The room was so quiet you could hear a mug drop. Oh Kay, you could hear a mug drop even above normal racket. But you can’t hear a feather drop, no matter how quiet it is. Somebody needs to invent something light enough that you can hear it drop when it’s very quiet but not when it’s noisy. But anyway, that’s how quiet it got.
Then Cook yelled out, “Six hours my tired arse. That’s way too long. Three, I say.”
One of the merchants at the next table over agreed. “If it takes six hours, you’ve got the wrong horse. I can sell you a much better one for a good price.”
And just like that, the place broke out into a fierce argument. Two men across the room stood up and began to push each other. I briefly considered heading it off before it got out of hand, but if they were really stupid enough to fight over a math problem neither of them had a clue about, I didn’t care that much. Particularly since neither one was wearing a blade
Instead, I pushed my way through the crowd toward where the answer had come from. The light was dim and it was hard to make out faces, but I pretty much knew everybody there and didn’t see anyone who could have guessed the right answer, much less calculated it. And then a man who’d been sitting with his back to me turned, and I immediately knew who had answered my question.
It was Nimue’s mate, or whatever he was.
Up close, the resemblance to Merlin wasn’t quite as striking as it had seemed when I’d watched him across the Great Hall. Same general features, same hair color, same warm smile. About the same age, maybe, although Merlin’s age was a mystery to all. This man’s eyes didn’t dance, though. Nor did he have Merlin’s deep wrinkles, particularly those in the corners of his eyes that made him look so wise. Still, it was uncanny.
“But suppose the man behind you is traveling four and a half miles per hour,” the stranger asked. “How long would it take for him to catch you then?”
I had to think a moment to get that, since the answer involved the manipulation of fractions, which took a bit longer doing it in your head. “Four hours.”
“How the hell do you know that?”
“Doesn’t matter. Take your pick.”
“That’s what I say. Seen one hell, seen ‘em all. I figured it out, of course. Just takes a little basic algebra. Same as you did.”
“But where did you learn algebra?”
The people around us were staring, having no idea what we were talking about but fascinated nonetheless. One woman crossed herself.
“Do you mind if I sit here?” I asked the man beside Nimue’s mate. “I don’t have a seat to offer in exchange except that one across the room, but I’ll throw in a pitcher of ale.”
“Of course, m’lord. You don’t have to do that. It’s your party after all, Sir Kay.”
“I insist.” I clapped my hands and raised my voice. “Gilda! A pitcher for these good folk, and one for me as well.”
The man who’d given up his seat crowded up against the wall, too captivated by the possibility of witchcraft to consider moving away.
“Merlin taught me algebra. Where did you learn?”
The man laughed low and shook his head. “That, m’lord, is a good question, and the answer is long and complex.” He stuck out his hand. “George Foster.”
Strange name, and even stranger gesture. I stared at his hand, wondering what he was doing with it. After a moment he laughed again. “Right. I keep forgetting you don’t do that here yet. In my country, shaking hands is a ritual when two men meet. It supposedly developed from a custom that you might know, where men raise their sword hands to show that they’re not armed and thus meeting in peace. Here, I’ll show you. Give me your hand.”
Well, I was all for meeting in peace. So I held out my hand like he was doing. He grasped my hand firmly, shook it up and down twice, and let it go. “There. That doesn’t mean that we won’t come to blows five minutes from now, but at least we are sitting together in peace for now.”
“So where is your country?”
“If I tell you, you’ll believe me to be a madman.”
“But a madman who knows algebra. We’re practically brothers, fellow strangers in a strange land. And that was before we shook hands. So try me.”
George Foster shrugged. “I come from a land three thousand miles to the west.” He paused before adding, “And 1500 years in the future.”
“You’re right, you’re either a madman or a liar. But lying is a deceitful action, and you shook my hand in peace. And you don’t seem mad. So answer me this: in this strange land of yours, how many people can do algebra?”
George shook his head. “I would like to say, ‘everyone.’ But that would be a lie, and as you said, we’ve shaken hands. The truth is, as a nation, we are woefully undereducated in math. Maybe half the adults?”
I was stunned. “Half? Woefully undereducated in math? Here, exactly one of the adults knows algebra, since Merlin died. You look a lot like him, by the way.”
“Yes, Nimue told me. In fact, that’s what first attracted her to me across the centuries. How did you know Merlin?”
I decided to ignore the ‘across the centuries’ and ‘1500 years in the future’ remarks for now. If half the people in his country knew algebra, then it wasn’t anywhere around here. Of course, he could still be lying to me, conning me with some sophisticated scam that I hadn’t caught on to yet. But maybe not.
The people in our place and time are not just woefully undereducated, we’re shockingly ignorant. So in the place of knowledge, folks rely on superstition. The number of crows in a particular murder portends what will happen to you:
One’s bad, two’s luck
Three’s health, four’s wealth
Five is sickness, six is death.
An itching palm means you’ll be getting money. If you sacrifice a lamb without any blemishes to whichever god you believe in, he will grant your wish (and if he doesn’t, you consider getting a new god who will). A witch can curse you, make your crops wither and your pecker wilt unless you throw salt over your shoulder during a full moon.
Curiously, most people thought the ugly old woman who lived on the edge of the swamp was a witch instead of an unfortunate spinster cursed with a weak eye or a birthmark on her face. I knew at least one witch intimately, and the one thing I’d learned for sure about witches is that if they were old and ugly, they weren’t very good at their craft.
On the other hand, I knew that magic was very real, albeit rare. I’d not only seen Merlin use it, I’d experienced personally the effects of a spell cast by Morgan. So could someone or something very powerful bring a person from the future into the present? I was a little dubious, but maybe.
“Merlin came to live near us to train Arthur how to be a good king when he and I were boys. I spent a lot of time with him as well, learning mathematics and how to use reason and think logically.”
“Ah. I have read a number of books about Arthur’s boyhood training. None of them mention that you learned algebra at the same time.”
I was so flabbergasted at the entire idea that I felt faint. To cover my surprise I drained most of a mug of ale which was probably the worst thing I could have done, since I was no less light-headed but would soon be less sober.
“1500 years from now there are books about Arthur?”
“Arthur is Britain’s foremost hero, although nobody knows for certain if he really lived or not. There are dozens if not hundreds of books about King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table.”
“But none of them mention that I can do algebra.”
“Sadly, no. And curiously, although the Holy Grail is featured prominently in many books, not a single one mentions your heroic deed today. That you exposed the false Grail in a trail by combat.”
“What do they say about me?” Even as those words left my mouth, drunk as I was, I realized what a mistake asking them was. George looked a little embarrassed and started to say something but I held up my hands and spoke too loudly before he could get any words out. “Wait. Don’t answer that question. I’m not sure I want to know, and I sure as hell don’t want to decide while inebriated.”
George looked at me a little sadly, and then nodded. He then stood, raised his mug, and spoke loudly enough for those at the closest tables to hear.
“Ladies and gentlemen.” He had to be from a strange land if he began a speech with ‘ladies and gentlemen.’ I mean, fair or unfair, who would ever consider putting ladies first in anything?
The rest of the room pretty much ignored him or didn’t hear him. But Gilda came to the rescue. One of her more useful skills (or at least the ones I can attest to since, perhaps hastily or in snobbish error, I’d rejected the offer to sample her bedroom skills) was that she could stick two fingers in her mouth and issue an ear-shattering whistle. That shut everybody up so George could speak.
“Ladies and gentlemen. I propose a toast. To the noble Sir Kay, Arthur’s first and most loyal knight, and the greatest mathematician in the realm.”
Everybody looked a little puzzled but dutifully echoed, “To Sir Kay” and drank up.
It was the swallow that broke the ass’s back. The copious amounts of ale I had consumed all came crashing down, not to mention nearly erupting up. I almost fell face down onto the table, but caught myself just in time (with a little help from George Foster and the neighbor on my right).
“Oh, Kay!” I exclaimed, staggering to my feet. Oswald appeared out of nowhere to help, getting under one arm with George under the other.
“Oh, Kay!” echoed the people at the tables near mine, raising their mugs in what I guess qualified as another toast.
“Oh, Kay! Oh, Kay! Oh, Kay!” The entire pub took up the chant, stamping their feet in time to the words. I attempted a bow and almost face-planted again.
“Come on, Sire. Let’s get you to bed,” Oswald encouraged.
The cool outside air again revived me enough that I didn’t need George to help me home. “Let’s talk again soon,” I said, sticking out my hand like he’d taught me.
“Absolutely,” he laughed, giving my hand a shake.
Halfway home I realized that I hadn’t asked him anything about what life was like in the future.