While I waited, I fretted. While I fretted, I paced.
My footsteps seemed offensively loud on the bare timbered floor.
Elaine’s image was burned into my memory, but doubts assailed me that I even remembered accurately what she looked like. I had scarcely cast my eyes on her at all, and much time had passed since then. Only once had I seen her in full light, in Maleagans’ well-candled Great Hall, and then only for a mere handful of minutes. Then an hour but in dim moonlight, a glance as she stood on the distant wall as I rode away, and those misty glimpses through Morgan’s scrying bowl. And that was all my aging memory had to work with.
The bards sing of men struck down by love, pierced in an instant by Cupid’s arrow and destined to spend a lifetime of joy or misery. I believed, in the depths of my being, that is what had happened to me, just like in the stories. But now that I was about to see the object of my infatuation again, it all seemed so unlikely.
At least I hadn’t given the cup away. This hour was essentially free, except of course for the possibility Maleagans had gleefully pointed out, that it really would make being apart all that much more painful. Well, if things didn’t work out, I could always mount up and head back to Morgan’s place.
Kay, you idiot! Did you actually give mental voice to those thoughts? You are an unfaithful cad, undeserving of the love of a noble princess like Elaine.
By the sweet, forbidden breasts of the Valkyries, I was one poor, hopelessly-confused man.
I started at the sound of footsteps outside the chamber, but they seemed too clumsy for my vision of Elaine. And sure enough, Rood came bumbling into the room. Proceeded by his stench. I mean, all men stink, but Rood made an art form of it.
“I’m here to make sure that you are not unseemly, Sir Kay. So there’ll be none of that on my watch!” Rood’s eyes glinted with what he clearly regarded as payback.
I could have made an issue of his rudeness, but to what end except to possibly cut into my hour? “Ah, unseemly behavior. An ever present danger, against which one must be constantly vigilant. What constitutes unseemly behavior, Rood?”
Rood looked at me warily. Realizing, no doubt, that in a battle of wits he was a half-armed man. “Why, fucking and the like, of course.”
I could not contain my laughter. And once started, and after all the tension from the doubts and waiting, I could scarcely stop. Rood stared at me like I was a madman.
After a couple of false starts, I finally got myself under control enough to speak. “So you’re here to make sure the High King’s seneschal and his half sister don’t just get right down on the floor and fuck like minks?”
A woman’s voice, clearly amused, came from behind me. “Doesn’t seem quite as far-fetched to me as you’re making it out to be, dear Kay. I think that, whatever Maleagans’ motivation might have been, he was quite wise to guard against such crude but nonetheless oh so tempting behavior.”
I spun around and there she was.
My first thought was that my image of her was still quite perfect, despite my qualms. The only difference was her hair, which instead of being braided and fastened up on her head as it had been before, was long and flowing, bound only by a single blue ribbon.
My second thought, although ‘thought’ is a totally inadequate word, was the ripping away of whatever scar tissue had formed over the wound Cupid’s arrow had torn into my heart. I could hear the fates howling with delight over my earlier doubts that such a thing could happen to me.
“Elaine.” The word sounded to my ear exactly like it had the last time I had uttered it, out in the garden weeks before.
“Hello, Kay. It seems so long, and yet in other ways, like it was only yesterday.” She turned to our chaperone. “Rood, would you feel obligated to strike us down if I were to greet Kay with a sisterly kiss?” Without waiting for an answer, she was lightly in my arms with her lips on mine. A kiss more chaste than the last time, mayhap, but certainly not one accurately described as anything one would receive from a sibling.
When she was done and had backed away a little, her cheeks were glowing. As were her eyes.
“I can’t explain the mathematics to you, M’lady. But it seems that two divided by a thousand hours is still only one.”
“As if you could explain mathematics to a mere woman. And one to whom addition is more urgent than division. Although multiplication, sadly, is no longer an option.”
Elaine’s words smashed me squarely in the nose, leaving me dazed and bloody. And to think that not all that long ago, I’d been contemplating teaching Gilda to read because she was capable of a deep thought. “M’lady, are you speaking unseemly thoughts couched in mathematical terms?”
“Sir Knight, if I have to explain my words to you, why, I could have settled for any of the suitors who have crossed my path over the years instead of waiting so patiently for a man with a fully-functional brain.”
Whenever you are faced with imminent danger, something happens that makes your mind kick it up to the next level. Not when you’re standing in the shield wall waiting, knowing that you’re likely to die during the day. But rather when the Saxons howl and hurl their franciscas and charge. At that moment, your thoughts speed up while everything around you slows down. And while I didn’t think I was likely to die in the next few minutes, my body reacted the same. Suddenly I was wide awake and fully into the game.
I did a quick calculation based on what little I knew of Elaine’s history. She’d been fifteen when her stepfather married her off, and she’d told me she’d spent a ‘happy decade’ with her husband. That meant she’d been widowed at twenty-five. Albeit a beautiful widow, and the high king’s half-sister to boot. Well, not quite: Arthur wouldn’t have even pulled the sword from the stone for another couple of years. Elaine had to be in her early fifties now, which meant she’d been single for a long time.
Not as much time as you have.
“If waiting patiently for me for a quarter of a century is what you’ve done, Princess, I thank the god of intelligence for protecting and defending you from those who would press their suits by pressing with their groins instead of their wits.”
“Amen to that, Kay. Except I believe we should be expressing our gratitude to the goddess of intelligence.”
“Goddess? Goddess? What shred of evidence do you purport that the deity of intelligence is female?”
“Hmm. Let’s see. Well, for one, women don’t wrap themselves up in metal and bash each other with swords for fun.”
“Fun? Good grief, woman. That’s not for fun. That’s training for when the
“Ah, yes. The Saxons. A tribe of vigorous, vainglorious men who wrap themselves up in metal and bash at you with axes for fun. You don’t see women engaged in such activities, Saxon or Briton. We work out our differences by talking them through. If the Britons and the Saxons both had queens instead of kings, there would be peace throughout the land.”
“Hmm, fair lady. I suppose you have a point. But answer me this, if you women can solve your problems by talking about them. Suppose you leave this ugly place at the crack of dawn tomorrow and ride toward Camelot at three miles per hour. But I, still giddy from our intoxicating time together, awaken an hour later and set off after you at four miles an hour. How much time will pass before I finally hold you in my arms?”
“You’ll hold me in your arms as soon as you catch up with me, of course. What else would we be doing, all alone in the forest with no one else to watch our unseemly indiscretions?” She winked at Rood, who of course had no clue what we were talking about. “Except for your precious Oswald, who can watch indiscretions more discretely than most. Which is all going to happen much sooner than you expect, because as soon as I’m out of sight of the castle, I’m stopping to wait for you.”
“M’lady, you have felled mathematics in one clean blow.” I bowed low and then, noticing her hand right there within easy reach, took it up and kissed it. And a lovely hand it was. Not taut and maidenly, but proudly displaying the signs of her wisdom. I could not resist holding it for a moment too long—hopefully not so long as to be unseemly—and nibbling gently where I had kissed.
“Oh, sir knight! You make me giddy as a young girl. Come, let us sit on yonder bench. Here, Rood. There’s a seat for your comfort over in the corner. Would you like some wine?”
“Uh, no your majesty. I dare not.”
“Are you sure? The last armsman who guarded me from Sir Kay’s perfidious advances accepted a wineskin and seemed to enjoy it greatly.”
“But he was flogged for it afterward.”
“Ah. The pity.”
Elaine took me gently by the hand and led me to a bench covered in a thick fur. It was not a large seat, and we had to sit quite close so as not to hang uncomfortably off either end. There was certainly no room for our hands in between, so she kept mine cradled in her lap in the gentlest of grips.
“I have brought you a gift, Your Majesty.”
“Elaine. You’ve forgotten. It’s Elaine and Kay.”
“Yes. You are quite right. You haunted my thoughts every day, during which I promise that I thought of you as Elaine. But back in your presence, my mind seems to operate quite of its own volition. I have brought you a gift, Elaine.”
“But you already have given me a gift, Kay. I was so surprised and pleased to see those ribbons hanging from the tree outside my window. How ever did you know that blue ribbons are a particular favorite of mine?”
“A little bird told me.” That reminded me of the finches I’d left back at Camelot in the care of the kitchen staff. Well, one gift per visit seemed sufficient. “This particular little bird was named Marga. A touch wrinkled and a bit deaf, but she still remembered your love of blue ribbons quite well.”
“Marga from Tintagel? You went to Tintagel? Whatever for?”
“To find out what color hair ribbons I should buy for you. Although I should have known without asking. Blue sets off your eyes to perfection.”
“You, sir, are filled with surprises.” She looked off in the distance, and a touch of sadness filled her eyes. “I’ve not been back myself. It was a happy place for years, and then it wasn’t anymore.” Then she shook her head and the smile returned. “But we have no time for sadness. And I haven’t even thanked you for the ribbons. Here.”
She took my face in both hands and kissed me gently. Except, as before in the garden, the kiss took on a fierce passionate life of its own. Well, if Rood decided to run me through for the crime of unseemliness, at least I would die content.
Rood didn’t run us through, but he did clear his throat.
“By the goddess, that’s a lovely thing. I’d almost forgotten. After Barnwell died, there were suitors a’plenty. I was still young enough and attractive enough, I suppose. And of course there was the estate. But I determined I would not kiss a man whom I did not find pleasing in conversation.” She laughed, although with a tinge of harshness. “I never realized what an impossibly high standard I was setting.” She leaned in and gave me a quick kiss on the cheek. “That was before you came along, of course.”
I had kissed a lot of women that were downright boring in conversation. But it had always been a hollow joy. As were the brief spurts of pleasure that a man paid for.
But you at least you have finally found a woman you enjoy talking to. Two, to be exact.
What a crazed riot of irony the gods were indulging in. Four decades without ever meeting a woman that interested me, and then two within the same month. Sisters, on top of that. Well, Elaine and I only had an hour. Didn’t seem like a good use of time to bring that up at the moment. I had the slightest of guilty twinges over that decision, but pragmatism won out over self-destructive honesty.
“I must confess, dear Elaine, that never before has a kiss tasted so sweet.”
“Still think the Count was acting crazily by assigning us a chaperone?”
“Ah. But little does he know that we two are mad enough to find talking brimming with the same passion as the more tactile expressions of love. Here, let me show you what I’ve brought you.”
I reached into my little leather sack which, without the Faux Grail, was sparsely populated indeed, and pulled out the little volume of poetry. Rood stood to get a better look, but quickly lost interest when he saw what it was.
“Oh, Kay. You brought me a book? How well you know me already. Books are life’s most precious treasures.”
“I know you so well because I know myself.” Well, and that little trip to Tintagel. But I wasn’t spilling all my secrets.
Elaine laughed. “Yes, we are two of a kind, are we not?” She stroked her fingers along the fine leather of the cover, tracing the gold letters. “Ovid. I’ve never read Ovid, although my tutor sang his praises.” Elaine held the book up to her nose and inhaled deeply. “Well, he smells praiseworthy. Shall we see what he has to say?”
She opened the book, lingering over each action as if it were a high sacrament. Her fingertips caressed the title page before she turned it with a little sigh. Each motion was sensual, erotic even. Definitely unseeming. I wondered if any man could ever hold such devotion from her before deciding that it didn’t matter.
Esse quid hoc dicam, quod tam mihi dura videntur
strata, neque in lecto pallia nostra sedent,
et vacuus somno noctem, quam longa, peregi,
lassaque versati corporis ossa dolent?
Rood looked up sharply at the Princess’s words, having of course no idea what they meant. My own Latin was somewhat rusty, but I managed to work out the translation.
Who can tell me why my bed seems so hard
and why the bedclothes will not stay upon it?
Wherefore has this night dragged on, bringing no sleep to my eyes?
Why are my weary limbs visited with restlessness and pain?
I hadn’t opened the book since I purchased it—for some silly reason, that seemed like an uninvited invasion of her privacy. But why should I be surprised? The cover clearly identified the contents as odes of love. Did I expect something less poignant? “My love is like a scarlet, scarlet rose,” perhaps?
I moved the book, along with the gentle hands holding it, a little further so I could focus on the writing. I read the next lines aloud.
nam, puto, sentirem, siquo temptarer amore.
an subit et tecta callidus arte nocet?
sic erit; haeserunt tenues in corde sagittae,
et possessa ferus pectora versat Amor.
Cedimus, an subitum luctando accendimus ignem?
If it is Love that has come to make me suffer, surely I should know it.
Or does he slip in like a thief, without a word of warning, to wound me with his cruel arts?
His slender arrows have pierced my heart,
As if possessing a wild ass of Love to stir our hearts.
Do we surrender? Or strive against him, and so add fuel to this sudden flame?
It was as if Ovid had written the lines especially for me. Well, I suppose all lovers feel as if their love is unique in all the world.
And in the end, it all turns out to be a sordid romp beneath the bedclothes.
No, it doesn’t, you fool. Morgan showed you how wrong that way of thinking is.
But unique? My practical side refused to accept that.
Yes, unique. Where else in the whole of Europe do you suppose one might find two like you who can find utter joy reading each other five hundred-year-old verses in Latin?
So I quit asking stupid questions and savored each moment. After straining for a while to hear words he couldn’t understand, Rood eventually relaxed. I might have forgotten he was there except for his pervasive odor, wafting across the room from where he sat to prevent us from doing what we were doing right there in front of his nose.
Because what we were doing was decidedly unseemly. Speaking of love in Ovid’s word, and then in our own.
“I have no idea of how this will turn out, Elaine. Maleagans seems determined to keep us apart, taunting us by allowing us dribs and drabs of time according to his whim.”
“Consider the stone, dear Kay. It withstands the fiercest of blows, and yet a steady drip of water will wear a path.”
“I love you, Elaine. I have never felt this way before. I can’t stand the thought of waiting for the girls to grow old and wed, much less for a drip of water to wear through stone.”
“Of course you can, my love. We’ve waited so long for this. In the end, what matters a few more hours? True love is patient.”
This must not be true love, then. Because I didn’t feel the least bit patient.
At that moment, a page entered. “Sir Kay, Your Majesty. The hour is ended.”