lining in every cloud. The soldiers who stay are allowed to keep their arms and armor, and form the backbone of a local militia that augments Arthur’s forces. And you can see the results: we’re clearly winning. Or at least not losing.”
“Makes for rather dull adventuring. I’ve only had to kill one man this entire quest,” Oswald deadpanned. Gorag’s squire looked up in amazement, but then went back to his dinner, pretending it was no big deal. Oswald? But I guess I shouldn’t have been surprised. He’d grown up in court and seen firsthand how nobles puffed themselves up. And it had been a coming of age moment for him. But we were knights, not court toadies. I’d have to speak to him about that thin line between telling your adventures—which is always totally acceptable—and self-aggrandizement.
Without further mishap we made our way to Wald-Ambara, a bustling village rapidly growing into a town at the mouth of the Ambara, the river that runs southeast through Bath and Camelot. It was only some twenty miles from the castle, and I’d been there less than a year before to set up arrangements for supplying foodstuffs from the sea to Arthur’s table. But in that time several new dwellings and shops had been added. They’d even built a small Christian chapel.
Under the shadow of the chapel was a rude shed where a slight, swarthy man, rare in these parts, was selling relics. By the thickness of his cloak and the cut of his boots, not to mention the heavy gold chain around his neck, he clearly wasn’t starving for business. Curious, and in no hurry to get back to Camelot, I stopped for a chat.
The merchant’s name was Emilio, and he came from a town on the outskirts of Rome. Dealing in relics was a family business. His uncle and a cousin operated a boat that made regular stops all along the coast of Brittany, Gaul, and Britain, even venturing into the Saxon holdings and Ireland on occasion.
“Whenever a priest shows up, the demand for relics quickly follows,” he told me with a thick accent. “It’s a funny thing. New converts all want something they can see and touch, not just hear about. I guess the severed finger of a martyr is a lot more real than the promise of grace.”
“What is grace, exactly?”
The man scratched his head. “Not sure, to tell the truth. I’m a merchant, not a priest.”
“So are you a Christian?”
“Of course, Sire. Nobody would buy relics from a heathen, now would they?”
Emilio’s offerings seemed vast and varied, considering what a backwater little town he was in. A small bone from the Emperor Constantine’s mother, a square of cloth from the cloak that St. Paul was wearing when he’d been struck blind by God. A strap of leather from the sandal of John the Baptist, a stick of wood from the fire that wouldn’t light when they’d tried to burn St. Agnes, a tiny vial of dried blood from St. Jude the apostle. A breast feather from the dove that had landed on Pope Fabian’s shoulder to show that he was God’s choice to become pope, and a bent and twisted iron arrowhead taken from the body of St. Sebastian. And last but not least, a splinter of the true cross. Of course, all of these precious items came in fancy boxes, most trimmed in gold or silver and lined with velvet.
“Where does all this come from, Emilio?”
“They are collected by people who collect such things. Each one comes with a sworn affidavit signed by a priest that they are genuine. Otherwise, everybody and his brother would just take bones from any old graveyard and pass them off as belonging to some martyr.”
“And you’ve never been tempted to do that to augment your stock?”
Emilio looked shocked at my question. “Oh, no Sire. Where would I get the affidavit?”
“Well, I could make you some. We could start a little business on the side together.”
“Do you have any idea how serious these people are?” Emilio looked around to make sure nobody could overhear our conversation, then crossed himself for good measure. “If Father Ignatius suspected I’d sold a fake relic, he’d have me thrown into prison and left to rot. Not me, Sire. I’m not that daring. I only sell the relics that my cousin brings me.”
“Ah, an honest man. Do you have any idea how rare and refreshing that is, Emilio? And our good Father Ignatius, stalwart guardian of the sanctity of the new religion, setting the example. I tell you, it warms a man’s heart.”
“Thank you, Sire.”
“So tell me. If I wanted to buy, say, the Holy Grail, where would I go? And how much could I expect to pay?”
“I wouldn’t know about that. Just the gold and jewels alone would make it more valuable than anything I have to offer.”
“Oh. And why would a cup used by a poor carpenter be made of gold and jewels?” I’d asked this question often without getting a useful answer, and expected none here. But I felt obligated to go through the motions.
Emilio scratched his head. “Not sure. That’s just the way Father Ignatius told it.”
“Father Ignatius was here? What was he doing, checking up on your honesty?”
“No, Sire. He comes to say mass in the chapel regularly. And he always talks about the Holy Grail during the homily. As he describes it, the Grail is slightly larger than a typical goblet, made of solid gold. The base is heavily engraved, and halfway up the stem there is a golden ball with four large rubies spaced around it, red like the blood of Christ. But the bowl itself is pure and unbroken with no ornamentation. And from any angle it will catch the light and reflect the Glory of God. Father Ignatius always ends up by saying that God will restore the Grail to us soon, if only we believe.”
A niggling of doubt went skipping through the untrusting depths of my mind as Emilio was speaking. This description was not only very specific, it was almost exactly the same as the one Cambry had given back at the Old Boar’s Head. This was not just a fanciful tale of the bards, who were driven to outperform each other with more outlandish descriptions. Couple that with the suddenness of the Grail Quest and Father Ignatius’ assurances that the Grail would soon be found, and suddenly it smelled like fish had died here days ago.
I would have tipped Emilio for his helpfulness, but he wasn’t a pauper and didn’t really need my largess. I easily deflected his last half-hearted sales pitch that if I purchased a relic to donate to the church at Camelot, it would save me hundreds or even thousands of years in purgatory.
Suddenly getting back to Camelot before the Grail questers did was a bit more urgent than it had been before. Oswald reminded me that I had shopping to do, and this would be a good place to do it. The variety of shops furnished quite a selection: a slender book of love poetry by Ovid—damned thing cost me seventeen gold Caesars, and that only after some vigorous bargaining—along with two finches in a wire cage, and a dozen blue ribbons.