“Do you ever wonder what people in the future will think about you?”
“I sincerely hope they elbow each other and say, “Look. Isn’t that Morgan le Fay? Why, she doesn’t look a day over thirty, although she must be a hundred and thirty by now.”
We were sitting on the little couch in her bedchamber. Morgan was leaning up against my shoulder, but in a manner that wasn’t particularly intimate. Plus there was no brazier burning, no intoxicating aromas, and no words in a language I didn’t understand. So I assumed we were just two old friends and one-time lovers sharing a glass of wine before dinner. Well, two-time lovers, if one is a stickler for accuracy.
“You know that isn’t what I mean. I’m talking about several hundred years in the future. Like how we think about Odysseus, or Hector, or Aeneas.”
“How many people can you name that lived five hundred years ago? Not many. No one will remember anything about us several hundred years in the future.”
“What would you say if I told you I have reasonable evidence that you’re wrong?”
“I’d say, ‘I’ve been wrong before. But it’s rare.’ So convince me.”
When I hold her about meeting George Foster, Morgan was flabbergasted. “He solved my algebra problem,” I told her, “and said that half of the adults from his place and time could do it. Sure, he could be a liar or a madman. But he didn’t strike me that way.”
“Since I’ve not met the man, I’ll have to go with your evaluation for the nonce. What did he say that made you wonder about how people will think about us?”
“George told me that, 1500 years from now, your brother is England’s foremost hero. And that there are hundreds of books about him and the Knights of the Round Table.”
Morgan was silent for a long while before asking, “But he didn’t say what the books tell about you or me?”
“I stopped him before he could. I decided I didn’t really want to know. But that doesn’t stop me from wondering.”
Morgan sat for another quiet minute, twisting a strand of hair around a finger. “So Arthur is a hero in the future stories. I suppose that means I’ll be the evil villainess who tried desperately but futilely to destroy him.” She took a sip of her wine and did the hair twisting thing again. “Does give a certain inevitability about it all, doesn’t it? I think you were right in not wanting to know.”
“I almost wish I didn’t even know about the books 1500 years in the future. Not to mention the little fact that George Foster is right there on Avalon. I could just journey there and get the answer to any question. But here’s the real kicker. I’ve spent my entire life loving knowledge, continually searching for more. The whole concept that there is knowledge that I don’t want . . . well, that just makes my head hurt.”
My arm was falling asleep where Morgan was up against it, so I put it around her shoulders. But only in the most platonic sort of way. As I did, another thought hit me. Must have been all that blood that had been cut off rushing to my head.
“Here’s another thing to consider. What’s written in the books isn’t necessarily what happened. Like Cambry says: you want to tell a good story, not necessarily the facts.”
“I wonder if the books write about Lancelot and the Queen cuckolding the king at every opportunity.”
I didn’t even have a guess for that one.
Morgan sat up suddenly and turned to me, dislodging my arm in the process. “Well, here’s what I think. To hell with our legacy. I think our attention should be on the here and now, and our duty is to be what we strive to be to the best of our abilities.”
“I’ll drink to that.” I clanked my cup against Morgan’s and downed what remained.
“So I’m going to keep up my little Happy Camp for Wayward Knights. And I’m going to continue to send them back to Camelot to find evidence that the Queen is unfaithful. And if that doesn’t work, I’m going to travel to the court myself and demand a trial by combat, with you as my champion. Worked out alright the last time, didn’t it?”
“Well, yes. But that was against an enchanted Galahad, not an outraged Lancelot.”
“Don’t worry. If it comes down to that, I’ll think of something.”
She picked my arm back up and laid it across her shoulders as she snuggled back down into me.
“The other thing I’m striving to be is Britain’s foremost authority on a woman’s sexual pleasure. You’re a Knight of the Round Table, sworn to aide those in need. Don’t suppose you’d be interested in assisting my quest with a quick romp before dinner?”
I laughed. “I was recently taught how to respond to that, by none other than Galahad himself.” I took her hand, knelt down in front of her, and cleared my throat. “Nay, fair lady. I am deeply honored by thy offer, but alas, it cannot be.”
* * *
Ten of the twelve places at the dinner table were set, and the Happy Campers were scattered about the hall, waiting for Morgan so they could begin dinner. All of the knights from before were still there; they had been joined by Sir Lohot, whom I didn’t know well. And in the corner, back turned to me but whose loud and boorish voice was recognizable anywhere, was Agravain.
I took Morgan’s hand from my arm, strode across the room, and positioned myself directly behind him.
“Did you really strike my squire, you gutless worm?”
And as he turned, I smashed him in the face as hard as I could.
Back in the days of the Greeks, men fought each other with bare fists for recreation. The Romans turned it into a blood sport with the development of the cestus. A few hundred years later, in the Court of King Arthur, knights were too civilized to use their bare hands as weapons. But there is something intensely satisfying about hitting someone you despise with your fist. And although I didn’t have Gareth’s size or Lancelot’s musculature, there were years of frustration behind the blow as well as my own quite average biceps.
There was nothing noble about what I did. I should have challenged him instead. But then, there was nothing noble about hitting a boy. Come to think of it, there was nothing noble about Agravain, period.
His nose exploded into a bloody mess as he went flying backward, stumbled, and went down.
Considering how badly my own hand hurt, maybe swords were a better idea after all.
He scrambled to his feet, clawing to get at me.
Morgan’s voice halted Agravain’s charge dead. He stood there, fury on his face, dying for a chance to return the blow. But he didn’t move any closer.
“Kay. This is my home, and I expect you to behave accordingly.” The words stung, loaded as they were with scorn and shame.
“Yes, Your Majesty.”
“Agravain, go wash the blood off your face. Sir Ector, if you would be so kind as to serve dinner.
Agravain turned and strode off without a word. Ector answered, “Aye, Your Majesty,” and headed for the back. So help me Loki, he was wearing an apron. Oh, Morgan. How you love your little dramatics.
With Agravain back, all of us seated, and the pheasant carved and passed, it looked for all the world like a holiday family gathering—if your family consisted of nine Knights of the Round Table and a stately, fifty-year-old queen who looked twenty-four. The other knights made little effort to conceal their displeasure that the queen had seated me to her right. On her left was an empty chair. Some wag—or perhaps Morgan herself—had crudely carved, “Siege Perilous” into the back.
“So, Kay. Tell us of your adventures since you were last here.”
Instead of speaking, I reached into the bag I had secreted under my seat and pulled out the Not-So-Holy Grail. I held it up for Morgan’s inspection, then slid my own cup aside and put the gaudier version in its place, just as Ector trundled by with a pitcher of wine.
The table got quiet, so Agravain’s sneer could clearly be heard by all. “He’s only got that little souvenir because Father Ignatius chose Galahad as his champion instead of me.”
Morgan looked up, eyes narrowed. “And judging by the malice in your voice, you feel cheated by that decision? Even though, according to your beliefs, God is supposed to work his will through the arm of the champion, no matter whom it is?”
“I don’t know all about that stuff. I’m just an ordinary, dumb knight. Not smarter than everybody else like Kay here. But I was the first Knight of the Round Table to become a Christian. So it should have been my right, not Galahad’s.”
“So to right that grievous wrong, he beat up my squire.”
“He hit Oswald?” She stared at Agravain so long that he squirmed a little, although he refused to acknowledge her look.
“Ah, Agravain. Always so angry at the world. Here, come sit in the Siege Perilous. Perhaps that will make your world a little less unfair, at least for today.”
Agravain picked up his plate and moved around the table, making no effort to conceal his disgust.
“No? Well, how about this? In our little tournament tomorrow, you can face Sir Kay. How would that be?”
“With naked steel?”
I was too pissed to even consider the consequences. “Fine by me.”
“Naked steel, then. But this is not—I repeat, not—a fight to the death. When a man yields, the fight is over.” She stared directly into my eyes. “Do you understand, Kay?”
Agravain snickered. “You mean, ‘Do you understand, Agravain.’”
Morgan smiled. “Well, we’ll see on the morrow. Who wants more pudding?”
After dinner, it became clear that the Siege Perilous was for the knight who would be sharing Morgan’s chamber that evening. Agravain? Really, Morgan? But that was just my ego talking.
Well, Kay. What did you expect? She offered you the opportunity, and you turned it down.
Yeah, but I didn’t know that she’d pick Agravain to replace me.
So if you didn’t want the job, what are you so jealous about?
Oh, leave me alone.
* * *
What with all the extended conversation with myself, I didn’t have a particularly restful evening. Well, at least I wasn’t hung over as we began our mini-tournament the next morning. King Hoel and Sir Lohot launched the festivities, whacking each other enthusiastically with padded swords until Hoel finally landed a solid shot on Lohot’s helmet, stunning him enough that Hoel could finish him off. Sir Ector of Donard and Sir Aglovale circled each other half-heartedly until Morgan disqualified them both. Sir Safir launched himself at Sir Blubrys, clearly the weaker knight, punishing his until Blubrys went to one knee and yielded.
As I watched these rounds of tournament combat, I realized for the first time what a farce this whole pretend-war business was. These were all warriors who had fought without regard for their own lives against the Saxons. War without the fear of death was a mockery. Good thing those rules didn’t apply to me. Little fingers of fear kept trying to creep into my brain, but I coldly ignored them. If this was the day that I was fated to die, well, so be it. Battling an ignoble ass like Agravain was as good a way to go as any.
Then it was our turn. Morgan’s captain of arms himself cautioned both of us that when a man yielded, the match was to end.
“OK, Agravain,” Morgan addressed us as we waited. “Let’s see you put your sword where your mouth is.” And she casually dropped her handkerchief to begin the match.
Agravain charged as if he was invincible, swinging his sword wildly. I easily blocked his blow with my own blade. But when our swords met with a clang, his entire demeanor underwent a total transformation. Total panic filled his eyes, and he actually flinched away from me, turning to his right and ducking his head down.
That’s just about as dumb a move as a man with a shield can make—he’d exposed his body behind his shield to my forehand, at the same time blocking his own ability to parry. I struck a crippling blow into his back.
Except, even in the heat of combat, my mind told me that there was more going on here than simple stupidity. So at the last instant before my sword slashed into his kidney, I turned the blade flat.
Agravain actually yelped when my sword made contact. Stumbling forward, he tried to turn back but I blocked the spin with my own shield against his. And all the time waling away, landing blow after blow on his unprotected back.
Finally he had enough. He screamed, “I yield,” dropped his sword, and ran through the gate and out into the forest.