The Knight's-and Lady's-Tale
based upon the Canterbury Tales' "The Wife of Bath's Tale"
Warning: rated T for sex outside of marriage, rape, and a mild bedroom scene
I was born a prince, and as firstborn of my parents' sons I was used to claiming the best of everything for my own. My four younger brothers learned quickly to give way to me at once or have my will enforced by our parents: as the future King of Orkney I was due their allegiance from the moment they entered the world. Of all my brothers, only little Mordred showed any particular spirit in deviating his will from mine, but as the youngest by ten years he was always far too small to do much about it despite being our mother's favorite. Our parents, King Lot and Queen Morgause, allowed whatever I said to stand in the hopes that while it made a tyrant out of me as a child it would teach me the duties and expectations of leadership when I was a man. While this plan did have the desired effect in some ways, (I became an excellent strategist at an early age, the direct result of having four brothers to command in our games against the local peasant youths) in other ways I was badly crippled by my lack of humility.
One of these areas, and the most telling, was my dealing with women. I say was because the adventure I am about to relate has turned my outlook on many matters upside down.
I was born into a poor family, but from the time I came into the world it was clear that I had certain gifts. My mother claimed that when I first saw my father I began to cry lustily, an omen, she said, of his untimely death by a fall off our cottage roof a mere two days later. Whether I saw his death upon him from my cradle is left to speculation; I certainly have no memory of the incident. But it established my special place in the family: the last daughter of five, and the only one who might potentially develop the Sight.
As fate would have it, I developed more than the Sight, and when I was six years old the local hedgewitch came to our cottage to claim me as her apprentice. My mother could hardly argue: it was one less mouth to feed and one less dowry to save for, and a hope that one of her children could achieve great status through the learning of magic. The apprenticeship was a mixed blessing and curse, but I loved the Art and could have learned much more had the witch herself been better educated in our craft. I lived with her for the next eight years, which is when my story really begins.
Practically the first day I realized there was more to a woman than what could be seen outside her gown I was forcibly bedding the serving girls. I went through a phase around my fourteenth birthday where a different one shared my bed every night. I never asked them how they felt about this; I simply sought a new one out each the day and ordered her to report to my chambers that evening. I was careful to steer clear of the married women. I knew that one of them could complain to my father and have me chastised for lack of restraint; as their overlord he owed them some protection from my advances. But the young, unmarried orphan girls who came to support themselves until they could find a suitable husband were easy prey for my lusty appetite for beauty. They had no choice but to bow to my wishes.
Eventually I grew bored with this: a castle has a limited number of young and beautiful servingmaids. I began selecting favorites from among them, and only the loveliest of the women would do. I never felt emotional attachment to any of these beautiful partners, even though we would sometimes share pallet space for several months at a time. They were simply there, as the furniture itself was there, to satisfy a purpose. Looking back, I never connected those poor girls with the laws of chivalry concerning respect for the female sex that my father had instilled in me since birth. I thought those rules only applied to noblewomen. The women of my own class were untouchable until marriage, and then they could choose to take a lover or no, since marriage was more about political alliance than the happiness of the couple. Her husband could do the same. But the noblewoman must be respected and given all the deference due her rank at any stage in life. Peasant women had no such protection from me, despite the lack of differentiation between a wealthy woman and a poor one in chivalric code.
Living in such a way as I did, it was a miracle that I did not father my first child until I was sixteen. My most recent lover came to me, all in tears, to tell me in private that she was carrying my child. I could not have been more stunned if she had hit me over the head with a cudgel. A child? My child? No one had ever explained these things to me. Quietly, though I had no idea why I was so ashamed, I had the maid dismissed to her home in the countryside with enough money that she and her baby would not be a burden to her family. I later learned from her brother that she had died in childbirth, and my firstborn son with her. She was not yet fifteen years old.
My father was occupied with other matters and paid no attention to my escapades. My mother, however, found time soon after that first maid was dismissed to very discreetly explain the Facts of Life, although I had been sleeping with the castle maids for almost three years by that point. She never mentioned the incident itself, but she was a wise and observant woman, and a powerful enchantress besides. She saw far more of everything than she let on, and it went without saying in our household that she knew all of her sons' darkest secrets. She never reprimanded me for my callus treatment of common-born women: it is my belief that she had seen what awaited me in the future and elected not to interfere with my fate.
After the first maid was dismissed, I took much greater care about how and when I slept with my lovers. There were no more incidents of such a delicate kind, and on the whole I was satisfied with my life until my father decided to knight me and send me off to serve my uncle Arthur (my mother's half-brother), the High King of All Britain, at his court at Camelot. It was just days after my eighteenth birthday when I finally set out.
My mentor, the hedgewitch who had taken me from my mother's home, died when I was fourteen. I still had four years of my apprenticeship to complete, but I knew of no one else who could finish my training. So I decided to take what I knew back to my home village and set up an herb-shop there, using my limited skills to the best of my ability.
But another terrible surprise awaited me when I reached home: my village had been hit by Saxon raiders and burned to the ground. There was nothing and no one left but the blackened shells that had once been the houses of my friends and relations. I knelt in the ashes of my mother's home and wept in despair at my own helplessness.
It was at that moment, when I began to wonder if there was anyone left on mortal Earth who knew that I still lived, that the Enchantress appeared before me. In all the time that I traveled with her, I never knew her true name. It never mattered. What mattered was the proposal she made to me then, over the charred remains of my old life: if I would consent to finish my apprenticeship term of four years with her, she would teach me all I needed to know to avenge my family. Having nowhere else to go and greatly desiring vengeance for the lives that had been stolen by the Saxons, I consented without a second thought.
The Enchantress kept her end of the bargain. The next four years were rigorous ones for me, but I learned much that I would never have dreamed of had I stayed with my first mentor. Battle magic is considered a Black Art by the Forces that govern the magical world, but I was not to know this at the time. Right or wrong made no difference to me in that dark stage in my life. I learned to use my powers to dull blades, hobble horses, poison water, and various other tricks that would hasten the defeat of an army. I also learned more direct interventions: how to throw fire from my hands, how to stop a heart from beating. The Enchantress taught me all she knew. But what I hid from her, and from myself most of the time, was the pleasure I drew out of having the power to control things that men could not.
Rare is the man who can use magic; only one is born every ten generations in all the world who can master the Arts. Merlin the Magician, who served King Arthur, was the current one, but it was rumored that he only used his powers to protect the peace of the kingdom. A waste of talent! I would often think. He could use his magic, as we did, to strike down the raiders who massacred the innocent, but he chose to waste his time on protective charms. It was left to the women of the kingdom to pick up where he left off. "Typical of men," the Enchantress would tell me when we discussed Merlin and his policies, "to go around with a great show of power and leave the real work to the 'gentle' females."
The more death and destruction I saw, the more massacring of helpless women and infants in innocent villages, the more I agreed with her. Besides, I doubted any weak old man could hold against my blasting spells, even if he was supposed to be more powerful than all the female magic-workers in the realm put together. Of course, I had not the slightest notion that what we were doing was wrong.
I elected to remain with the Enchantress when my apprenticeship term was up. We were doing important work, in my opinion, though we had long since caught and killed the specific band of raiders who had slaughtered my childhood home. It was not long after my eighteenth birthday that we were caught.
My father, of course, knighted me before I left Orkney, but it would be up to my Uncle Arthur to determine my worthiness to sit at his fabled Round Table, where the greatest knights sat. Once the ceremony of knighthood was complete, I rode out of the gates of my childhood home with my parents, Gaheris, Agrivaine, Gareth, and Mordred all waving behind me in the courtyard. Gaheris, as the next eldest, was inclined to be a bit sulky that I was going without him, but he was assured that in another two years it would be his turn to ride to Camelot and perform great deeds. I did not look back as my horse rounded a bend of Orkney Castle was lost from view.
I whistled aloud as I rode steadily south on my black warhorse. Once or twice, when alone, I broke into song. I was the great Sir Gawain, on his way to join the court of the High King of All Britain! I could almost picture myself seated at the King's right hand, dressed in magnificent clothing, whispering opinions in my royal uncle's ear as we dined on the finest of foods and wines. But first I would have to prove myself. I kept my eyes open for adventures as my weeks on the road south passed. All I saw, however, were dirty peasants tilling fields behind even dirtier animals. Hardly any adventure in that.
I was but a few days from Camelot when I came across the most beautiful girl I had ever seen in my life, strolling casually down the main highway. Her dress was plain and she was alone, which of course made her easy prey for me. Deprived of women's company for nearly a month, all I can say in my defense is that I lost my head. Despite her pleas, her cries for mercy, and, towards the end, her wails for her mother, I caught her easily and claimed her virginity, right there on the side of the road.
I was surprised that the young woman did not stand up when I finally released her, nor go running for the mother she'd so ardently cried for just moments before. In fact, she didn't move at all. After a moment or two, I touched her gently with my boot. Her white face rolled up towards mine, and I stepped back in shock and horror. The same dread that had welled up in my stomach when I'd first learned that I had fathered a child at sixteen hit me again when I beheld her open, staring eyes. The girl was clearly dead.
I'd never seen a woman dead before, and the sight tore at my eyes. My warrior's stomach heaved with bile, and I had to gulp down the horrible taste that rose to my mouth. Heartsick and uneasy, I hastily buried the body and rode on without a backward glance. But I could not banish the image of those unblinking eyes, seemingly fixed on mine as I shoveled earth over their owner.
I neatly managed to forget the incident as I rode through the gates of Camelot three days later. There were more people milling about the courtyard than I had ever seen in one place before, and only my dignity as a knight prevented me from staring like the country boy I was. There was a general air of festivity amid the bustle, and I learned from listening to passerby that the king had only recently married and the celebrations were still going on. I spoke briefly with Sir Kay, King Arthur's foster-brother and seneschal, and learned that I could address the King and his new Queen at the banquet that night. I eagerly anticipated this first sight of this exalted half-brother of my mother.
The Enchantress and I were riding down a country road a few days from the High King's court at Camelot when she suddenly stiffened in the saddle and her eyes grew faraway. I knew that this meant she was receiving a vision of the future, and I kept silent until she relaxed and looked at me. Her dark eyes were troubled.
"We must leave the road, my child," she said quietly to me, "What follows will be difficult for us to watch, but we must keep silent through it all. Then we will act." I was puzzled, but I trusted the Enchantress now without question, so I obeyed and we hid in the bushes beside the road.
A lovely girl came slowly down the road, whistling cheerfully to herself. I heard the pounding of hooves, and into view rode a fresh-faced youth of my own age. My breath caught in my throat for a moment, for he was very handsome, but the look in his eye as he took hold of the young girl was anything but admirable. I quickly understood what he was about, for I had watched raiders rape village women often in our travels, but by the time the girl in question understood what was taking place it was too late for her. I wanted to cover my ears to drown out her shrieks as well as my eyes to blot out the scene before them, but I was so stunned to be witnessing such a casual taking of a woman's virtue that I could do neither. The Enchantress, too, appeared too frozen to do more than watch as the knight (for he had to be a knight, no others in the land were permitted to openly carry swords) completed the rape and stood up again. With another shock, I realized that the girl beneath him had died while he had been having his way with her.
The young knight seemed just as frightened as I. With many fervent looks at the countryside about him, he dug a shallow grave and buried the body, then rode off quickly down the road again.
Unable to speak, I looked at the Enchantress. She looked steadily back at me. "I know what we must do to right this wrong, Deirdre," she said softly. "Follow me." She stepped from cover towards the recently turned earth of the grave.
Obediently, I went at her heels. She paused, looking down expressionlessly at the outline of the body beneath the soil. I wondered, at that moment, whether she truly cared about the girl at all or if this was all simply an excuse in my teacher's endless quest against the race of men. This realization hit me in the pit of my stomach, and I wondered, as well, whether the Enchantress cared for me at all, or if she were using me and my powers to further her own end. But I had no time for such thoughts. The Enchantress was grinning at me, a fierce, cold light in her eyes.
"Let's see how he takes it when he meets his dead victim back from the grave," she said, her lip curling. I had always thought of her as beautiful, but with the bloodlust shining in her eyes she was suddenly horrible to me. I realized what she was planning to do, to have us do. I took a step back.
A male voice spoke from behind me, and I felt a wooden staff on the side of my neck. "Halt right there."
The banquet that night was everything that a newly-made knight could wish for after many weeks on the road: fine food, fine wine, and the best entertainment I had ever seen in my life. I had to admit, the minstrels who braved our northern castle were sadly lacking in the talent displayed by the men hired for King Arthur's wedding celebration.
The highlight of the evening for me should have been my presentation to the monarchs of all Britian. I was full of anticipation and nerves as I knelt before the twin thrones of my uncle and his wife.
King Arthur was smiling with genuine pleasure when I looked up at him. "Welcome to Camelot, Nephew Gawain. I have long anticipated your arrival at my court."
"Thank you, Your Majesty," I replied. I took a few moments to study the King's features. He was quite young to be the Ruler of All Britain, I thought, a well-built man in his mid-twenties with shoulder-length blond hair and kindness sparkling in his dark brown eyes. When compared with my father, King Lot, who was a powerful man with dark hair and a squint that made him look exceptionally fierce, King Arthur was outwardly a much less formidable personage by far. But the slight creases at the corners of his eyes bespoke wisdom beyond his years as well as a powerful will. If ever there was a man to be King of All Britain, it is Arthur, I remember thinking, naively pleased to be serving such a great man.
"Tell us, Sir Gawain, of your journey to the south," the King was saying pleasantly when I pulled my mind back to the great hall, "It must have been quite arduous."
"Not especially, Your Majesty," I answered, picturing the hours spent on horseback whistling cheerfully to myself.
"Indeed." Something hardened perceptibly in his calm eyes. "Surely in all those weeks you must have encountered some adventure worth remarking upon."
Now I was puzzled and beginning to be a little frightened. The King's eyes seemed to be boring into me like the eyes of a hawk. I glanced around and found similar expressions on the rest of the court. Sweat broke out on the back of my neck. "Truly, Your Majesty, I encountered nothing on the road worth telling." This was beginning to feel uncomfortably like an interrogation, and I longed to be back in my seat.
"Then you lie, indeed," said a new voice. From the shadows behind the King's throne stepped an elderly man, dressed in a flowing blue cloak covered all over with snaking silver and gold designs. His long grey beard fell nearly to his knees, and over his arched and crooked nose his black eyes were even more piercing than those of King Arthur.
I hid my surprise and alarm at the sight of those eyes, and took refuge in the cold courtesy of a prince. "Pardon me, sir? Were you addressing me?"
The black eyes snapped, and without warning I could not look away. "Of course I was addressing you, you arrogant puppy. You neglected to inform your sovereign of the interesting encounter you had but three days past."
At once, it all came rushing back. The girl's dead eyes bored into mine again. I tried to look away, but her eyes became the eyes of the old man and I could not. My own eyes inexplicably filled with tears, and without preamble I launched into the entire tale. I never once looked away from those black eyes, and as long as I looked into them I was caught in their spell of honesty. There were gasps of horror from around the room when I described my victim's terrible end. Only when the entire tale was complete could I look away from the old man and towards the throne.
The King sat back. His eyes were now very, very sad and tired. "Sir Gawain, do you know that the punishment of my court for the rape of an unprotected woman by a knight is death?"
I could have fallen through the floor. The world seemed to grow dark around me with horror. Rape?! Oh, what've I done? The room was utterly still.
"My lord," a quiet voice interjected into the echoing silence. "If it please you, let the judgment of this case fall to me."
I froze, the wood of the staff cold as steel against my flesh. I knew that with one blow that staff could snap my neck.
The Enchantress was glaring past me. "You!" she snarled, the look of bloodlust still lingering in her eyes. "You have no right to be here, interfering in women's business."
"'Women's business?'" the man's voice scoffed from behind me, "Is that what they call necromancy these days?"
"How would you know?" the Enchantress retorted, "You have five times the power any one of us has, yet you leave the task of punishing wrongdoers to the poor defenseless females. You make me sick with all your talk of only using 'good magic' to aid the weak. And it's the women who pay the price, like this poor wench before us!"
I realized at that moment who it was she must be speaking to: Merlin himself, the sole male Enchanter in all the world. Her fiery speech made me swell with pride, my doubts about her motives forgotten.
Merlin snorted rudely. "Don't lie, Lady Morgan. It doesn't become you. We both know you killed that girl yourself with your power in order to continue wreaking your vengeance upon the race of men."
I felt my world come apart at the seams as Merlin spoke. My teacher, my companion of the last four years, orchestrating an innocent death to further her own selfish ends? But looking back over the years I knew she was entirely capable of doing such a thing. Many times before things had worked out a bit too neatly and I had brushed my concerns aside.
I staggered, and a strong arm caught me from behind. I felt a long, soft beard brush the back of my neck as Merlin braced himself to take all my weight. He chuckled softly at the Enchantress, whom he had called Lady Morgan. "Didn't even care enough about your own apprentice to fill her in on all your dark workings? Contemptible, Morgan, utterly contemptible. Your punishment this time will be severe indeed." He gestured with his staff, which was no longer covering my neck, and a ring of light dropped around Lady Morgan. Though she screamed and beat at it, it held firm against all of her attempts to get free. In another moment, she was gone.
Merlin lowered me gently to the ground. Facing him, I could see that though his voice was that of a man in his thirties, his face was that of an old man. His long grey beard continued to tickle my neck, and his piercing black eyes bored into me over a crooked nose. I glanced away, ashamed to meet that bright gaze.
He took my chin and forced it upward. "Look at me, child."
I continued to avert my eyes. "Where did you send the Enchan—Lady Morgan?"
"Didn't even tell you her name, did she?" Merlin said, half to himself, shaking his head. "Don't worry, I sent her to a prison cell in the Faerie World where she will be judged according to the higher laws that govern us all. But you, my child, I am permitted to deal with myself."
The entire court turned to face the owner of the soft voice. I turned with them and saw that the Queen herself had risen from her throne beside her husband. I sucked in my breath hard when I beheld her face. She was the loveliest woman I'd ever seen, more beautiful by far than the village maid I had ravaged three days earlier. She stood tall and slender, her emerald-green gown accenting her deep turquoise eyes and shining auburn hair. Her skin was a translucent white that seemed almost to glow where it caught the candlelight. Her pale pink mouth was meant for smiling, but at the moment it was set cold and stern. The rest of her face was serene, the way I imagined an angel's to be.
King Arthur stood slowly beside his wife, and she turned to look into his face. He studied her expression for a moment, then nodded once. "I leave this case to your judgment, my dear Guinevere. Perhaps you in your wisdom may divine a graceful solution to this trouble that I cannot."
Queen Guinevere smiled briefly at her husband. "Indeed, my lord, I believe I can. Though in your own wisdom you created this law to protect the maidens of your kingdom, it may take a woman's insight to solve this matter in a way that most benefits everyone. Sir Knight," she said, turning to me, "I offer you a riddle to earn the forgiveness of this court. Do you accept my challenge?"
A riddle? This might be easier than I thought! "I accept, my Queen," I answered with a bow.
"Then here is your task: you must return here in a year and a day and bring me the answer to this question: What is it that women most desire?"
I felt my eyebrows come together in confusion. "But, my Queen, there are many possible replies to that question."
She smiled slightly. "Yet there is but one correct answer, Sir Gawain, and only by delivering it to me a year and a day from now will your life be spared. If not, you must surrender yourself to the judgment of this court, which is death by beheading."
I felt my stomach clenching into a hard, tight knot at her words. She had offered me a year in which to try to buy my freedom, yet the task she set was impossible. For all that, I knew that I must try.
"Do I have your word as a knight, Sir Gawain, that you will return here at the correct time, regardless the success of your quest?" the Queen asked softly. Her ocean-colored eyes were firm as I looked into them.
I felt numb to my very soul as I replied, "You have my word."
"Then go, and for your sake I pray that God will grant you success."
I stood, bowed, and walked out of the room.
I yanked away from Merlin. "Deal with me how?"
"Impertinent," he said, seeming to speak to himself again. Neither did he appear to be particularly angry with me. Instead, he seemed half-amused. "Well. The rules governing magical usage are very strict, and you have been using Black Magic for over four years now."
"Black Magic?" I froze in horror. Lady Morgan had never told me what we were doing was wrong. I thought the things we did were things that some sorceresses did and others did not.
"But, my child, you were in ignorance. There was no one to teach you the difference but one whose own heart has been black for many years already. Therefore your punishment shall not be as great as hers."
I felt my lower lip begin to tremble. "You punish me for something I didn't know was wrong?"
"Rules are rules, my dear. Besides, you have to learn the difference between right and wrong sometime. Mayhaps in future you'll use more discernment than blind discipleship."
The worse thing about that moment for me was that I agreed with him. I never expected to agree with Merlin the Terrible about anything. "What are you going to do to me?"
"Magical law is not very specific in this case. However, I have a certain spell in mind that I think would be appropriate. It's a good thing you're so pretty already, or this might not work so well. Here, have a look for yourself." He pulled a small looking-glass from beneath his beard and held it up for me to see. I looked at it in puzzlement. My face was quite pretty: heart-shaped with fine, light-colored brows and smooth skin with a hint of blush because I spent so much time in the sun. My eyes were a clear, stormy grey, and my hair was long and wavy, of a tint somewhere between golden and red.
My mind tried to work while Merlin began to make complicated passes with his staff. Me, pretty? I'd never given my looks a thought before. The Enchantress was beautiful, that I knew, but I'd never been around men long enough for them to notice me. My thoughts turned, to my utter surprise, to the young knight we'd seen on the road not one hour ago. Would he have found me pretty, as he had the village maid?
All other thoughts were driven from my head as the spell took hold. It was difficult to watch in the mirror, but I forced myself to look as my face aged considerably and changed shape. The changes hurt like fire, but I clenched my teeth and tried not to scream. I would not give Merlin the satisfaction of knowing I was in pain. Then it was all over, and Merlin was leaning on his staff with a satisfied expression on his face. "There. That ought to do the trick."
I bared my crooked teeth and did my best to glare at him while I examined my new face in the looking-glass. It was, I had to admit, one of the most hideous distortions of humanity I'd ever beheld. The hair was straggly grey, falling ineffectually over a deeply pockmarked face, a nose more crooked than Merlin's own, and a thin-lipped mouth. The clothes were ill-fitting, ugly, and brown with age and dirt. There was even a small hunch on the back. I reached up in horror and saw my own hand in the looking-glass touch the face. The only thing left of my former self was the storm-colored eyes, but they now looked at odds with the rest of my apperance.
"What have you done?" I croaked. The voice was not my own: the voice of a crone.
Merlin allowed himself a small grin. "Nothing permanent, I assure you, my child. There are one or two little conditions you must achieve in order to break the spell and return permanently to your old self."
I sighed, resigned. "It seems I have no choice but to accept them. What are the conditions?"
He told me.
In utter despair, I saddled my horse and rode out unchallenged from Camelot. My dream of becoming one of the realm's most celebrated knights was falling apart before it ever began. I did not even bother to guide my horse, but after several hours had passed I realized that it had taken the northern trail. Towards Orkney. Towards home. My hopes rose a bit at the thought of my mother. Perhaps she would know the answer to Queen Guinevere's riddle. But mental images of my father's shame, my brothers' sly glances when they found their exalted eldest brother in trouble came to my mind, and I simply could not make myself contemplate returning home in my present state. Still, I could make my way slowly northward, and perhaps gather some courage to face my family on the journey.
I made up my mind to ask everyone I met the riddle and see what answers they proposed. Unfortunately, the road my horse had chosen was quite deserted and there was simply no one to ask for the first several days.
At last, I reached a small hamlet. The children came rushing out to see the newcomer, then vanished again to inform their parents once they had made certain I was truly making for their humble abode.
The innkeeper of the village, greasy and foul-smelling, met me at the doorway of his tiny establishment. "Good day, milord. May we offer you lodging for the evening? Or perhaps some of the best home-brewed beer in the county? My wife takes special pride in her meat pies, as well. Or perhaps…" He trailed off, looking at me hopefully.
"No, thank you, sirrah," I replied carefully. "I am simply passing through your charming village. Perhaps you can help me with a difficulty I am having."
"Any service we may provide will be a pleasure, milord." He bowed deeply.
"Can any of you tell me what it is that women most desire?"
Brows knitted all around the group. "Oy, that be a tough one, milord. But what my wife and daughters most want in the world are beautiful dresses," the innkeeper said after a moment.
"A nice house!" called another voice helpfully.
"Ingredients for a stew!" came another eager cry. More answers were called out, all different, mostly foolish. None felt as if they might be the single answer the Queen was searching for.
An hour later, after tasting the innkeeper's wife's beer and nearly spitting it back out, I managed to escape much discouraged. If I spent my entire year in this way, it would be gone in no time with nothing to show. But what else could I do? I couldn't take the chance that the one person I didn't ask might have the correct answer and allow me to spare my own wretched life.
A few days later, with the same varied results from every person I put the question to, I came across a bend in the road that was hauntingly familiar. I recognized it almost at once: it was the site of my ill-fated rape of the village maiden. Halting my horse, I dismounted to say a brief prayer over the grave.
But the earth was freshly turned again, and the body had clearly been moved. Overcome with horror, I simply stood and stared at the place. Had someone related to the girl discovered her resting place? Or were there more sinister forces at work here?
"If you're looking for the young woman who died here, she's gone," said a cracked female voice from behind me.
Merlin strolled away into the forest after telling me the conditions of the spell he had put me under, leaving me to stare after him thoughtfully. Oddly enough, I felt very calm about my own fate, despite the fact that the terms Merlin had named were almost impossible. Shock, I told myself ruefully, You'll be bawling your eyes out in an hour or so about how entirely unjust your life has been in your short eighteen years! I fought back a hysterical laugh at that thought.
The first part of Merlin's terms were that I had to marry someone. Well, that might have been easily accomplished if I had been my former self, but as a hideous old crone even a lonely bachelor would balk at taking me for a bride. That meant I would have to resort to some sort of trickery. There is no magic that can change a person's will, so I would also have to resort to human conventions of deception and not my usual means of handling men. As I had only recently learned, most of those were forbidden to me now anyway. So as long as rational thought lasted, I ran through various plans for forcing a man to propose marriage to me. They were all utterly foolish, and true to my own predictions within the hour I dissolved into wild tears of despair.
Tears were still leaking from my eyes in the days that followed. Having nothing better to do, I informed the nearest village of the whereabouts of the young woman's body so that they might rebury her with her kin. Suspicious of me because of my looks and my proximity to the untimely death of one so young (of course I did not tell them the true story), they chased me away soon after that. I returned to the place where her body had been so hastily buried by her young attacker. The villagers had claimed it the day before, so the dark earth was newly turned.
I seated myself across the dirt track from it and was just contemplating a nap in the sun when I heard horse's hooves coming from the south. I had no time to hide; the horse came around the corner almost instantly. I nearly started in surprise. It was the young knight himself! But there was something different about him. All of his good cheer seemed banished from existence, as well as the indifferent arrogance he had displayed in the casual rape of the young girl. Instead, he seemed burdened down by weariness and sorrow. But for the fact that the horse and armor were identical, I would have had trouble believing that that young man and this one now before me were the one and the same.
He seemed not to notice me at all. I watched carefully as he dismounted from his enormous warhorse and bowed his head before the grave. Then I could almost feel him tense as he realized the body was gone. If I had doubted that this man was the knight who had buried the girl here, this was my proof: no one else would have known a body had ever been there.
"If you're looking for the young woman who died here," I said after a moment, "she's gone. The villagers took her away and buried her with the dead of her own family yestereve."
The man's broadsword, which had whipped with startling speed to point at my throat the moment I began to speak, slowly lowered. "Good day, my lady," he said with a courtly bow, "How did you come to know of the body buried there less than a week past?"
"I was hidden in the bushes over yonder," I gestured to the concealing shrubbery where the Enchantress and I had crouched, "And watched as the poor thing died."
He turned very pale, and his sword lowered to point at the ground. "You saw?" he whispered hoarsely.
She knew? I was horrified. How many other people knew of my folly already?
"Don't worry," the crone said with a wry twisting of her thin-lipped mouth, "I haven't told anyone. I can't speak for how many Merlin has told." It was as if she had read my mind. It also explained how the old man had known of my folly at all. He must have been Merlin, King Arthur's famed magician. Were the crone and the wizard in league with one another?
"Do know Merlin, then, my lady?" I asked cautiously.
Her mouth twisted down this time, almost hiding it within the fine wrinkles on her face. "Don't call me 'my lady'. I am no gentlewoman."
True enough, I thought. "As you like," I said aloud, "What should I call you then?"
She seemed to be taken aback. "You may call me Deirdre, if it matters that much to you," she answered after a moment.
We were silent for several minutes, sizing one another up. She was certainly the ugliest woman I had ever seen, with scraggly grey hair, a hunch, and a pockmarked, wrinkled face. Her dress was dirt-stained and ill-fitting. But there was something about her eyes, large and clear and deep purplish-grey, that didn't seem to match the rest of her. They seemed too young for such an ancient face. But then she squinted at me, and I thought I must have been mistaken. One thing I was certain of, she gave off the same powerful aura that I had always felt from my mother, and briefly from Merlin. She could only be an enchantress. Perhaps she could help me out of my difficulties.
"Ah, I wonder, my lady, ah, Deirdre," I amended when she glared at me, "if you might know the answer to a very simple question?"
"That depends, Sir Knight, upon the nature of the question," she snapped, and I was suddenly reminded that she, after all, had witnessed my previous cruelty to the village maiden. She could not possibly think very well of me.
"It is a matter of life and death to me," I told her. Her eyes narrowed, but she nodded for me to continue. "The Queen has set me on a quest to discover the answer to this question and earn the forgiveness of the court for my, well…" I trailed away, glancing at the recently upturned earth. She seemed to understand, so I went on, "To earn forgiveness."
Deridre sighed impatiently, so I said quickly, "The question is this: what is it that women most desire?"
She was silent for a long time. Her stormy eyes were far away, reminding me for a moment of a summer sky in late evening. At last, she said, "I will be honest with you, Sir Knight. I do indeed know the answer to your riddle," here my heart leapt, "but the telling exacts a price."
"I will pay any price that you ask of me, if only you will relieve me of this burden the Queen has placed upon me." I told her happily.
"It is not that easy. I do not believe you will be willing to pay the price I ask."
"No price is too great to buy back my life."
She laughed, a little sadly. "Not this price, not for you. You must be desperate enough to agree to give me whatever I ask before I will divulge my secret. Therefore, I will keep the knowledge to myself, for the time being at least. But I will ride with you as you make enquiries, and if at the end of the year you have not found the same answer for a lesser price by then, you may ask me again and I will answer truthfully."
I was completely flummoxed by this, and a little angry. She knew the answer and refused to tell me! "I assure you, madam, I am capable of paying any amount of coin you wish. My parents, the King and Queen of Orkney, will spare no expense to assure that their heir to the throne survives."
If I had expected her to bend her will to mine, as everyone had done for all of my life, or even to show surprise at the knowledge that I was a royal prince, I was sadly mistaken. Her grey eyes grew icy cold. "Do you think me some petty grasping peasant,seeking only to be paid in common coin?" she hissed, "The price I ask is far too high to be repaid at this time, for you alone must pay it. I care not who your parents are. It is your folly that placed you in this situation, and you alone must remedy your mistake."
I was stunned speechless with rage; keeping a rein on my temper had not been part of my training as a future ruler. Without thinking, I drew back my gloved hand to backhand her across the face. Her jaw set, and she turned her cheek to the side to absorb the blow. But something in her steely acceptance, almost as if it would confirm something she'd already expected about my personality, made me hesitate. I don't know what made me do it, but I slowly put my hand down. "Very well," I said after a moment, "We will ride together."
He surprised me when he withdrew his hand. Any other man I had ever seen would have slapped me for my words. But I had meant what I said: he alone would pay my price, his parents and their wealth did not enter into the equation. He would have to marry me if he decided my mysterious conditions were the only way he could live. I had to admit to myself that I was a bit surprised that the young knight was the heir to one of the thrones of Scotland. But I hid my surprise; it made little difference to me after the initial shock.
So I stood, and shook out my threadbare skirts. "Good. Let us begin, then. I shall need a horse eventually, but until then I believe I can keep up with your stallion without much trouble."
"What?" He laughed, but quickly stopped himself. "My apologies, madam. I see you are capable of much more than you appear." It was my turn to be surprised, but he went on, "My mother is a sorceress herself, and I believe I know the look of one after a lifetime with her. But, if you would not mind, it might be wiser for you to ride before me on my horse. A woman such as yourself striding along beside a horse while a chivalrous knight rides would cause a deal of talk among the peasantry. Come, let me help you up."
I shook him off. "I can mount a horse myself, thank you very much." Just to prove it, I strode over to his skittish stallion, placed a calming hand on its face for a moment, and then boosted myself up easily. At least my strength had not been sapped by Merlin's spell to match my elderly appearance, for which I was grateful.
The knight was clearly shocked by my ease of movement, but kept his thoughts to himself. As he mounted behind me, I realized that though he knew my name he still had not told me his. He laughed when I mentioned this to him. "Forgive me, Deirdre. My name is Gawain. Sir Gawain, now, but it doesn't really matter anymore. Not after what I've done. Please just call me Gawain." He kneed the horse, and we started off down the road.
We were silent for the next several hours, which gave me time to think about several things. Of course I knew the answer to his riddle; I had not lied to him about that. It had taken only a few moments of remembering an evening with Lady Morgan, the Enchantress, to recall that she had set the same riddle to me. The answer had seemed obvious to me at the time, but clearly the conclusions I had been able to reach when my life was uncomplicated by worries about right and wrong were not so clear to those who lived in a world ruled by men.
I also had a great deal of time to ponder exactly why I had not exploited Gawain's desperation by demanding my price of marriage immediately. It would have been much less complicated for us both, and we could have worked out the details of married life and Merlin's spell much later. But what I truly wanted, in my heart of hearts that I dared not acknowledge to my more rational self, was for Gawain to marry me because he wanted to, not because he felt that he had to. That was foolish, I knew. Gawain was one of those men who chose women solely for their looks without regard to personality or even their desires, his rape of the village girl had proven that beyond doubt. And yet, when the question arose, I could not bear to capitalize upon his time of weakness and despair. This was so unlike my typical choice for a course of action that I could not explain it even to myself at the time.
Of course, looking back, I can easily see that I had already begun to fall in love with Gawain. But at the time I simply could not account for my behavior. And even had I dared to admit to myself that I cared at all about Gawain apart from self-interest, I would have had no idea what to do about such feelings. My only experience with men up to that point in my life was with killing them. My first mentor, the hedgewitch, had taken me into general seclusion from the rest of her village, and once she died I had lived with Lady Morgan, the Enchantress. She made no secret of her disdain for men and their ways. So I had no idea that it was possible to have such feelings for a man as affection or trust, and thus was destined to be greatly surprised over the next months as Gawain's traveling companion.
Deirdre rode with me for the next several months as we slowly traveled northward towards Orkney, stopping in every village and hamlet to ask the inhabitants the Queen's riddle. Rarely were two answers the same. Riches, beauty, jewels, children, honor, happiness, flattery, marriage, and even sex were all among the replies given, and none seemed to be the one true answer Queen Guinevere had sent me to seek. Deirdre would always remain silent when the replies were given, her wrinkled face revealing nothing. Though this frustrated and often angered me, I never offered violence to her again. Nor did I offer to touch any of the women, young or old, married or unmarried, that we encountered. At first this took some effort on my part, but eventually it became second nature to view the women as people with their own thoughts and desires rather than servants to my will.
At first I had thought that having Deirdre along on my quest would be a bothersome annoyance, but she proved to be a diverting travel companion. When I wanted to talk on our rides, she would listen, ask shrewd questions, and even joke and tease at times. When I would silently brood about the latest set of answers to my riddle, pondering if any of them could possibly be the one I sought, Deirdre would remain silent as well. Though we often spoke about my childhood, she said little about her own past, and I never pressed her. All I could gather was that she was from a peasant family, and they had all been murdered, along with the rest of her village, in a Saxon raid when she was fourteen. She did tell me the tale of her infant 'prediction' of her father's death as the first indication of her developing powers, but I learned little more about her past or her powers than those few meager details.
At last we arrived in Orkney. My family was surprised to see me returned so soon, but they were welcoming enough. Deirdre was bundled off to a room in the servants' quarters, treatment that for a moment surprised and even offended me. The old Gawain, the spoiled prince who had once lived in this castle, would have considered it only natural, but now something about how my traveling companion of the last several months was bustled away at once niggled at the back of my brain.
I managed to forget about my unease at Deirdre's absence in my eagerness to have a private audience with my mother. Queen Morgause agreed to see me the following day in her rooms, and even to cast a spell so that my brothers could not eavesdrop. When I was certain no one could overhear, I confessed the entire story, and she listened silently. When I was finished, she considered me for a long moment, her perfect face a calm and collected mask. At last, she said, "My son, you have learned a hard lesson, and at a high cost. I regret now that we neglected to teach you to treat women with more care."
"But Mother, you did. In my own foolishness I did not consider all women to be equal under the protection that chivalry is meant to provide. I alone pay the price for my oversight."
Her eyebrows went up at this. Then she smiled. "Who is this eloquent gentleman standing before me, taking responsibility for his actions? Is this truly my son Gawain speaking, or are you some imposter? Should I ask a question that only Gawain would know the answer to as a test of identity?"
"Don't tease me, Mother. The price I may still have to pay to the law is my life."
"As to that, I do not see that all hope is lost. You told me your…companion knows the answer and has refused to tell you," she said.
"Deirdre. She told me…" I closed my eyes to try to remember, "She told me that the price she demanded for the knowledge was too great for me to pay. At the end of the year, if all other hope is lost, then I may ask her again and she will answer truthfully."
"And pay her price, whatever it is." Her face was revealing nothing again.
She pursed her lips and said nothing more. After a moment of silence, I reached out and took her hand. "The riddle, Mother. Do you know the answer?"
"I am afraid, my son, that I do not. But perhaps you might arrange for your friend to meet with me. Woman to woman. I may yet be able to persuade her to give up her secret without cost to you." She turned and swept out of the room before I could protest.
There was a soft tap on the door to the tiny sink-hole where the steward had shown me after wafting me away from Gawain in the castle entrance hall. Thinking it might be Gawain, I called, "Come in!" The door swung open to reveal the grand lady who Gawain had introduced to me as his mother. I stood and curtsied, as best as my crone form would allow. "Your Majesty."
Queen Morgause studied the movement. When I rose, she studied me for a moment longer with sparkling eyes that just matched Gawain's in color. Then she smiled. "Forgive me for barging in on you, Mistress Deirdre. I wanted to meet my son's companion of the last few months. I must confess, you are very different from his previous choices for female…friends."
We both knew what she meant. "We're all discovering new things, my lady."
"But perhaps you are not so different from them as you first appear." I must have looked startled, for she let out a bright, cheerful laugh that sounded odd echoing off the bare stone walls. "Come, my dear, do you think I don't know my own craft well enough to be blind to a spell's effects under my own nose? Your particular spell practically reeks of Merlin's attempts at punishment. Tell me I am not right."
"You are very observant, Your Majesty," I replied carefully.
"No need to be so formal with me, child. After all, if you have your way, you would be my daughter-in-law."
She could not have picked words that were better calculated to stab me in the heart. I sank backwards onto the rough bed, my eyes glazed and unseeing. Disregarding propriety, Gawain's mother sat next to me. "Surely you must see how impossible such a union is. He is a royal prince of Orkney, nephew of King Arthur himself, and a knight besides. You are a simple peasant maid, no matter what powers you possess. Not to mention that you have spent most of your life using Black Magic and are now reaping the rewards. Do you truly think to gain position and forgiveness by marrying him?"
I managed to pull myself away from her. "Why are you doing this?"
Morgause rose to her feet. "You must understand, Mistress Deirdre. I care deeply for my wayward son. He has flaws, it is true, and they are partly of my own making. I wish only the best for him. He tells me you know the answer to the riddle that will save his life. Why not tell me the answer now? That way you can release him from any obligations he has to you and let you get on with your lives. It would be the best for both of you."
Though I wanted nothing more than to cover my ears and scream, I remained rigidly upright. "Very well, Your Majesty. I release Sir Gawain from any obligations to me. But that being the case, I will not tell you the answer to the riddle. It is my belief that he should discover the answer for himself, and be willing to pay the price the knowledge would exact. For in the time that I have known him, I have seen that the answer to this riddle would be a burden in itself. More than that I will not say. I shall leave your castle now, Your Majesty. Thank you for your hospitality. Give Ga--Sir Gawain my regards." And with that, I walked out the door, past the staring Queen Morgause.
back my tears, I made my way to the stables, saddled my horse, and
rode out of the gates, silently bidding farewell to Gawain forever as
I did so.
"Mother, what did you say to her?" I asked, bursting into my parents' room. Fortunately, my father was out and my brothers had gone down to the village. "The steward told me Deirdre left, without a word of goodbye. What did you say to her?"
My mother studied me for a moment, then gestured at a chair. I took the offered seat facing her. "Son, I will be perfectly frank with you. It is probably for the best that she left. She was right in saying that the price she would have asked for the answer to your riddle would be far too much for you to pay."
"So she told you what the price was? Did she also tell you the answer to the riddle itself?"
"She refused. You must still discover that for yourself in the next seven months before High Queen Guinevere's deadline is up. That is plenty of time to travel the country, and perhaps find someone more willing to tell you the correct answer without exacting too high a price." Queen Morgause leaned over and kissed my forehead. "Her leaving is not the end of everything, Gawain. There is still time."
I stood up sharply. "What is this price that she asked, that is so awful no one will tell me what it is?"
"Better that you forget that, and forget her." My mother turned her face away, and as she did I caught the glitter of tears in her eyes. No matter how I pressed, she refused to discuss the matter again.