“The queen is Lancelot’s whore, and everybody knows it! Now what are we going to do about it?” Sir Agravain exploded, bursting in the door to the chambers he shared with his brothers,
his face fiery crimson as his flowing hair.
The mercurial Agravain was often exercised over some minor matter or other.
“What’s disturbing you now, brother?” asked Sir Mordred, his dark eyes flicking up ironically in Agravain’s direction. “Did Guinevere fail to praise your new surcoat again?”
“I’m serious, you little maggot!” Agravain answered him. “I’m talking about the queen. I’ve just seen her batting her eyelashes at Sir Lancelot again in some secret corner when she thought nobody was looking. It’s unconscionable. I could swear she is cuckolding our uncle day and night with his own chief knight, and nobody will approach the king about it! It’s a vile dishonor to the greatest king in Christendom to have his queen whoring after his own vassal! And we are his close kin—this is shame to us as well. And greater shame if we continue to allow it!”
By now Sir Gawain was rising from his seat at the head of his table, his brows lowered in anger and his face competing for redness with Agravain’s own. “Enough brother! We have guests, in case you haven’t noticed. We’ll discuss this as a family matter at another time…”
“It’s a court matter, not a family matter, and we should discuss it now!” Agravain was insistent. Always the most passionate of the Orkney brothers, Agravain resembled in that his oldest brother, Gawain. The green eyes and red hair that affirmed their Celtic heritage at the same time reflected the heat of their passions. Sir Gaheris and Sir Gareth, on the other hand, tended to be the calmer and more peaceable of the brothers—except for that one uncomfortable incident in Gaheris’s past that we won’t go into just now—and resembled each other with their matching blond hair and blue eyes. And then there was Mordred. The baby of the family. And he didn’t resemble any of his brothers.
The entire Orkney clan was there in the rooms when Agravain entered. So were several of their closest supporters in the court—people like myself, former squire to Sir Gareth and now a full-fledged knight of the Round Table. We were gathered for an impromptu banquet Sir Gawain had decided to arrange in these rooms, chiefly to discuss what Gawain and Gareth were beginning to perceive as a coming crisis in the realm: the fact that King Arthur, having for more than thirty years served as King of Logres and now Emperor of Scotland, Ireland, Wales, Norway, Brittany and Gaul, and de facto heir to Imperial Rome itself, had no legitimate heir of his own body to pass this inheritance on to. Perhaps, indeed, the king would reign for another twenty years or more, but given the uncertainties of this transient world, the Orkneys believed it was only prudent for the king to declare his choice to inherit his throne, and to do it soon. As far as the Orkneys were concerned, the king’s oldest nephew was the heir apparent. And that was Gawain himself. At least, mostof the Orkney clan felt that way.
We had been in the midst of these serious discussions when Agravain burst in, and our faces registered shock and confusion after his initial explosion. Sir Ywain, the Orkneys’ devoted cousin, finally spoke up, growling and shaking his great brown mane of hair. “Where is this coming from, Agravain? I thought you were one of the queen’s own knights. Why have you suddenly turned on her like this?”
“It’s not so sudden,” the vile Sir Mordred intoned again, the sardonic edge he loved so much punctuating his voice as he leaned back and put his cheek on his hand, looking almost bored. “Agravain has been muttering about this same topic for weeks now, at least to me.”
“Yes, I’m one of the Queen’s Knights!” Agravain shot back at Ywain as if Mordred had not spoken. “And so I’ve been around her constantly. Every day for months part of my duty has been to attend on the queen. And I’ve followed her when she was not aware of it, as well, just to keep her safe—at least that was my intention at first. But not now. I’ve seen her meet secretly with Lancelot on more than one occasion. Now I understand. Why else would Lancelot defend her against any and all of her accusers as he has in the past? Why else does he spurn the attentions of any other lady in Camelot or in all of Logres? He slakes his vile lust on our uncle’s queen, and it is treason, I tell you!”
“How can you say that?” Gawain exploded in frustration. “Have you actual proof that anything is going on!”
“Let me tell you, brother,” Agravain continued, lowering his voice as if confiding something to Gawain though the entire room could still hear him. “I had a dream last night in which I watched as Lancelot entered the queen’s bedchamber and she invited him into her bed where he tupped her repeatedly—I tell you it was a sign that my suspicions were all true!”
Gawain sputtered, too angry to speak, and Sir Gaheris exchanged bewildered looks with his former squire, Sir Hectimere, and so, it seemed, it was up to Sir Gareth to speak for the Orkney brothers against these wild accusations. My former master stood up deliberately, looking gravely at his brother, and spoke with a calm authority. “I will hear no more of this insolent prattle. This dream is nothing but your own lurid imaginings. Whatever you have seen, you must now admit you were mistaken. Look,” he added, suddenly turning his gaze directly at me. “We have Sir Gildas of Cornwall here with us—Gildas who was once the queen’s own page, closer to her than you will ever be, Agravain. And like you one of the Queen’s Knights as well. If what you are claiming about the queen and Sir Lancelot has any merit at all, Gildas would know. And yet he has never witnessed anything untoward in all of his long association with Her Majesty Queen Guinevere that he felt obliged to mention to me, or, indeed, to anyone else in Camelot. Isn’t that true, Sir Gildas?”
Now I knew full well that Lancelot had been the queen’s lover for more than twenty years—longer, that is, than I’d been alive. I knew it because the queen had told me so in no uncertain terms back when I’d been her trusted page. And I knew it because I had been in the next chamber that night in Gorre when Lancelot had broken into Guinevere’s rooms, at her own invitation, to bed her after he’d crossed the Sword Bridge to rescue her. And what’s more I knew that Sir Gareth was fully aware that I knew these things, because when I had been his squire I had kept nothing secret from him, just as he had told me things about his own family—about Mordred’s secret parentage, for example—that were not common knowledge among the court at Camelot. So I knew for certain that what Sir Gareth wanted from me now, what he hoped I would contribute to the current conversation, was a bald-faced lie. One, indeed, that would defuse the situation, keep the peace, and preserve the reputation of the queen and the honor of the Great Knight, Sir Lancelot du Lac. Not solely for their own sakes, but for the sake of the fragile bonds of loyalty and allegiance that held together the Order of the Round Table and the peaceful chivalric empire of the good King Arthur of Logres. Bereft of his queen and his chief knight, Arthur would fall and the Round Table would break to pieces. And so, of course, I lied.
“Sir Agravain, I put no stock in dreams. But I can understand why you might become suspicious. I know that the queen will often meet with Lancelot in private. I’ve even known her to invite him to her private rooms in the castle—always with her ladies-in-waiting present, mind you. But generally this is to touch base with him on matters of state—to get his views on, uh, political matters that may come before the king, so that she, um, might better advise Arthur in these matters when she speaks with the king in private. Besides that, Sir Lancelot has been the queen’s defender on numerous occasions—in the matter of the death of Sir Patrise, for instance, and just recently with regard to the accusations of Sir Meleagaunt—a situation you yourself were involved in, you remember—that sometimes she will single him out for some special gift or something, which she would prefer to give him apart from the rest of the court precisely to avoid evil rumors of the sort you seem to have been listening to, my lord Agravain. But truly, I swear on my sister’s honor, there is nothing disreputable in these liaisons between Lancelot and the queen.” I was glad at that point that I was an only child. By now Gareth’s eyes were rolling at me.
But Ywain and his former squire Sir Thomas, as well as Sir Gaheris, the newly knighted Sir Hectimere, and Gawain’s son Sir Lovell all looked at me with a kind of grim satisfaction. Only Agravain’s former squire, Sir Baldwin, looked skeptical. As did, of course, the vile Mordred, with whom I was observing a shaky unspoken truce while attending his brother’s little banquet. Being Mordred, he felt that he had to respond in some sort of contrary manner.
“Hah!” he scoffed, dismissing my defense out of hand. “Guinevere’s ladies-in-waiting? That’s a laugh. Nothing but a gaggle of shameless sluts themselves, from all I’ve heard. And I’m willing to say that applies to my own hussy of a wife as well.” Now it was my turn to grow scarlet faced as I thought of my dearest love, the lady Rosemounde of Brittany, miserably married to this foul-mouthed Mordred. But I endured the barb as best I could, for this was not the time or place to address it, and it would only derail my defense of the queen—which was no doubt Mordred’s goal anyway.
“That kind of licentiousness flows down from the top,” the mocking voice continued. “If the heart is rotten, the limbs will be too.” Now Hectimere and Gaheris began to glance at each other, somewhat swayed by Mordred’s comments. It was his own wife he was discussing now, wasn’t it? Surely he must know what he was talking about in that regard. “Women are nothing but slaves to their lusts. If you ask me, this queen’s as guilty as Agravain is saying.”
“Well nobody asked you,” Sir Gawain pronounced definitively, trying to regain authority at his own banquet. “And I want nothing to do with this foolish notion of yours, Agravain. What are you trying to do, break up the Table and ignite a war with Sir Lancelot? If that happens half the table will side with the Great Knight, count on it. For heaven’s sake, Lancelot has saved my life on more than one occasion. For that matter, you know full well he saved your own life, Agravain, and yours too, Mordred, when you were being held prisoner by Sir Tarquin. Now you’re going to turn against him?”
“I’m going to the king,” was all Agravain replied.
“With baseless rumors and adolescent dreams?” Sir Gareth put in. “I want no part of this. Sir Gawain is the head of this family, and he’s telling you to drop it.”
Now Gaheris, finally swayed by Gareth’s vehemence, threw his weight to his favorite brother’s side. “I agree with Gareth. This is idiocy. Drop it and let it go. You have nothing but rumors to go to the king with. You’ll make our family look like fools. Or worse, like traitors.”
“I know it’s true! I don’t need anything but what I’ve seen with my own eyes and what I feel in my heart. I’m going.”
“No, Agravain, wait.” It was Mordred, to my surprise. “They’re right. You won’t get anywhere with the king if you just come to him with rumors and innuendos. You need to find some solid proof that the queen and old Lancelot are making the Beast with Two Backs. You should set a trap of some kind, maybe even catch ’em in the act, in flagrante delictoas our dear theologians might say...”
“Now you go too far!” Sir Gawain shouted, bringing his fist down on the banquet board so hard it shook the entire meat course. “And I’ll no longer stay in the same room with you to hear any sort of treacherous plotting against Her Royal Majesty. I will no longer be of your council!” And with that he stormed out of his own rooms.
“Nor will I,” my old master Gareth agreed, and left as well.
“I stand with my brother,” Gaheris added, following close on his heels. Sir Lovell and Sir Thomas, murmuring a kind of garbled agreement, also left the room, and Sir Ywain, whose loyalties were never in question, gave a low growl before he exited: “Consider well what you are doing, you little villains. I’m close kin but I’m not of Orkney, and I would have no qualms in sending either of you little bastards to meet your maker.”
“Oooh,” Sir Mordred sneered at Ywain’s disappearing back. “I’ve been called bastard before, but for me it’s something to be proud of. You know who I’m close kin too, don’t you?”
I gave King Arthur’s illegitimate offspring a withering look before following the others. I waited long enough to realize that Sir Baldwin and Sir Hectimere had decided to stay in the room, and, therefore, to side with Sir Agravain and Sir Mordred. At the time, I figured they were just wrong-headed. And I thought nothing would come of this plot born of malice, spleen, and lurid dreams.
Sometimes I could be a complete dunce.