I rode away from Orkney and made my way far to the south. After a few weeks, the memories of Gawain, and his mother's words, no longer stung so deeply. But I could never quite manage to banish them from my mind. Had I truly been using Gawain only for my own ends, as a means to earn salvation and wealth, as Queen Morgause had so blatantly accused me of doing? I knew in my heart that this had been far from the truth. But what then was the truth? Why had I remained with Gawain for five months of travel? I could never answer those questions logically for myself.
I set up my home in a village near Camelot. Every day I watched the road, wondering if Gawain had found the answer he sought. For his sake, I hoped that he found it and was able to return to Camelot and win his freedom. I could not bear the thought that if he failed, it was because of my own selfish refusal to tell him the answer he needed without my own agenda.
Though I could easily have attempted to win another husband for myself and break Merlin's spell that way, I made no effort to do so. Perhaps, in a twisted way, this was my personal penance for possibly costing Gawain his life. I would remain a crone as punishment for my manipulation. Or lack thereof. I could never quite decide whether the problem was my interference in the first place, or my refusal to use Gawain's desperation for my own ends. Either way, it mattered little. The end result was the same: a life of misery for me and a much hastened end for Gawain, if he failed to discover his salvation in time.
At last, one day in a pouring thunderstorm I saw the great charger I recognized plodding through the mud on the road to Camelot. One look at its rider told me all I needed to know. Pulling on my tattered cloak, I made my way outside.
I rode out from Orkney a few days after Deirdre had so abruptly left, furious with the world in general and the female race in particular. I silently cursed Queen Guinevere for setting me an impossible task, my mother for chasing away my only hope, and with Deirdre for leaving. Oddly, I did not blame Deirdre for not telling me the answer to the riddle. Clearly she had had her reasons for that, reasons that even my mother admitted were justified. But that did not leave me any better off.
Over the next seven months I traveled the length and breadth of the land, searching for someone, anyone, who could tell me what it was that women most desired. I even tried my hand at figuring out the answer for myself, but I had to admit I knew little about the inner thoughts of women.
At last, almost against my will, my travels took me towards Camelot again. My borrowed time was up, and I now had to return and admit before all the court that I had failed. And then wait to be executed like a common criminal. It was that more than the loss of honor at not completing the quest that most bothered me. I now had so much that I wanted to live for: I wanted to see my family again, earn the place at the Round Table I had once dreamed of, marry and have children. Perhaps even see Deirdre again, strange as it was to admit. I had sorely missed her tart companionship as I rode the endless miles.
It began to rain when I was two days' ride from Camelot. However, I dared not stop or I would be late for my promised meeting with the Queen. I found that almost morbidly amusing. What man rushes headlong towards his death in the pouring rain? But I had given my word as a knight that I would return on the correct day, whether I had found the answer or no. That still meant something to me, even if a few of my old, childish values had faded behind.
Suddenly a familiar voice came out of the rain at my horse's side. "Greetings, Sir Gawain."
And there was Deirdre, putting her calming hand on my horse's head just as she had the day we met. I nodded to her, trying to hide my great relief at seeing her again. "Well met, Deidre." And then I astonished myself by adding, "The road has seemed long without your company."
She actually smiled, a true smile and not her usual wry twist of the mouth. "And you have never been far from my thoughts these last seven months. I must ask your pardon for my abrupt departure from Orkney Castle; it was very ingracious of me."
"In turn, I hope that you will pardon anything my mother said to you. She meant well, I promise."
"Did she tell you anything that we spoke of?" Deirdre asked, looking at me sharply out of her gray eyes.
"Only that you would not tell her the answer the Queen Guinevere's riddle, and that the price you asked was far too great. I must ask: are you still willing to keep your promise? In all my travels, I have not found a suitable answer from anyone I have asked. I am willing to pay any price that you ask. Only name your desire."
My heart rose at his words. A tear leaked from the corner of my eye, but it was indistinguishable from the driving rain that had already soaked my stringy hair and threadbare gown.
"Very well, Gawain," I said at last. "I will tell you the answer to the riddle that I am certain has tormented you these many months. However, I will not reveal my price until after the Queen has declared you a free man."
The smile he gave me warmed my insides despite the chill of the rain. "Then you must ride with me to Camelot. If I do not press on, I will not be able to arrive in time. Here, give me your hand and climb up before me; we do not have time to fetch your own horse. You can tell me the answer as we ride."
He offered me his hand, and I took it, allowing him to pull me onto the saddle in front of him. Once I was settled, he urged his horse forward, and we set off on the road to Camelot.
Gawain was silent as we left the outskirts of the village where I had been living, but I knew that inside he must be bursting with anxiety. After a few extra minutes to let him stew, I laughed and said "You have learned a great deal about patience since we parted, Gawain!"
"And you have had great practice in forbearance, my lady. Few women possess such an admirable trait. But now that we have spoken, I beg you to refrain from pretense any longer than you must."
"In that case, I will not hold you in suspense." Leaning backwards so that my mouth was as close to his ear as I could get, I whispered the answer to Queen Guinevere's riddle.
Gawain stiffened, causing his horse to slow to a halt. "That's it?" He kneed the horse forward again as he continued to talk. "But it's so simple! And yet no one I've asked has known it."
"There are few, even women, who know what they truly desire in this life, Sir Gawain. Surely you've discovered this in your travels?"
"Very true. I myself have yet to discover what I want for my own life. Indeed, especially since I thought my life was going to come to a very sudden end three days from now." He laughed, and I could hear the relief in his voice. He sat straighter in the saddle; I had lifted a great burden from him. I could be grateful for that, at least. Now all that remained to be seen was whether I had the courage to exact my price from this young man that I had come to care so deeply for. I knew him well enough by then, and I knew what his reaction would likely be: he would be horrified and disgusted beyond belief at the thought of being tied forever to a hideous hag as his wife. I didn't think I could bear that. And yet, I couldn't bear to let him slip away from me again, either. So I remained silent for the rest of the ride to Camelot, thinking my own terribly conflicted thoughts.
I was so dizzy with relief that I nearly forgot to guide my horse. The burden of a year was washing away with the rain that was still pouring down. I had to remind myself not to worry anymore, and every time I did a little bubble of joy would rise up and burst inside my head. And it was all thanks to Deirdre. I could not feel enough gratitude for her, and I managed to convince myself that whatever price she asked would not be too terrible to pay after all. I knew her. She wouldn't do anything to really harm me.
At last we arrived, muddy to our eyebrows, at Camelot, the day before I had been charged by Queen Guinevere to reappear before her and give her my answer. I was restless and impatient, but Deirdre, who was once again accommodated far from me in the servants' quarters, seemed to have fallen into a state of melancholy. She rarely left her room over the next day, and when I found my way down to see her she seemed pale and listless. The second time I went down, just before the banquet where I would face the Queen, her voice told me to go away when I knocked. It sounded muffled and thick, as if she had been crying.
I pounded on the door again. "Deirdre, please. If you won't let me in, at least tell me what's troubling you. You've done so much for me already. Maybe I can repay it a little by helping you now."
I heard, behind the door, so soft that I nearly did not catch it, "You will pay soon enough, Gawain. Pray do make this any harder for me than it already is." I stepped back, stunned. In a louder voice, Deirdre called, "I fear that no one can help me, Sir Gawain. Leave me here and go on to your banquet. I will see you later."
"No, Deirdre. Come with me to the banquet. It is all due to you that I am not returning in failure. I want you to see my triumph," I begged.
A muffled noise, like a restrained sob, came from behind the door. After a moment, it swung open. Deirdre stood there in her worn clothing, as ugly as ever. Her face was pink and blotchy in places. She sighed, very softly. "Very well, Sir Gawain. For your sake, I will attend the feast."
"Don't call me Sir Gawain, my lady. You have been calling me Gawain until now, you might as well continue to do so." I said this in an attempt to make her smile, but I was not rewarded with more than a shadow of one.
After hesitating a moment, I offered her my arm. She merely stared at it. Then, she ventured tentatively, "Is it seemly for you, a prince, to offer your arm to a mere peasant woman, and one so unsightly as I? What would your mother say?"
"No doubt she would be horrified, but she'd soon get used to the idea. After all, I don't object, and it's my opinion that counts. Don't you agree?" At this Deirdre raised one eyebrow and gave me a look I could not interpret, but she took my arm with no further objection.
Deirdre was given a place with the rest of the servants, and I took mine with the knights. Once the feasting was over, I nervously stood and made my way to kneel before the dais. King Arthur sat there under the cloth of estate, wearing a golden circlet.
"Welcome back, Nephew Gawain," the King said, rising from his throne and commanding the attention of the room. Everyone fell silent, and I felt their eyes boring into me once again. But I tried to retain as dignified of an expression as I could despite being the disgraced Sir Gawain, sent from court on an impossible mission in a vain attempt to earn forgiveness.
The Queen stood beside her husband, regal in a gown of forest green. Her only ornaments were a silver circlet and a gold wedding band, but she still outshone every woman in the room. Her face was cool, however, as she said, "I have prayed for your successful return, Sir Gawain. Do you or do you not have the answer to my riddle?"
"I do, my Queen." There was a murmur that ran through the room like a breeze. I looked straight into her sea-green eyes as I said, slowly and clearly, "The answer to your riddle is this: the thing that women most desire--is to have power over men."
And Queen Guinevere smiled. "That is right. You are a free man, Sir Gawain."
I watched from the back of the room as it erupted in cheers-after a long moment of stunned silence. Several of the male servitors around me commented to one another that they never would have come up with such an answer themselves. Typical of men, I thought to myself, and then was surprised at the thought. I had not thought ill of the male race in general in several months.
Suddenly Gawain was there in front of me, drawing me to my feet and leading me to the center of the room. I tried to cover my face with my free hand, but I managed to catch many horrified looks before I looked at the floor. "Uncle Arthur, this is Lady Deirdre," Gawain said, and I curtsied before the High King of Britain without a wobble, keeping my eyes glued to the floor. "She is the lady who finally gave me the answer to the riddle, not three days ago. Now, Deirdre, tell me your price for the knowledge before the King and all those assembled, and I will see that you receive it."
If I had been the fainting type, I would have done so right away. If I had known a melting or a vanishing spell, I would have employed either of them at that moment. As it was, my ears roared louder than a crowd at a joust, drowning out all other sound. This was the moment of truth. Everything that I had hoped for came down to this moment, and I could feel my courage slipping away like water. I was going to humiliate Gawain before the King and all these other people, and worse yet, I was going to break his heart.
I was just making up my mind to say that I asked no price after all when a familiar voice cut in, very softly. "Don't be afraid to ask for what you desire, my child." I looked up sharply. Merlin was standing in the shadows of the King's throne, his piercing dark eyes fixed on mine. No one else reacted to his words, so I guessed that he had cast some sort of spell so that only I could hear him. When my eyes met his, he nodded very slightly.
My mouth worked, but at first no sound came out. At last, I managed to whisper, "Your hand in marriage."
"I'm sorry, I didn't hear you. What did you say?" Gawain was still smiling blithely, holding my hand.
"My price is your hand in marriage," I said, louder this time. There. It was out at last.
The silence in the room hurt my ears. I looked at Gawain, but he was staring at me. Stunned beyond words. I looked around. Merlin was gone from behind the King's throne. King Arthur looked as shocked as Gawain, but Queen Guinevere seemed amused. Perhaps even pleased. I glanced back at Gawain. His face was drained of all color, but he seemed almost…relieved. He tried out a weak smile. "Is that all?" he said shakily, "The way you and my mother have been behaving, I though you were going to demand a pound of flesh or something just as dire!" But from the expression on his face, I could tell that he was deeply disturbed at my request. That hurt, but it was better than what I'd been expecting. I stood a little straighter and tried to take courage from that.
Queen Guinevere spoke, and we all turned to look at her. "What say you, Sir Gawain? Will you take this bold lady to be your wife?"
Gawain did not look at me; he kept his eyes on his sovereigns. "What is there for me to say? I am a knight, and I honor a bargain. I am Lady Deirdre's to command from this day forward."
I could not pretend to hide my revulsion when Deirdre finally made her request. I had thought I was prepared for any type of price, but not this! My first thought was Mother was right. I should have been more careful. But I dismissed that almost immediately. After the initial shock, I decided that marriage to Deirdre wouldn't be such a terrible thing. She was bright and witty and friendly, and I had come to like her a great deal in our time together. In fact, strange as it was to admit, despite her looks I thought I might enjoy being married to her, and I dared to hope that she would not be too disappointed in marrying me. The only thing that concerned me as a particular obstacle was the wedding night. But there were other matters to deal with before that, and I had to push aside my worries for the time being.
King Arthur, still clearly surprised at how cooperative I was being about the whole thing, arranged a brief, private marriage that evening with only himself, Guinevere, Merlin, and the priest who was to marry us present. I was grateful for that. It would give my parents no time to object, and my brothers an easy way to opt out of being in their eldest brother's wedding. Deirdre, of course, had no family at all to worry about.
The ceremony was short and simple. Merlin graciously offered to give the bride away, though why he was suddenly being so helpful I could only put to the most sinister of motives. I could tell Deirdre didn't think much of the idea as well; she grimaced slightly whenever she had to take the magician's arm.
That night in my bedchamber, now to be shared by the two of us, I undressed down to my nightshirt and got into bed without having to look at Deirdre. This was the moment I had been dreading, but I vowed that I would play my part just as if she were the most beautiful maiden in the land. But Deirdre did not join me. She stood staring through the narrow window at the moon-touched landscape for several minutes, standing in such a way that the darkest shadows nearly concealed her entirely.
She seemed lost in thought, contemplating the bright silver-and-black shadows outside. At last, I ventured, "Aren't you going to…come to bed?"
"In a moment, Gawain," she replied. Her voice sounded different, and I had to suck in my breath for a moment at the richness of the sound. It was something I had never heard from her before, and when she turned so that the moonlight fell sharply across her face I saw why. The breath I had sucked in came out of me abruptly in a low gasp of astonishment. "My God…"
Deirdre's face was completely transformed. Gone were the stringy hair, the pockmarks, the crooked nose, the thin-lipped mouth, the hunch, and everything else that had made her appearance ancient and distorted. In their place was a fair-skinned young woman with thick, wavy hair (I could not tell its shade, I guessed perhaps blond), and eyes that seemed to glow in the borrowed moonlight.
"Deirdre…?" I managed to whisper at last. "Is it really…?"
She stepped out of the moonlight, walked to our bedside table, and lit a candle. When she held the slender flame up, I could see that her hair was a fine strawberry blond. Her eyes, however, were exactly the same storm-grey color as they had been as a crone. This new person was not a radiant beauty like High Queen Guinevere, but there was something about the freshness of her spirit that seemed to shine all around the room in the same way the candle she held did.
I reached out and took her hand in mind. "Deirdre?" She nodded, smiling. "You're…beautiful." It was all I could think of to say.
"This is my other appearance, Gawain," she said slowly, her voice rising and falling like the tones of an Irish violin, "And now that we are married I am permitted to change back and forth between the two. You, as my husband, are given a choice: shall I be old and ugly by day when people can see the woman you married, or at night when we are alone together? Choose, and I will obey from now until death do us part."
Of course these were the terms that Merlin had set upon his enchantment over me. I had to marry a man, and on the wedding night I would resume my own shape and offer him a choice: should I be hideous by day or by night? Whatever he chose, I would have to obey until I died. There was one way for me to remain young permanently, but that would take an exceptional man and was highly unlikely, even as exceptional a man as Gawain had become in the past year.
I had been surprised at how little Gawain had objected to the marriage. Perhaps, just perhaps, he did have buried feelings for me after all. So the scenario was not as awful as I had imagined while on the road to Camelot. The thought of sharing a bed with an ugly old crone must have bothered him deeply, but if it did he took care not to show it at all through the wedding ceremony.
At last, night had fallen and, standing by the window in Gawain's chambers, I had felt the changes begin. It was not painful, as it had been the first time, but I took care to hide my reactions from Gawain until the tingling sensations were gone. Only once I knew that I looked like myself entirely did I answer Gawain's tentative question and turn to face him.
His reaction to my transformation secretly pleased me; I had been wondering if my young appearance would be pretty enough to please him. I knew now that whatever he chose, we would learn to be happy with over the years.
And now all that was left for me was to await my husband's choice for my fate.
I stared at Deirdre's new form, secretly appalled at being called upon to make such a choice. Choose? Choose between public scorn for marrying a crone, or sleeping with a crone at night? Neither was one I particularly relished, though I knew between the two of us we could find ways to deal with either.
Several times I opened my mouth to declare one option or the other, but then would close it again. A stray thought, a what-if scenario, would always stop me. My thoughts slowly turned back to the past year, and some of my conversations with Deirdre as we rode. She had often displayed a deep-seeded scorn for the actions and thoughts of men, though as we grew to know each other she had mellowed considerably towards my sex. But some of the things she had expressed I could not deny: that men often made their choices based upon what seemed good to them at the time rather than thinking into the future, and they rarely considered the needs of others before acting. I thought of the answer to the riddle Queen Guinevere had set me: what women most desire is to have power over men. And there before me stood Deirdre, radiant in the light of a single candle, patiently waiting for me to decide her life for her. Had I learned no more than that in my past year? No one, male or female, particularly liked having their choices taken from the by force. I knew this now within the depth of my soul. And I made my decision.
Gawain was silent for a long time, staring at me without really seeing me at all. At last, he blinked, and a small smile grew on his lips. He squeezed my hand, looked me in the eye, and said, very softly, "No, Deirdre. I have learned more from you than that. And this is my decision: I return the choice to you. Appear in either form as you will, in whatever time you believe will give you—us—the most happiness."
My hand tightened on his. This was the answer I had been seeking, and yet--"Do you offer me this freely, Gawain?"
His smile grew. "As feely as I gave you my hand and heart in marriage in the first place. I love you, Deirdre. I always have. It just took your bold request for a union between us for me to fully realize it."
I was so stunned he could have knocked me over with a breath of wind. He loved me? He'd loved me even as a crone? I had not dared to hope he returned my affections as ardently as mine for him, but this was greater than I had ever imagined. In response, I leaped onto the bed beside him and kissed him passionately. He seemed a bit surprised, but reciprocated willingly enough. When we parted, I belatedly realized he might have been waiting for a verbal response as well. "I love you, too, Gawain."
He leaned away, pinched my now-straight nose. "A bit late, my love, but I'll accept it. Provided that you continue to tell me so at least once a day for the rest of our lives."
"Granted." I kissed him again.
As morning rays of sun began to slide through the window, I settled into the crook of Gawain's arm and nestled my head against his cheek. "Gawain?"
"Do you realize what this means?"
He turned his head to look at me. "What?"
"You giving me my choice of appearance. It broke the spell on me entirely."
He was silent for a moment, absorbing this. "Does that mean what I think it means?"
"Yes. It means that this is my sole appearance from now on. Neither one of us must make a choice at all about how I will look. Of course," I added mischievously, "For all either of us knows, I may look like that again thirty years from now. What will you do then?"
"I'll likely be just as misshapen. Perhaps more so. What will you do then?"
I kissed his cheek. "Continue loving you, just as I did when you were young and handsome. What about you?"
"The same. Except you're not handsome. You're beautiful."
"Thank you, husband." I sat up, stretching.
He lay still, watching me move about the room as I dressed. "I've been meaning to ask," he said after a moment, "Who did this to you?"
"The spell?" He nodded. I sighed. "I will not keep secrets from you any longer, Gawain. I will tell you the whole story, from beginning to end. All I ask is that you listen, and try your best not to judge me too harshly. I was a foolish child, and, like you, I have reaped the rewards of my foolishness for the past year."
He dressed silently while I told him my tale. When I finished, he sat on the bed next to me. "You were foolish to be so naïve, it is true. But I, too, have been more of a fool than you know." He then told me about his early lovers, the child he'd had with one of them. I was shocked, but I knew he only wanted to put it behind him, as I did. And we agreed to speak no more of either of our painful pasts than was necessary.
At last, he stood, pulling me with him. "Well, now that we have cleared the air between us once and for all, shall we go down? It's quite late. They must be thinking we've had a very passionate wedding night despite everything."
"You're right. We should show them how wrong they are." Hand in hand, we started for the door.
He paused as an idea struck him. "I can't wait to see Uncle Arthur's face!" he crowed. The two of us laughed, and he kicked the door shut behind us.