The human mind is a truly remarkable device. Capable of the most amazing feats. I mean, suppose Sir Galahad left Camelot three hours ago riding four miles an hour and I really did need to catch him, how fast would I have to ride?
But that’s not what I’m talking about here, of course. One of the mind’s most amazing tricks is that you can go to sleep on a problem without the slightest idea how to solve it, yet when you wake up the answer is right there. Or even on the privy, sometimes. We attribute that to supernatural forces; probably have since Odin shaped a turd into a man. But I’m not buying that whole “God spoke to me in the night” bit. Besides, I have a better theory—I think there’s a part of our mind that only works when your regular mind is asleep and out of the way. And that part of the mind is one hell of a problem solver. Well, at least that part of my mind is (although it still hasn’t come up with anything to do about my oath and Elaine yet); I’m not sure about people who don’t have all that much brain power to start with.
To make a short story shorter, when I woke up the next morning, I had a plan. Maybe not a great plan, but one that had at least a reasonable chance of working.
One of my key assumptions was that Galahad wasn’t a bad person, just young and naïve. Well, we were all that way once. Back when I was nineteen, Galahad’s age, Arthur hadn’t pulled the sword from the stone yet and I was still strutting around trying to show everybody what a badass I was. But Galahad’s naivety had allowed devious men to take advantage of him. So he was the weak point in their well-executed scheme. Or at least I hoped so.
I was up and dressed early enough to catch him coming out of mass. For some reason, it’s more holy to say mass early in the morning (if they just waited a little while, they’d get more takers). Fortunately, once the part of my brain that needed the normal part of my brain to be asleep to work out a problem had finished its work, it woke the rest of me up so I could get busy implementing the solution.
“My heartiest congratulations on a most successful quest, Sir Galahad. All of Camelot is thrilled that you have brought the Holy Grail here so we can share in its glory and your honor.”
Galahad was a little taken aback, but he was polite by nature and by upbringing, and particularly courteous to the knights of his father’s generation. He stammered out, “Why, thank you, Sir Kay” and bowed a little.
“I need to take an overnight journey on some most urgent business, and I wondered if you might like to ride with me. Since most of the knights have just gotten home, nobody is going to want to leave this soon. But I surmise that you are hardy by temperament and prefer being out in the world than just sitting around lazing in the arms of luxury.”
“Indeed, Sire, I cannot tell you how accurately that expresses the lay of matters.” Galahad felt that knights should talk to each other in glowing, elevated phrases, but his training in fancy-speak wasn’t nearly as far along as his training in the use of weapons. “Growing up, I imagined the Knights of the Round Table spent all their time out righting wrongs by slaying bandits or raiders or even monsters. But in truth, they spend most of their days just talking about righting wrongs. And all the while eating too much rich food and drinking too much ale. If it weren’t for the occasional tournament, we would all be too fat to climb into our saddles.”
“Yes. And sadly, I’ve contributed greatly to that sorry state of affairs. Arthur likes a good kitchen, and it turns out to be a failing of mine to be able to put his wishes into practice. But no matter. We are all what we are. So you’ll go?”
“How soon do we leave?”
“Can you be ready within the hour?”
“If it gets me back on the road, I’ll be ready with half an hour to spare! Lead on, Sir Knight.”
Oswald was every bit as efficient as Galahad, and well before the hour was up, we were riding out through the gates into the morning mist. Deciding it best not to let Arthur in on my little scheme, I left him a note. ‘Off on business vital to the realm; back in a day or two.’
Galahad didn’t have a squire yet, so it was just the three of us. We kept the pace up and made good time, but I still had plenty of opportunity to talk to Galahad about finding The Grail.
“I thought yesterday that you might not like me,” Galahad confessed an hour down the road. “All those questions that made Father Ignatius so angry.”
“Oh, no. I’ve admired you ever since the way you handled the Pentecost tournament. Grace and humility are rare in the young, particularly those as talented as you. I’m just not so sure about this whole Grail thing. Seems a little too good to be true. Tell me about finding it.”
“Well, actually that is a thing that has bothered me too, Sir Kay.” Galahad maintained the formal title ‘Sir’ in all our conversations, while insisting that I call him by his given name. “There are actually three hills surrounding the little village of Glastonbury. One is so oddly shaped that we were certain it was the place. It looks almost manmade, and has odd paths and flattened areas around it, as if it had been fortified at some time in the past. Finding nothing, we worked the other hills, but still without success. Father Ignatius had cautioned that might happen, and we were not to be discouraged but to spend a day praying and fasting. Which I’m not much good at. I just end up hungry and with sore knees. That may explain why it didn’t help, since the second time we searched, still no luck.”
He ran his fingers through his hair, which he often did when he was thinking or just puzzled. A very endearing gesture. In truth, I’d started liking him a lot, and I hated to deceive him. Perhaps he’d forgive me for it, and then again, perhaps he’d hate me for the rest of my life.
“I’d begun to think that perhaps Father Ignatius had been mistaken, or perhaps his dreams were touched a little with madness. But then the third time we went back to the odd hill, we found the rock with the mark of the cross. A dark, wine-colored stain as clear as could be. I don’t know how we missed it before. Perhaps, as Father Ignatius says, God reveals things in His own time and not until his servants are ready to receive.”
“How long have you been a Christian, Galahad?”
“Me? A Christian, Sire? I’ve not been baptized. I don’t know much about it, to tell the truth. My grandfather, King Ban, didn’t allow priests in his court. But I don’t suppose it can be avoided, now that I’m going to carry the title “Grail Knight” for the rest of my life. Perhaps when the shrine is completed.”
“Oh. I guess I just assumed from the amount of time you spend in mass and with Father Ignatius.”
“Well, he seems to expect it. I really hate to disappoint people.”
Then again, maybe he wouldn’t hate me for the rest of my life.
* * *
We were on the road with the twisted, ancient oaks approaching Queen Morgan’s manor house well before dark. Oswald shot me a look that could only mean, ‘are you sure you know what you’re doing?’—I’d told him where we were going but not why, only cautioning him not to spill any secrets and to stay out of sight once we got there—but I just nodded my head and kept going.
Sir Aglovale answered the door this time. Wearing his chain mail hauberk over a clean tunic and trousers and a pair of highly polished boots, he was a significant improvement as a doorman over the disheveled Galahaut. His greeting was no less enthusiastic, however. “Sir Kay! Welcome to our jovial company. I am pleased you dropped in for a visit, and I know The Queen will be delighted as well.” Looking over my shoulder, he noticed Galahad for the first time (Oswald had slipped away with the horses and instructions in case I didn’t come back in a few days). “And Sir Galahad, our newest knight and the force behind the Grail Quest. Come in, come in. Tell me, how goes the quest?”
Galahad looked a little embarrassed. Away from Ignatius and the demands of pomp and theatre, he was actually pretty modest. “Well, to tell the truth, Percival and I found it.”
“Great, great. Can’t wait to hear. Come meet the Queen.”
The place had filled up considerably since I’d been there last. King Hoel and Sir Ector of Donard sat on cushions near Morgan, while Sir Safir stood before her couch, bumbling his way through a drinking song popular at the Old Boar’s Head. He was wearing a lively outfit of blue and a floppy red cap, and held a lute as if it might bite him. Occasionally he would strum his fingers across the strings without finding anything harmonious there. Galahaut sat by himself at a low table in a corner, rolling dice; his face had a dark bruise on it. The familiar smell of cedar and lavender and scents unknown hung over the room.
“Kay!” Morgan rose from her couch with sinewy grace and extended her hand for me to kiss. “We are both surprised and delighted to see that you have returned to our little haven from the madness of the world outside. I confess that I never expected to see you again, particularly not so soon. Perhaps you’re reconsidered and decided that I’m not the wrong sister after all?”
“It’s a pleasure to see you too, Queen Morgan. And a touch unexpected on my part as well.”
Morgan glanced at Galahad, and then, tongue touching her upper lip, examined him up and down as if he were an unwary mouse and she a cat. “And who is this delicious boy you’ve brought me?”
“Queen Morgan, may I present Sir Galahad, son of Sir Lancelot and the newest Knight of the Round Table.” I turned to my companion and motioned him forward. “Sir Galahad, this is Morgan le Fay, Queen of Gore and sister of our liege King Arthur.”
Galahad went to a knee with head bowed. When Morgan extended her hand to him, he kissed it without actually making contact, as if she were too lofty for his lips; when he stood he lifted himself without putting any weight on her arm. Ah, to be young again. “I am delighted to meet you, Your Majesty. I have heard so many good things about you.”
Morgan laughed. “I seriously doubt that, lad. Not at Camelot. But I thank you for the exaggeration anyway.” She clapped her hands and raised her voice. “Some wine for our guests.”
In came Sir Blubrys wearing an apron. I’d stood with Blubrys in the shield wall on some nameless battlefield against the Saxons, bowels turned to water, protecting each other as we killed the howling bastards. The idea of him wearing an apron was so ludicrous I almost lost it right there. But instead I greeted him warmly and politely accepted the goblet of wine he offered.
“When will dinner be served, Blubrys?”
“The cook assures me that the soup will be out shortly, Your Majesty.” Blubrys bowed his head and backed away.
“Ah. Well, Safir, that means we’re all spared the torture of listening to you sing any more today.” She waved the back of her hand at him. “Put that ridiculous outfit away and dress for dinner.”
Morgan sauntered over to the brazier and dropped a few lumps onto it. “Here, Galahad, let’s toast your knighthood. Kay, would you be so good as to cover your ears?”
I was surprised that she had elected to spare me. But when you get right down to it, nothing about Morgan surprised me anymore. When someone’s actions seem whimsical, it usually means that their thinking process is confused or messy. But in Morgan’s case, it means that her thoughts were beyond my ability to comprehend. I did as she asked, even humming a little under my breath so whatever words she spoke would not reach that part of the brain that only works when the rest is asleep. (I was convinced, thinking back on my own experience, that was how enchantments work.)
Dinner was excellent. Blubrys served the courses to Morgan and the other seven Knights of the Round Table and kept our wine glasses filled. Geoffrey leant a watchful eye and instructed or assisted as necessary. The soup was garlic cream, a combination I had summarily dismissed as unsuitable but would have to rethink. A pork shoulder, seasoned with cloves, bay, and red wine, was roasted to perfection and as tender as a young capon. And the conversation was lively as well. Galahad related his Grail adventures, to the pointed questioning of the queen and the oohs and ahs of the besotted knights. Occasionally, Morgan would add more lumps to the brazier and, when I’d covered my ears, speak the sonorous words.
Finally, after the pudding and a last glass of wine, Morgan rose to address the company.
“Gentlemen, it has been a delightful evening, as ever. However, I am tired and intend to retire now. You may entertain yourselves for the rest of the evening. Just stay out of mischief.”
Morgan put a finger to her lips for a moment before continuing. “Sir Ector, you have doorman duties tomorrow. Aglovale, Blubrys—you are our combatants. Boxing again, unless you have a more entertaining idea. Safir, it’s your turn in the kitchen. Please get a fresh apron—Blubrys has managed to stain his.” General laughter and a little good natured ribbing followed, but Blubrys, clearly relieved to change jobs, accepted it graciously. “King Hoel, I’m afraid it’s your turn to be our bard.”
“Couldn’t we agree to make kings exempt from bard duty?” Blubrys asked.
“Particularly kings who sing like gelded calves.”
“Hmm. No, I’m afraid everyone will have to take his turn. No ill will can be allowed to fester in Happy Valley camp for wayward boys.”
“How about Galahad and Kay? When will it be their turn?”
“Galahad is our new guest, and as such shall be allowed to experience my home without responsibilities for a day or two. Geoffrey, please show the lad to his room. Hopefully his things are already there. And Kay is my consort of choice for the evening, so he has his chores cut out for him.”
A chorus of jeers and catcalls followed that pronouncement as Morgan, hips swaying too much to be accidental, picked up the brazier and led me toward her chamber.