We’d dallied around Morgan’s ‘Happy Camp for Wayward Boys’ until mid-afternoon, then dawdled along our way to the Castle Malodorous, timing our arrival for well into the night. Well, no use riding hell-for-leather if you’ve got nothing serious planned at the other end. I’d deemed that riding up in full panoply and begging the Count for another walk in the garden with the Princess, under the full moon that had risen an hour after sunset, was doomed to fail. So our quest was pretty much a bit of a lark. And why not? Things were likely to go to shit pretty quickly when we got back to Camelot.
Deep down inside, I guess I was hoping that proximity would spur my subconscious into coming up with a plan, or at least a flicker of an idea. But so far, no good. My perfidious intellect could calculate to the pound how much beef to serve at Pentecost, but coming up with a way to get out of a simple oath was proving to be far more difficult than algebra. Meanwhile, the full moon served as a bitter reminder that, as it had been almost a full moon the night I’d met Princess Elaine in the garden, I’d wasted a month of my life without so much as seeing my love (unless you count the brief glimpses through Morgan’s bowl).
On top of that, every time I thought of Morgan, other traitorous thoughts slipped in. Wonder how Morgan’s getting along with Galahad. If you were a little more sensible, you could be there tonight instead of off on this wild goose chase.
In short, I was a mess.
“Oswald! How do you think I should go about winning the hand of the Princess Elaine?”
“When we get there, let’s slip over the wall and steal into the count’s chamber. I’ll hold my sword at his throat while you tie him up. Then we’ll threaten to throw him into the moat unless he releases you from your oath.”
“But don’t you think that sneaking into his chamber would violate my oath not to engage in tricky shenanigans to steal his daughters’ nanny?”
“Possibly. But it was a bad oath, and he tricked you into it.”
“So if you decided swearing fealty to me was a bad oath, you could just leave?”
“Sire!” The shock in his voice was touching. “Of course not!”
“Then what gives me the right to decide what’s a good oath and what is bad?”
He pondered that a while before answering. “Maybe the answer is not to be tricky. Mount the princess up behind your saddle and ride out with her in plain daylight. If anybody tries to stop you, kill them.”
“Technically, that solution is probably still a violation. But I’ll keep it in my pocket in case things get really desperate.”
* * *
A candle flickered behind a shuttered window or two. But the Castle Malodorous was dark, even in the moonlight, and ugly as ever.
“OK, young squire. Here is a mission worthy of your skills as a prowler. We’ll consider this a dry run in case we have to go to your Plan B. Shinny up the wall and see if the guard is alert. Knowing the standards of the armsmen here, I wouldn’t be surprised if you find him sound asleep. If so, take his sword.”
“Aye, Sire.” We were whispering, but even so, he managed to change his tone of voice. “Sir Kay sends his compliments, Goodman Rood, and would you be so kind as to loan us your weapon? Be right back.” Oswald crept forward as far as the shadows would allow, dashed across the causeway, and disappeared to the left along the scantest ledge between the wall and the moat.
His actions elicited no response. From the stillness, we could have been the only two people awake within miles. Then there was a whishing noise, and a sword thudded onto the ground not too far from where I was standing. Again a moment of stillness, followed by a slap of something on metal and a muted, “Hey!” Seconds later, Oswald was scampering back across the causeway. His smile was so big that the moon reflected off his teeth.
“Exactly as you thought, Sire. It was Rood, sleeping like a baby. I prodded him awake in case you wanted to speak with him.”
I raised my voice from the whisper we’d been using. “Sleeping on guard duty? That’s the sort of behavior that can get a man flogged.”
“Who’s that out there?” came a rather tentative voice from atop the wall.
“As often as you’ve sneered at my presence, I’d think you’d at least recognize my voice by now.”
“What are you doing here at this time of night? You know I can’t just let you in. The count would have my balls buttered for his breakfast.”
“What do you think he’ll do when he hears that you were sleeping on guard duty?”
“Sleeping? You’ve no proof of that.”
“Well, answer me this: how else did we get your sword?”
There followed a few moments of silence, probably while Rood searched around to see if there was any possibility he’d drawn his sword in his sleep and then mislaid it. “That’s fucking unfair.”
Oswald spoke up. “Rood, if you expect any consideration from my knight, you should start by improving your courtesy. The only proper address is, “That’s fucking unfair, Sire.”
Rood wisely kept his mouth shut.
“Rood, I know you would prefer to be flogged severely rather than let me in the castle.” Actually, I knew nothing of the sort. But venturing inside still seemed pointless, not to mention rash. “So I have a more modest proposal for you. If you walk around the castle wall and stand directly in front of the Princess’s room, I’ll give you your sword back and a silver coin to boot. If you don’t, well, I guess I’ll be forced to sit here until morning and discuss your negligence on duty with the Count.”
“That’s all I gotta do? There’s no trick? Just go stand in front of the Princess’s window?”
“That’s it. But if you play me false, there will be hell to pay. Why, you’ll never be able to take a little nap on guard duty ever again, for fear that I’ll be out here waiting to extract my revenge.” Oswald was not very successfully repressing a snicker.
Rood sighed before answering. “I guess I’ll do it, then.”
“Attaboy, Rood. Good decision.”
“Shortest way is to your left.”
We skirted the wall on the far side of the moat, keeping a respectful distance from the disgusting smell; hard to believe it was mere sewage. After a bit, we saw a figure atop the wall waving his hands.
“This is it? Are you sure?” I called out in a low voice.
“Right behind me, by the gods.”
“Well done. I’ll leave your sword on the causeway right beside the door.”
“You better, you bastard.”
Oswald’s voice cut through the night. “You will not address Sir Kay in that fashion ever again. My knight is a man of his word and will honor what he has promised. But I’m not a knight yet, and such principled behavior is still far beyond my level. As soon as he puts the sword down, I’ll snatch it up and toss it in the moat. Do you understand?”
Silence from the wall.
“Try saying. Thank you, Sire.”
A long pause, then a mumbled “Thank you, Sire.”
“Very good, Armsman Rood. Now once again, with a little more volume and a little more respect this time.”
“Thank you, Sire.” It may not have been suitable for a herald, but it was clear as well as clearly respectful.
“Pantywaist.” Oswald’s whisper dripped with scorn.
We moved away from the castle wall until we reached a little copse of trees about forty paces away. Then I carefully boosted Oswald up and balanced him on my shoulders while he tied three of the blue ribbons I’d purchased to the lowest branch of the tree in front. If the window was indeed Elaine’s, they would be clearly visible to her; if she was as smart as she’d impressed me as being, she’d figure out who they were from and what the message was.
All of this for a smile from my love—seemed like I’d gotten the better end of the bargain. Unfortunately, wouldn’t solve my fundamental problem. Maybe I needed to go on a quest of Maleagans’ birthplace and find out what he might be fond of.
We left the sword as promised, retrieved our horses, and put some distance between us and the Castle Malodorous before camping for the night.
* * * *
Dinner at Morgan’s manor was a festive occasion. The boys, left pretty much to their own devices, had organized a tournament for the morrow, with the winner proposed to replace Galahad as Morgan’s consort that evening. Since none of them could write, it had taken much of the day just to get the pairings set up, using various tokens to represent the combatants. They’d even slotted Galahad and me, using a silver coin for the Grail Knight and a turnip for the seneschal. I was to be paired against King Hoel, an indifferent jouster but a 4-1 favorite to beat me, had there been any gamblers present and someone savvy enough to make odds. When I entered the Great Hall, the knights were wolfing down a pork stew while explaining their plan to Morgan.
Galahad was the only one missing from the party.
“Kay,” Morgan exclaimed! “What a surprise. And just in time for dinner. Aglovale, fetch Kay a bowl.”
“Delighted to be back, as always, Your Majesty. Where is Galahad?”
Morgan made a rude noise with her lips. “I thought Knights of the Round Table were supposed to be hardy and in condition for everything. When I left him to dress for dinner, he was sprawled on the rug, passed out. Arthur should be embarrassed to dub such boys.”
“That’s why we’ve organized this tournament, your Majesty.” Safir patted his own chest, then leered as he scratched his balls. “No reason to pick a boy to do a man’s work.”
I stood before speaking. “I hate to disagree, but if Galahad participated in your tournament, even in his compromised state, he’d make short work of the lot of you. He beat Girflet and Dagonet both the first time he picked up a baton de faux guerre, and could have unhorsed his father if he’d been trying. And he’s even better with a sword, even one padded and wrapped for tournament play. But I’m sorry to say, with the Queen’s permission, we’ll be leaving in the morning.”
Morgan nodded her head. “Yes, barring an unexpected setback, I will release you both on the morrow. And now, if you’ll all excuse me, I’d better go see to the poor lad.”
Even without Morgan’s wit to add spice, the stew turned out to be almost as good as I could have done myself.
* * * *
If I looked anything like Galahad after my training session with Morgan, Oswald had done a superb job not reacting. His face was sunken and hollow, his head kept falling forward like his neck was broken, and his arms just sort of hung there. Plus he kept sliding around in the saddle as I lead his horse back toward Camelot. Not sure in his condition he could have lived up to my boasts about his knightly skills.
“Are you able to ride, Sir Knight? Or do we need to stop?”
“Huh? No, I’m OK. I’m just so tired.”
I’ve spent a lot of time dozing in the saddle; it’s something all mounted armsmen learn to do in a real war. So I wasn’t worried. But less than a mile on down the road, Galahad was sleeping so soundly that he sort of poured out of the saddle and splatted limply onto the ground. Fortunately, we weren’t in that big a hurry to get back. Oswald and I got him out of his armor, hoisted him over the back of his horse, tied him securely, and rode another hour before stopping. Galahad didn’t wake up during any of that, much less for dinner.
But the young have amazing resiliency, and by morning he was pretty much his old self.
“So, what did you and Queen Morgan do to entertain yourselves?” I asked over breakfast.
“Do?” Galahad looked a little puzzled. “Why, I’m not exactly sure, Sir Kay. It seems that we spent an awful lot of time talking about things, but I can’t recall exactly what. And I must have slept quite a bit, because I had a lot of dreams about her.” As he spoke the word ‘dreams,’ Galahad exploded into a bright shade of crimson. I’d never seen a knight blush before. But then Galahad, while not young compared with other new knights and certainly vastly more tested in battle, was far less experienced in the ways of the world. Certainly in the ways of women.
“Some of my dreams were most unseemly,” Galahad confessed when he’d recovered enough to continue. “The Queen did, um, things I’ve never even imagined before.” His blush freshened and deepened. “But how did they get into my dreams, then? Perhaps that Satan Father Ignatius is always talking about put them there.”
I patted his shoulder. “Truthfully, lad, nothing you can imagine about Queen Morgan is unseemly. Unless you somehow imagine her ordinary. Or imagine taking her for granted.”
“Oh, I’d never do that, Sir Kay.”
“There you go. Then you can safely revisit your dreams and enjoy them for what they are.”
Galahad looked confused but didn’t put up any argument. But he must have taken my words to heart, because he continued to blush at regular intervals all the way back to Camelot and my moment of glory—or ignominy.