Most of the bad things that happen to people are inflicted by others. Whether it be God or Satan or merely the Saxons, somebody else administers the hurt and we do the suffering—or the dying, in the most extreme cases. But we’re capable of doing plenty of bad things to ourselves without any help from the gods. Bad marriages and hangovers are among the worst of our self-inflicted woes.
Fortunately I hadn’t face-planted in my drunkenness, so I didn’t have a broken nose to add to all of the other places that hurt. On the other hand, maybe it would’ve taken my mind off the pounding in my head.
I’d tried a lot of things for hangovers over the years. If there’d been snow on the ground I could have stuck my head in it, but it had all melted months ago. Other than that, nothing I’d tried had made any real difference. Hair of the dog, the most frequently proscribed cure, definitely makes it worse. When I was younger, I used to promise whatever god I swore to at the time that I’d give up drinking forever if he’d cure me just this once. But I’ve even given that up. Time is the only thing that ever makes it better.
Wonder if Morgan has a cure for hangovers?
That thought popped into my head uninvited, followed by the realization that I had a lot of things I needed to talk to Morgan about. Wonder if the standard rate was still in effect, or if I could get a volume discount.
I got up when I finally got tired of lying there in misery and feeling sorry for myself.
“You look like death warmed over,” Oswald pronounced as he handed me a barley cake with a dab of honey and a mug of water. I took a long drought of the water, but couldn’t even think about eating.
“Nay, Sire. You taught me that yourself. Getting something made of grain in your stomach always helps.”
“But I was telling you as part of your training, not so you could plague me with it later.”
“Here, three bites.” He tore off a small piece and practically stuffed it in my mouth. Thorough my misery I barely noticed that he was keeping his face turned away.
“If you really cared about me, you’d have brought me some kaffka.”
“Grab your fancy new golden cup and let’s head out on a quest to find kaffka. We’ll be more famous than Lancelot and better loved than Gaheris if we do.”
“Tomorrow, maybe. I’d die if I tried to ride today.”
That’s when I finally noticed a big bruise on the side of his face, and a split place on his lip.
“Squire! After all your concern for my ability to perambulate safely, did you run into a tree?”
Fire flashed in his eyes. “I ran into one of those people last night who weren’t overjoyed at your success. Agravain. He found it amusing to slap me around a little bit. Bastard. After he’d grabbed my arms in the dark and tossed my sword away, otherwise he’d be a dead bastard.”
“Mordred is Morgause’s son rumored to have a father other than Lot. But when it comes to bastards, Agravain is clearly a self-made man. Why didn’t you wake me up? Never mind, I know the answer. In my drunken state I’d have been no match for him. Probably not even this morning.”
“He said he was leaving Camelot at dawn, but to tell you hello for him and to be sure to look him up.”
“Want to ride out this morning in hot pursuit?”
“At three miles an hour, when he’s riding at four with an entire morning’s head start? Even I know better than that. Just let it go, Sire. I have. For now.”
Someday I hoped to be as wise as my young squire.
I dragged my sorry ass through the kitchen, where nobody looked much better than I felt. Cook dipped me a cup out of a vile smelling cauldron simmering over the fire.
“What the hell is this?”
“Broth, lentils, and ale, Sire. With just a touch of sheep’s blood. The old witch of Wisset swears by it.”
“Have you had some?”
She shook her head. “I tried it but I threw it all back up.”
“Oswald! Here, drink some of this and tell me if it works.”
“But I’m not hung over, Sire. I only had the two half-mugs all evening.”
I briefly considered being merciful, considering what he’d endured on my behalf, but thought better of it. He was a squire, after all. This is how he learned about life. Plus he obviously didn’t want sympathy. “But you’ve been beaten up, which feels a lot like a hangover. Drink this and see if it’ll work on me.”
Oswald took a deep breath and managed to get down about three swallows. “Oh, Kay! I feel it working already. Did you know that if you leave Camelot riding backwards on a horse at thirty-three miles an hour ooohh.” He slapped his chest and sank to the floor in a fake swoon. Nattie and May jeered and applauded.
“Great. Every-fucking-body wants to be Fool, even my squire.”
“It’s all your fault, Sire.” Cook gave the pot a desultory stir, then shuddered and gave it up. “If you hadn’t won yesterday, we’d be having a wake instead of a hangover.”
The Great Hall was pretty much as deserted as I expected it to be. The only ones there were four of Nimue’s warrior-women clad in their shiny armor at one of the tables, and a half dozen novices or whatnot in their white gowns in another little group.
And off to the side by himself was George Foster, looking about like I felt.
I tottered over and pulled up a bench. “So, George, do they have hangovers where you come from?”
“Aye. Mankind has suffered from hangovers ever since beer was invented 10,000 years ago. But we have ways of making it better. You reach in the freezer and pull out an ice pack. And then you pop three ibuprofen and pour yourself a cup of coffee.”
“Coffee? Is that like kaffka? Hot and black with the greatest aroma ever known that snaps you awake with a single cup?”
“One and the same. I love this place, Sir Kay. I don’t regret my decision to leave my home behind to come here even the slightest. Except on mornings like this, I’d give anything to have a cup of coffee.”
“And Nimue doesn’t have anything that helps?”
George shook his head, then grabbed both temples as his head rebelled at what he’d done. “Ooohhh.” Then he stopped suddenly and looked up at me. “How do you know about coffee? It’s not supposed to make it here for another thousand years.”
“Merlin brought some back from his travels in the Middle East. He shared a cup with me occasionally before it was all gone.”
“Hmmm. Maybe we could mount an expedition to the Middle East and bring some beans back to grow. I’ve been careful not to change history, but for something this important, it seems worth the risk.” He ran his hand through his hair and looked thoughtful. “I’m not getting laid for another ten months anyway. Think we can make it there and back by then?”
“I wondered how that worked, with the Lady of the Lake’s vows. Isn’t that kind of tough?”
“Ah, the things we do for love.” George stared off into the distance for a moment with a wry smile on his lips. “Have you ever been in love, Sir Kay? The books don’t mention that either.”
I nodded my head albeit slowly, having learned from George’s mistake. “I spent the first forty-five years of my life thinking love was an old wives’ tale. And then I fell hard for a woman scarcely more than a month ago. A princess, no less. And after a mere hour’s conversation. And worst of all, I haven’t seen her since.”
George slammed his fist down on the table, ignoring whatever pain it might have inflicted on fist or temple. “Well, go after her, man. You’re far ahead of me. I wasted sixty-two years before I discovered love.”
“I don’t know how or I’d be doing it already.”
“What’s the problem?”
“She’s working as the teacher of a count’s two young daughters. I swore an oath not to try to take her away. Got any ideas how to get around that?”
He chuckled. “No problem. Just become a politician. They never keep their oaths.”
“What’s a politician?”
George rose and patted me on the shoulder. “You’re a smart guy. You’ll figure it out.”
He stood there for a moment with his hand on my shoulder. “Well, I’ve got to get going. We’re leaving this morning.”
The shock of his words chased half my hangover away. “Leaving already? I have about ten thousand questions to ask.”
“Yeah, well. Nimue has spoken, and she’s the boss. Apparently she just came here to make sure things went well yesterday.”
“She knew what was going to happen? You must have left home long before I even decided what I was going to do. How could she have known?”
George shrugged. “She’s a strange woman, is my love.”
Oswald, who’d been sitting quietly taking all this in, broke in for the first time. “I thought we were going questing to the Middle East to find kaffka.”
“We can’t go right now, unfortunately. Your knight has to go win his lady. That’s more important.”
“Yeah, I’ve been telling him that every day. Maybe he’ll listen to you, Sire.”
George laughed. “I’m no sire, young man. But if he doesn’t listen to us, he’s dooming himself to a lifetime of regret. So keep after him.”
He took a half dozen steps toward the door, then stopped and turned. “Bring her to Avalon for Beltane. After that, we’ll all be ready for that quest.”