When I trudged home from the Old Boar’s Head, it had been overcast and pitch black. Not a star visible, plus that typical English mist that chills you to the bone. But the morning was crystal clear. The ignorant and the superstitious—which covers just about everybody—actually believe that on tournament or feast days, Arthur orders the rain to be gone by sunrise. Of course, he can’t really do that. Even Merlin couldn’t. Or rather, Arthur can order the rain to do whatever he wanted whenever he felt like it, but the rain would end up doing whatever it wanted to. Like ordering a woman to do something. Morgan, especially.
Fortunately, I hadn’t drunk enough to stagger, much less navigate into a tree along the way. Damn! There went that excuse. Well, if it turned out I really needed one I’d be dead anyway. It’d make a big joke that we could all laugh about up in the Halls of Valhalla. At least my head wasn’t pounding when I awoke, nor my stomach queasy. Not to say that a cup of kaffka wouldn’t have been more welcome than a piping hot pastry served by a comely lass, curses be to Loki who embodies the whimsical nature of all the gods who if they loved mankind like the Christians claim would have planted at least one scrawny kaffka tree on Glastonbury Tor instead of some miserable thorn bush to lend credence to the tale that the prop Galahad had discovered was real.
I didn’t get the comely lass with the pastry either. Only Oswald with a cup of broth and a chunk of fresh bread.
“What’s the plan for the day, Sire?”
“I thought we’d check in on the kitchen, make sure that the chambermaids are scurrying about rather than lolling in the halls, and verify the cleanliness of the great hall. Then I’m going to do a light workout on the training ground while you show Guardemaine everything you’ve learned since we were here last. After that, I thought I would publically challenge the popular belief that the gaudy piece Galahad brought home is the true Holy Grail.
“Very good, Sire. I was so hoping our days in Camelot wouldn’t revert to the typical soft, ho-hum life of your civilian garrison dweller.”
Oswald, does nothing ever surprise you?
“So, what did you think of all the Lady of the Lake’s initiates giggling and simpering at dinner last night? Quite a difference from your average feast. Her eldest daughter is rather attractive, I noticed. About the same age as Lisle, wouldn’t you say?”
“Quite comely, Sire. I would agree. Although a bit stern for my taste. Still, a man’s eye will wander if he is not ever diligent. That’s why I paid a visit to my lady’s home after the feast, to make sure my heart remained in the right place. Perhaps my knight should consider that as well.”
Ouch! Reprimanded by one’s squire. Still, that was part of his duties, I suppose. Although I’d never heard of such a thing before. In some matters, it seems, my lot in life is to be a trend-setter.
“We’ll do that real soon.” I didn’t add, ‘if I’m alive next week.’ Cleverness be damned, I stuck with my conclusion not to include Oswald in my decision. “Don’t suppose you’ve come up with any bright ideas how to resolve that little situation?”
“Not really, although I’ve pondered on it quite a bit, Sire. But even though I’m still very new at this sort of thing, I’ve noted that things tend to work themselves out when you’re on the road. Your thoughts are just clearer when you breathe air without the taint of sewage. Or perhaps it’s because we don’t drink as much.” The cheeky little bastard winked as he said that, then spun out of reach before I could cuff him.
As expected, the kitchen was in perfect shape, the Great Hall well on the way to becoming spotless, and the chambermaids scurrying dutifully. I had Guardemaine put me through one of his routines where you step and swing and block, more like a dance than real combat. But it limbers and tones the muscles without inducing fatigue.
Afterward, I watched while Oswald demonstrated his slick little stay-inside-the-longsword’s-reach maneuver. I’m not sure if he could have actually managed to stick his little swordette into the Arms Master—Guardemaine was a lot more defensive-minded than most of us during the initial minutes of swordplay—but he would have at least had a shot. I was very proud, although it was Galahaut who had showed him the technique, not I. At least we’d practiced almost every day since. Four out of five anyway. Well, if he wanted to serve a hardcore knight, he should have asked Lancelot. Lancelot never missed a day of training. He even found time for a workout when Arthur was out and he was preoccupied with boffing The Queen.
“That little shit is pretty good,” Guardemaine admitted to me privately afterward. No way would he say something like that where the squire could overhear, in fear that it might go to his head—his compliments were spare, and thus like gold that man is so fond of and god cares not a fig about. I’d certainly never gotten one.
“First time I saw that maneuver up close and personal, he could have spitted me. And he’s gotten a lot better with practice. He keeps coming up with new variants to keep me off balance.”
“If he gets any size to him, he’s going to be a hell of a fighter. Of course, Girflit’s a small man and he’s a fine warrior. But size matters.”
“Unfortunately, that’s what all the ladies tell me.”
Guardemaine, not known for his sense of humor, chuckled dutifully, but with a bit of a grimace to remind me to stay on task.
“That little sword of his fits him like it was made for him. Where did you get it?”
“It was gathered up from the battlefield after Baden Hill,” Guardemaine answered. I’m surprised anyone bothered, it being so small. But I’ve held it a number of times, and it sort of calls to you.” He scratched his head and looked a little embarrassed. “Maybe it was making its way here specifically for Oswald. I’ve heard rumors that elvan weapons can do that, although I’ve never seen one.”
“An elf, or an elvan weapon?”
* * * *
I’d been planning on throwing down the gauntlet before the entire company at the evening meal, but the perfect opportunity arose sooner. I was in the Hall discussing some insignificant matter with Arthur when Father Ignatius came striding in.
He stopped two paces short of the throne, bowing in a manner right on the border between barely acceptable and flagrantly insulting. “Your majesty, I have something to show you. May I speak?”
Arthur gave me a ‘what now?’ sort of look before nodding at the priest.
Ignatius took a step closer. “We have received a message from God, your majesty. This morning our servant was preparing breakfast and the face of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ appeared in a barley cake. Behold.” Ignatius opened the cloth he was carrying to reveal a slightly overcooked cake with some indistinct scorch marks on it.
“That’s the face of the dead god?” I asked before Arthur had a chance to speak. “It looks like something a child would draw. How in hell—that hell you’re always going on and on about—can you tell what it is?”
“Because it looks exactly like Him. Here, see for yourself.” Ignatius pulled a small painting of a face out from underneath the cloth and held it beside the barley cake.
The face in the painting was fair-haired and fair-skinned, with blue eyes gazing upward. Something that looked like a golden dish was suspended behind his head. If there was any resemblance between the painting and the barley cake, I didn’t spot it.
Arthur made a sound like he was choking back a laugh, but when I looked over his face was stern and composed. “So what message is your god sending us with this bit of burned cake, Father Ignatius?”
“He clearly is unhappy that you have received the heretics, your majesty. He is sending the face of His Son our Lord to remind us to do our duty.”
“Hmm. Perhaps. Or maybe he’s delighted that we’ve welcomed the Lady of the Lake with open arms and is sending his son’s face to say, ‘Good job, boys.’”
“Your majesty!” Ignatius took a step back and crossed himself.
“And anyway, I don’t think that’s really a picture of Jesus,” I butted in. “I’ve met a dozen men from that part of the world, and every one of them was swarthy with dark hair. How come Jesus has light hair and light skin? Frankly, he looks like a Frank.”
“Of course Jesus had light skin. He’s the Son of God, and God has light skin. You ignorant twit.”
Ignatius was so angry he was spraying spittle as he spoke. And obviously too mad to remember his manners. As I said, the perfect opportunity.
“Ignorant twit? Ignatius, you are a boorish, ill-mannered fraud. And that so called Holy Grail is just as big a fake as you are. You didn’t see it in a vision, you brought it from Rome with you. Then you buried it on the Glastonbury Tor, told Galahad where to find it, and even marked the rock yourself.”
“How dare you!” Ignatius was so red that I thought something inside might burst and save me the hassle of dealing with him myself.
“I dare because I am a Knight of the Round Table, and we are sworn to uphold the truth.” I turned to Arthur. “Sire, I demand a trial by combat.”