I stumbled around on the fringes of consciousness. Discovered the Holy Grail, just as Morgan had described it, sitting dusty and draped with cobwebs on a shelf in Merlin’s cottage. Was savagely pounded by a giant with a wooden maul until I hurt all over. Rode through an apple grove with George Foster on steel horses that trotted stiffly and blew smoke out their noses. Heard voices that might have been discussing me or possibly the weather. Hurt some more. Walked arm in arm with Morgan down a forest lane until she stopped to undress and became a Valkyrie.
When I became aware on a more lingering basis, it was pretty much the same as when I’d left except backwards: blackness lightening toward gray with a Valkyrie holding my hand. That meant I’d made it to the Hall of the Slain. Unless it was Morgan disguised as a Valkyrie; then I didn’t know what the hell it meant.
Just about the time the gray was lifting into sunlight, the Valkyrie kissed me ever so gently on the lips. Not Morgan’s style, nor her lips either.
“So the hero returns to the land of the living.”
Hand in hand with consciousness came awareness of pain. That giant with the mallet obviously hadn’t been a dream. My head felt like I’d been on a week-long drinking binge, and the rest of my body wasn’t far behind. I didn’t feel one iota like being a smartass; in fact, just lying there was looking pretty good. But professional demands and a lofty reputation to maintain were harsh taskmasters.
“What happened? Last thing I can remember, I was teaching Maleagans a lesson in humility. Did a stone fall from the sky onto my head and end our match just in time to save him?” Talking made it hurt more, so I shut up.
“I think that’s exactly what happened. I would ask you whatever possessed you to challenge Maleagans, but your injuries have visibly diminished your ability to twist words, so I shan’t. For now.”
I chugged a mental cup of kaffka and put on my best game face. “I don’t need to twist words to answer that question. It was you, Elaine. The thought of spending the next decade growing old without you, with only the occasional hour at Maleagan’s whim: that’s what possessed me. I would rather die than live without you. And now that Maleagans has released me from my oath, I no longer have to dwell in that darkness. Elaine, will you marry me?”
I thought it was a pretty good speech and would earn me another kiss, an appreciative ah or two, and a quick acceptance.
“Hmm. We’ll have to talk about that. Once you’re better, I suppose.”
That blow hit me harder than any the giant with the mallet had delivered.
“Once I’m better? Why not now? I’ll never get better without knowing your answer. I’ll lie here and wither away until Oswald could toss me over his shoulder and carry me to the graveyard.”
I tried to sit up in the bed. Big mistake. It took all of my manly prowess not to scream out loud.
“Be careful, Kay. Oswald dear, help me with this big lug.”
My squire had been standing just to my left the entire time. Together they managed to manhandle me to a sitting position, propped up against some cushions. I manfully wiped the tears away before they starting making tracks down my face.
“I should have chosen you for my champion after all, Oswald.” He rewarded me with a grin cutting through his worried expression. “So how bad is it?”
“Most of the pain is coming from your broken ribs,” Elaine answered. “They’re not going to kill you unless you do something stupid and puncture a lung, but will continue to bother you for a long time. The blow to your head didn’t break any bones, and your pupils have remained the same size throughout. Morgan was prepared to drill a hole through your skull if that changed, but fortunately she never had to.”
“Morgan was here? When?”
“She arrived early evening the day of your, um, noble gesture. We kept a close watch all through yesterday to make sure that there was no change, and fortunately, there was not. She brewed you a potion for pain and healing, and we’ve been giving it to you every six hours.”
All through yesterday. Every six hours. “I take it this isn’t the same day that I fought Maleagans?”
Both Elaine and Oswald laughed. “It was actually three days ago, Sire. You’ve been right here for a while.”
“So where is your sister now, dearest?”
Elaine smiled broadly, but with a hint of sadness. “My sister.” She licked her upper lip and spoke the words more slowly. “My. Sister. Do you know it’s been thirty-seven years since we left home? Thirty-seven years. That’s like not even having a sister. I’ve seen Morgause half a dozen times over those years, but Morgan not even once.”
Her eyes suddenly sprouted tears, which she didn’t bother to wipe away.
“It wasn’t enough for my stepfather to take my maidenhood and my reputation and my happy home. He stole my sister. If I knew where he was buried, I’d piss on his grave.”
“When I get well, I’ll find out and we’ll make a pilgrimage there so you can do that very thing. I even promise to be a gentleman and not watch.”
Elaine smiled through her tears. “But you didn’t ask me how it was having a sister, you asked where Morgan was. Last night you changed from being unconscious to sleeping. It was plain to her. Even Oswald and I could tell the difference. Morgan pronounced you out of danger and headed back home this morning.”
“Wonder why she didn’t stick around until I woke up?”
That brought a new glistening of tears. “She didn’t stay because she loves you, you idiot.” She spoke the insult lovingly. “Because if things work out between us, it would hurt even more for her to stay and watch. So she gave me right of first refusal and left.”
“Right of first refusal? You partitioned me like signing a treaty?” I should have been indignant but I felt more honored than offended. “So what is it going to take for things to work out between us?”
“We’ll talk about it when you’re better.”
“You said that before. I’m better already, unless there’s something wrong with me you haven’t told me.” All of a sudden it hit me. “Kay, you poor, bloody fool,” Maleagans had said. Had I been wounded in the groin? I slipped the hand that Elaine wasn’t holding under the cover and surreptitiously checked. No, there didn’t seem to be any parts missing.
“The gash on your left arm was clean, and although it required a score of stitches, is healing nicely. But it’s too early to tell about the one on your sword hand. The blow fractured bones that may not heal correctly, and things are messed up pretty badly. Can you feel this?”
“If what you’re doing is tapping lightly on my middle finger, then yes. If you’re kissing me, I’ve got some serious damage.”
Elaine shook her head, then leaned in and kissed me, a little less gently than before. “Can you do this?” She held up her own hand and tapped each finger in rapid progression onto her thumb.
I held up my own hand, which for the first time I saw was seriously bound across the wrist with the ends of a couple of wooden splints poking out, and attempted to duplicate her feat. First time through was a pretty bumbling effort, but after about four tries I could do it nearly as gracefully as she had.
“That’s encouraging. What it probably means is that within a few weeks you’ll once again be able to risk your life doing something stupid.”
“Like fight for the right to woo another woman? I suppose that means, deep inside, you’re pretty certain this isn’t going to work.”
“I don’t even know what it means for it to work!” Elaine raised her voice for the first time since I’d met her. “Damnit, Kay. Well, I suppose we’re going to talk about this right now if it kills you.”
Her voice was much nicer when she addressed my squire. “Oswald, dear. Do you suppose we could have a few moments together?”
“Of course, your majesty. I will remain out of hearing distance but will be watching the door for your signal if you need me.” He looked down at me and winked before adding, “And your majesty? He can be awful pigheaded, but he’s a good man inside.” Oswald accepted her hug with grace.
When the door was closed, Elaine gave me a long, sweet kiss with hints of tongue and promise, a kiss worthy of the name. Then she sat on the bed and took my hand again.
“First, dear Kay, let me say that I am truly honored by your proposal. Please do not take my failure to accept without discussion as an indication that I value it lightly.” Elaine ran her fingers lightly over the back of my hand, from fingertips to the edge of the bandage. “I grew to love Barnwall, and he treasured me far beyond my value as a trophy noblewoman. But what I feel with you is far different. With you, for the first time in my life, I don’t have to titter and put on a vapid expression and pretend I’m not intelligent. The very thought of spending hours with you every day for the rest of my life makes me quite giddy and girlish.” Elaine closed her eyes and breathed a deep sigh. “Not to mention hot and bothered, in a way that I haven’t felt in a score of years.”
She paused, seeming to carefully consider her next words. I started to speak but she put her fingers on my lips and shook her head. Finally she sighed again and continued.
“I guess I’m honored that you risked your life for me. I suppose it would be too much to expect a man to ask before he did that, even an intelligent, open-minded man such as yourself. And maybe my ‘love is patient’ advice was too cryptic. I’ll accept the blame for that.”
All of a sudden her eyes were flooded with tears. “But damnit, Kay. This isn’t just about you. And it isn’t just about my stupid oath to the count, which I would break in a heat beat. I’ve known this moment would come. I didn’t know you’d almost die in the process, but I knew you’d figure it out. And I’ve thought about how to answer every day since then.”
She wiped her tears on her sleeve before continuing. “So here it is. Kay, I am committed to Hilda and Glenda, and not just by my oath to the count. They are such bright, inquisitive, clear-headed young ladies. When they marry, they will be the most educated maidens in all of Britain. As good as any man. And yes, I know—in our society, that is meaningless. But it doesn’t have to be. Things could change, and Hilda and Glenda could be the start of something new and inevitable.”
Elaine stared directly into my eyes, as if challenging me.
“But that has no chance of happening if I leave here for the sake of my own happiness—and yours, of course—and abandon them. They will quickly become just ordinary girls, as will generations of girls to follow.”
She dropped my hand and slid off the bed, putting a little distance between us.
“So I will sleep with you, Kay. Happily, joyfully, any time you ask. I have no reputation that matters, and if I did, what of it? And I will treasure every moment we can spend together, every clever exchange of words that we share. But if by marrying you, what you mean is for me to leave here and go loll around Camelot, then the answer is, sadly, no.”