“Welcome home, Kay. Can I assume your mysterious trip was successful?”
Arthur had invited me to sit beside him at dinner. The Great Hall was its typical lively hubbub. Cambry was attempting to sing a new ballad about Galahad and the Holy Grail, but the volume was too loud for him to be heard. Fool was standing behind Cambry, mimicking his theatrics, but he too wasn’t getting his share of attention. Only Arthur’s intervention could have brought any sense of calm to the gathering, and he apparently had no interest.
“Honestly, Sire, I’m not sure. Things went as expected. Or as hoped, rather. But I won’t know for sure until we see some results.”
“That sounds rather mysterious, brother. When should we expect that to happen?”
I had no intention of letting Arthur in on what I was up to. Although he’s been king for exactly as long as I’ve been a member of the court, he’s far too honest to hide what he’s thinking. It would be like putting up a sign announcing my nefarious plan, only more effective—a lot fewer people can read writing than they can the king’s expression. The only effective signs are those with pictures and symbols, like the ones the merchants have begun to put up to advertise their wares. If I wanted to broadcast what I was up to I guess I could put up a sign with my boot up Father Ignatius’s arse, except my drawing skills aren’t that good.
“We should know for certain in the next few days, Sire.”
“And I suppose you’re not willing to share what you’re up to, even with your king?”
“I honestly think it better for you not to know, Sire.”
Arthur sighed. “Well, I’ve trusted you for a lot of years, and so far you’ve never let me down.” He stopped and rubbed his beard. “You know, I don’t think I’ve ever thought about it in just those terms before.”
The king looked over his shoulder until he caught the herald’s eye, then twirled his finger. The herald raised his horn to his lips, then hesitated and looked at Arthur for confirmation. Arthur nodded and twirled his finger again.
The blast of the horn cut through the commotion. For a brief moment all that could be heard was Cambry before he caught up with the crowd and shut up as well. Fool heroically mimicked the bard swallowing his words but got no applause.
Arthur rose and began to speak. “Knights of the Round Table, ladies, honored guests. I have just come to a realization that for some reason never occurred to me before. I feel compelled to interrupt your meal and share it with you.”
He looked down at me with a twinkle in his eye and a wry smile on his lips. “I have just noted that Sir Kay, my first sworn vassal, has faithfully served me for twenty-six years, since the day that I drew the sword from the stone. And not once during that time has he let me down. So I propose a toast. To Sir Kay.”
There was a moment of silence as the company processed the unexpected words the king had spoken. Then Galahad leapt to his feet. “Here, here. To Sir Kay.” That was enough to break the spell, and the entire hall stood and raised their goblets.
I didn’t have a mirror, but I’m sure I blushed almost as red as Galahad had earlier.
Agravain, sitting about six places over, nudged his companion. “He’s never let the king down because he bloody well doesn’t do anything.” Agravain hardly ever passed up an opportunity to be a butthead.
If Arthur heard him, he chose to ignore the comment. Sitting back down with fake seriousness planted on his face, he pronounced, “Sorry, Kay. Withholding secrets from the king always has consequences.”
“Aye, Sire. Reprimand accepted.”
“But of course you’re still not going to tell me.”
I merely shook my head.
“Well, as I said I’ve trusted you for a lot of years, and so far you’ve never let me down.” He gave me the smile again and started back to his feet, but I grabbed his arm, and he laughed as he sat back down.
The whole exchange was a flashback to our youth. Arthur and I had been fierce competitors, but we’d been as close as brothers as well. We’d wrestled endlessly, played pranks on each other, and traded insults. But never blows, except with padded swords on the training field as directed by my father’s master of arms. Even after Merlin’s arrival began the process of pushing our lives in opposite directions—we had different fates and required different preparation—we remained the best of friends.
Well, one didn’t just grab the king and wrestle him to the floor. But in the spirit of the moment, I tucked this embarrassment away for later retaliation. It’d be good for us.
* * *
I planned my little act of rebellion for Saturday evening, unless a better opportunity presented itself. That would allow Ignatius to posture and rant at Sunday mass, digging himself in a little deeper before I upset his little applecart. Or attempted to. My intention was to be calm and lay low in the intervening days. But a new arrival threw a handful of grit in the axle grease.
I hadn’t met the new Lady of the Lake, Nimue. She’d been acting as the high priestess of Avalon for a number of years as Vivian, who was whispered to have lived more than a century, declined in vigor. But I’d heard many rumors, chief of which was that Nimue had seduced Merlin, stolen his secrets, and then imprisoned him in a cave. Morgan had ridiculed me for believing such a ridiculous tale merely because the object of the slander was a woman. But Nimue had undoubtedly been close to Merlin, and I was eager to talk with her.
“Did you know she was coming?” I asked Arthur when a messenger rode into Camelot on a frothing horse to announce that the Lady of the Lake would be arriving on the morrow.
“Seems I did hear something of the sort while you were out indulging in your mysterious pursuits. Did I neglect to mention that to you?” Arthur was clearly still in payback mode.
The following afternoon I watched from the north tower as Nimue approached with her retinue. Four women warriors, their long, unbound hair streaming over bright mail, rode in the van of the party. They were followed by a stunning, golden-haired woman on a white mare. Her snow-white gown so matched the horse’s coat that it was difficult to tell where woman stopped and horse began. When she drew closer, I could tell that her dress was hiked up to her thighs to allow her to straddle the horse, but white leather pants kept her from being indiscrete. Three wagons followed, each with four to six women in more white gowns; lesser priestesses and servants, I assumed. Another four women warriors formed the rearguard.
Riding beside Nimue was a man. I’d never heard of such a thing before. The cult of Avalon was dedicated to the goddess, its priestesses sworn to chastity and allowed to mate only on Beltane. The children of their sacred couplings were always girls; most followed their mothers into the priestesshood. As if to accent the point, two girls in white gowns, one about Lisle’s age, the other a toddler, rode in the lead wagon.
From a distance, there was nothing extraordinary about the man’s dress or demeanor. But as he drew closer, I was shocked to see how much he looked like Merlin. And equally surprised at how much it affected me.
Arthur and Guinevere stood in the courtyard, waiting to greet the Lady of the Lake. Lancelot, Bedievere, and Gawain, armor gleaming in the afternoon sunlight, were positioned directly behind them. Lining the walls three deep was everybody else that could cram themselves into the space, knight and servant alike.
Monsignor Dagrezia was conspicuously absent, but not Father Ignatius. He stalked back and forth well apart from the crowds, talking to himself, gesturing wildly. I couldn’t hear his words from where I was standing, but he appeared to be working himself into a prodigious rage. Curious as to what mischief the man might be contemplating, I descended from my perch to an arrow slit just above the ground floor where I could both see and hear.
Just as I got there, Ignatius strode over to Arthur. “Sire, this is an outrage. She is a heathen and an affront to God.” Although Ignatius was no more than two paces from Arthur, his shouts were loud enough to be heard by everyone in the courtyard. “This is hallowed ground, chosen by our Lord as the home of the Holy Grail. You must not greet her like an honored guest. In fact, you should clap them in chains and burn the lot of them.”
There was a gasp from the crowd. Ignatius had gained considerable esteem with the whole Holy Grail affair. But the reintroduction of Christianity, which had faded in popularity with the departure of the Romans, was still new to Britain. Embraced by a few (which notably included Guinevere), detested by a few, it was mostly treated with skepticism or indifference among the rest. Whereas the Lady of the Lake was an institution that had been around long before the Romans. Plus Arthur was a proud man with an ego that would just barely fit in the Grand Hall. I thought Ignatius might be overplaying his hand.
Arthur held up a hand, and when Ignatius didn’t immediately stop speaking, took a step forward and pointed a finger at his face. The three knights stepped forward as well; if it’d been me, I’d have been intimidated for sure. Any one of them could have kicked my ass with his right hand tied behind them.
The king spoke so softly that I had to strain to hear him. “Or here’s another idea. I can melt the grail down and use the gold to cast a statue of Arawn.”
Ignatius stamped the ground. “God would never permit that. He would strike you dead before you could lift your hand to light the fire.”
“Well, He might if it really is the Holy Grail. But what if it’s not? I’m willing to take that chance. Are you?”
Ignatius turned so pale that I thought he might faint. Instead, he nodded his head in what could be charitably called a bow, turned, and scurried away just before the herald’s horn announced the arrival of Nimue and company.