NB: This apparently got hung up in cyber land and never posted. No idea why. Thanks to Bruce for pointing that out.
Sweat trickled down my armpits and formed droplets under my helm as I stood in front of Arthur in the lists. The month of Julius, and already a hot one. Named in honor of Julius Caesar, a warrior of great renown who’d made his reputation fighting with his brains rather than his sword arm. Me too, but here I was, out in the heat in front of god and everybody, trusting my future to my own prowess with sword and shield and the grace of Morgan le Fay.
Arthur was saying something and the crowds were hushed, but that thought kept echoing through my mind. I was trusting in Morgan le Fay, by growing reputation one of the least trustworthy people in the realm. Half my brain kept up a constant barrage of Kay, you’re an idiot! while the other half repeated, No. She’s not like that. And besides, she likes you.
But she doesn’t like Arthur.
And the third half of my brain (and yes, I know that a brain doesn’t have three halves) kept reminding the other two, It’s too late for thoughts like these. Get your head back in the game.
Monsignor Dagrezia offered a prayer that the side of right would prevail. Only he did it in about a thousand more words. The half of my brain that wasn’t busy arguing with the other two halves listened to see if he threw in any hints about which side he thought was right. But I have to admit, he didn’t. If he was secretly pulling for Father Ignatius, at least he didn’t ask the dead god or his dad to give him victory over me.
When the prayer finally ended, I turned to Galahad and embraced him. To the crowds, it looked like an act of brotherly affection, and maybe to some extent it was. But I need to speak a word privately, and this looked like my only chance.
“Fight as well as you can, kid. Don’t try to spare me, and for Christ’s sake, don’t give your second best. They’ll know it in a minute and replace you with Agravain.”
“I don’t really want to fight you, Kay. But I guess we have no choice in the matter, do we?”
“Attaboy, Galahad. You’re the Grail Knight. Your job is to kick my ass, not protect it.” And as I released him and drew back, I slapped him.
Galahad’s face flashed anger, but before he could do anything about it, Arthur dropped the white cloth and we drew swords and went at it.
* * * *
Every knight has his own style of fighting. Lancelot was constantly on the attack, trying to beat you by the relentless ferocity. Gawain was a counterpuncher, rock solid on defense. Gareth, six to nine inches taller the rest of us, swung a sword the rest of us could hardly lift, using his strength to beat you down. Dinadan moved constantly, relying on quickness to keep your sword away from his body and opening your body to his.
Galahad didn’t have a distinctive style yet. Like me, his fighting experience had mostly been on the field of battle, not in the lists. And largely on horseback, where your mobility and the superiority of your position atop your mount were your advantages. But he’d clearly spent plenty of time dismounted as well. Pretty much the same resume as mine. However, there was a significant difference: he’d been fighting Burgundians, while I’d been facing the Saxons.
I’d never personally faced a Burgundian, but I’d heard a lot about them. Like the Picts and most of the barbarians on the continent, they scorned the discipline of the shield wall. A Burgundian warrior’s tactic was to single out an opponent and charge screaming with total disregard for his own well being. Against such an opponent, the best strategy was to protect yourself from the first blow, thrust into the opening he always left, push his body off your sword with your shield, and turn to face the next guy.
The Saxons formed a solid wall, with each warrior’s shield protecting the man to his left, and chopped at you with axes or stabbed with broadswords. You survived a battle with the Saxons by staying alive. Taking whatever opportunity that presented itself to cause damage, but not being a hero. The cavalry would be along presently to bail you out. Just survive.
And so that was my personal style: just survive. Honestly, it didn’t work as well in the lists as it did on the battlefield for the simple reason that there wasn’t any cavalry coming to bail you out. But it was what I knew and what I did best, so I stuck with it.
Except that there would be cavalry of a sort. At this point, I had to believe that Morgan would come through eventually and make this a 1% battle. Otherwise, there was a 99% chance I would lose in the end.
So we circled each other, looking for an opening. Or at least, Galahad circled. I moved as little as possible, keeping my shield up and my sword ready.
Then he would step in and attack. I parried his blows, with my sword whenever possible. My shield was linden rimmed with iron, but it would still only take so much punishment before it was chopped into uselessness. I backed away when prudent, but never allowed him to pin me against the wall of the list. Occasionally swinging an offensive stroke just to keep him honest. And waiting for Morgan.
What form would her intervention take? I hadn’t really thought about the mechanics before. She must have planted a particular instruction in his mind. It occurred to me, far too late, that I should have asked.
The crowd was beginning to express its discontent. Obvious to all was that I was doing a lot of parrying and not a lot of attacking. Most of the jeers questioned my manhood. “You fight like a girl.” “You have a pair of balls. Use them.” I could hear Agravain’s annoying bray cutting through the rest. “C’mon, you pussy. Just take off your armor and put on a dress.”
I could imagine Oswald gritting his teeth. Or maybe standing behind Agravain, wondering if, with all the commotion, he could get away skewering a kidney.
Above it all, Father Ignatius’ rants rang loud and clear. “Kill a heathen for Christ, Galahad. The joys of heaven at the right hand of God shall be your reward.”
Sticks and stones, as they say.
Fifteen minutes in, and I had neither landed a blow nor taken any serious damage. But I was getting tired. Galahad was twenty-six years younger than I; I needed to include that into the equation.
Then he slipped a backhand stroke off my sword and into my arm. My weapon took the power out of the blow and my chain mail blunted what remained, but it was a solid hit. No blood, but plenty of muscle damage. My next parry was slow, and a thrust slid off my shield and caught me on the ribs. I felt at least one give. I backed two steps away but Galahad charged in with a flurry of blows that I somehow managed to block, although my bruised arm protested each one.
What I was doing might keep me alive another ten minutes, but the eventual result would be the same.
Give Morgan a chance, the analytical part of my brain advised.
So as Galahad stepped back, I screamed “For Arthur and long division,” and charged in low with my weight tucked behind my shield.
It caught him totally by surprise. He’d become used to forcing the action, taking a break with impunity whenever he wanted. If his sword had been up and ready he could have swung it down over the top of my shield and I’d have been history. But it wasn’t and he didn’t.
I couldn’t really see what he was doing, since my eyes were below the top of my shield. But I stopped suddenly and swung a wild sideways blow, coming from down low and directed toward his head.
Except it didn’t get that far. He was raising his sword to protect himself when my swing smashed into it. As the metal clanged, I imagined I could hear Morgan whisper, “Let go.” But whether that was real or pure fantasy, Galahad’s weapon went flying.
In a contest between swordsmen, the man without a sword is meat. Maybe Lancelot could have smacked me around with his shield long enough to trip me up, take my blade away, and hack me into bits with it. But Galahad knew he was in serious trouble and glanced back to see how far away his sword had landed and if he might recover it.
I could have delivered a killing blow right then. But I had no desire to hurt Galahad. Particularly when I had cheated. I still had to live with myself after this was over. Instead, I charged in behind my shield again, catching him off balance. I imagined Morgan’s whisper, “Go down.” Galahad must have heard it to, because he stumbled backward and we landed in a heap with me on top.
The crowd was stunned into silence. All except for Ignatius who screamed, “No!” before vaulting out of the stands and into the lists.
I have no idea what he was thinking. The only explanation that I can even offer is that the devil made him do it.
I grasped the blade of my sword in my gauntlets and moved the tip to Galahad’s throat. “Do you yield?” I asked softly.
“I yield,” he answered, just as quietly.
Then I scrambled to my feet, reaching Galahad’s sword just as Ignatius did.
Perhaps I should have killed him. I have killed a lot of men in my life. The first one was in that ugly civil war that we fought to confirm Arthur’s ascension to the throne. I can remember him the clearest, the puzzled expression on his face as my sword tore into his gut. The last two were the bandits on the way to Tintagel. In between, there had been scores of Saxons. After awhile, it didn’t bother me as much. And I truly believed that, unlike the Saxons, Ignatius was an evil man. The tribesmen were fighting for a new home and arable farmland. He was fighting for his own pride and ambition, wrapped up in the mantle of a religious fervor that made him so dangerous.
But the truth is, I’m not a killer at heart. In the world I live in, killing is ofttimes an unfortunate necessity. But here in the lists, against an unarmored man totally unskilled in the art of battle, it wasn’t.
So as Ignatius bent to pick up Galahad’s sword, I swung my own as hard as I could manage, with the flat turned toward him, soundly across his buttocks. With a very unmanly shriek he went sprawling in the dirt. As he scrambled to regain his footing, I gave him another smack, dropping my shield to use both hands this time. He would wear those stripes for a long time, standing to eat his dinner.
The stands erupted with laughter and approval.
Ignatius rolled over before attempting to move again, careful not to expose his battered posterior to my ministrations. I stepped on the edge of his robe and held the tip of my sword in the vicinity of his eyes.
“God has spoken. You are a liar and a fraud.”
Fortunately, looks couldn’t kill or I’d have keeled over dead on the spot.
“You are a liar and a fraud. Say it or die.”
Half the Knights of the Round Table would have chosen to die instead. I wasn’t one of those. There are things worth dying for, but admitting the truth, however ugly, wasn’t one of them.
And neither was Ignatius. “I am a liar and a fraud.” He spat the words out with enough anger and hatred to curdle milk, but at least he spoke them.
“Fetch the Grail.” Arthur’s words rang across the stands and hushed the crowd, which had been growing rowdier by the moment. But nobody was sure who he was addressing, so nobody moved.
“Ignatius, fetch the Grail.”
I wouldn’t have risked it, figuring there was a fifty-fifty chance he’d get on a horse and make a run for it. But Arthur knew men far better than I did (not to mention, in retrospect, he wouldn’t have been able to sit in a saddle anyway). And sure enough, a few minutes later Ignatius returned, carrying the silver chest.
“Since a fair and just trial has determined that this bauble is not the Holy Grail, I award it to Sir Kay as spoils for his victory.”
Thoroughly beaten, Ignatius handed me the chest without resisting. Not trusting him as much as Arthur, I double checked to make sure the faux grail was still inside and not secreted elsewhere to cause trouble later.