Camelot & Vine (7 page)

My handsome interrogator contemplated me.
The smoke between us forced me to squint. To look him in the eye
was too defiant, so I rested my gaze on a row of helmets lining the
floor like neatly planted posies, their empty eyes staring. Above
them, too high on the wall for me to see myself in it, a bronze
mirror reflected smoke and torch light. I must have looked half
dead by then.

Bedwyr spoke into the silence. “The lady is
unwell. I will take her to her cell, if I may.”

“Very well. I will send men to guard her
while she sleeps.
If
she sleeps.” Lancelot rose and ambled
toward the rear door where Lyonel emerged, like smoke from the
shadows, to follow him.

“I may trust you to walk with me as far as
the north gate, may I not?” Bedwyr said to me.

“Yes.”

With the key from his pouch he unlocked the
chains that bound my legs. The rusted iron links fell away,
revealing the ruin of my cute, expensive boots. The brothers helped
me to my feet, which was useful, because with my wrists still
chained I couldn’t use my hands to leverage myself from the chair.
My legs didn’t want to unbend at first but apparently the men were
familiar with the process, and they waited while I got myself
straightened out. Though my ankles were sore my legs felt light, no
longer anchored to the planet.

Halfway to the door, Lancelot’s husky accent
stopped us. “If I hear the prisoner has been molested in any way,
the transgressor shall answer to me,” he said. “The lady belongs to
the king.”

 

 

 

 

NINE

 

After an awkward episode at a drainage
gutter where I was allowed to relieve myself behind a wall in broad
daylight, the brothers Agravain and Gareth led me across a
courtyard into a decrepit cement barracks, missing a large portion
of its tile roof. Bedwyr followed, carrying my chains.

“The prisoner has no privileges,” he told
the four guards who waited at the end of a dark hallway. Where the
roof was still intact, two more guards stood in the daytime
shadows.

Bedwyr dismissed the brothers, then led me
through an archway into a small cell with a haphazard pile of furs
on the floor and floor-to-ceiling barred window overlooking a sunny
expanse of dirt.

“Sit there,” said Bedwyr, pointing to the
furs.

I sat. He squatted beside me, his corn-silk
braids dangling, and got busy chaining my ankles.

“When I’m finished I’ll find you something
to eat.”

“Thank you, Bedwyr—may I call you
Bedwyr?”

“You must, for I have no other name.”

No ‘Sir,’ then. No knight in shining armor.
I was starving for the food he promised but even more hungry for
answers. “Bedwyr, what does it mean to belong to the king?”

He squinted at his work. “Means you’re his
property.”

My stomach rolled. “Will I be a slave?”

“Better slave to a good king than prisoner
to a bad one. There.” He finished, locked the chains, and stood.
“I’ll be back.”

“Bedwyr, why so many guards? Why all the
chains?”

“It’s working, then?”

“One guard would be plenty.”

He laughed. His smile made him almost jolly.
“One guard overpowered by a single spell and off you go.” His smile
disappeared. “I won’t be fooled so easily, my lady, not while
Lancelot’s in charge.”

My powers again. Maybe their fear of me
would come in handy.

“Will the king kill me?”

“Doubt we’d be going to such trouble if he
wanted you dead.” He shrugged and started for the door. “But
perhaps he wants the pleasure for himself.”

 

 

 

 

TEN

 

“Medraut! We’ve not seen you in a
fortnight!”

My chains made it impossible for me to roll
over, so I turned my pounding head to the light. Sun heated the
pile of furs on which I lay, releasing a sharp, rancid scent.

The barred window opposite the cell door
looked out across the sunny, dirt yard, where the younger brother
guard admitted two men at the gate, closing it behind them as they
passed under a stone archway. The older brother acknowledged the
men with a wave then returned to cleaning his horse’s hooves with a
pick.

“It’s fine to see you, Gareth.”The slimmer
of the two riders addressed the young brother. To the older one he
simply nodded. At least I finally knew which brother was which.

“How fares our brother Gawain?” asked
Gareth, which disconcerted me. I really didn’t need them to have
more brothers.

The skinny man dismounted in a fluid
movement. “Gawain is well,” he said. “All’s well at Beran Byrig. So
well that though the harvest is not finished, the granaries are
quite full.” His chubby companion remained on his horse, unable to
sit still, adjusting and readjusting himself.

“Your news is good, Medraut!” Gareth seemed
incapable of cynicism. “Did you find any Saxons afoot? Two nights
ago we killed seventeen not far from the Giant’s Ring.”

Medraut’s mouth opened. He backed up to
support his skeletal frame against the gate. “Seventeen? At the
Giant’s Ring?”

“Well, in the woods. But nearby,
nonetheless.”

The thin man’s thin lips remained open but
he didn’t speak. His chubby friend dismounted with a wriggle. “You
must have killed them all,” he said. “That or they spared us, as
we’ve just come that way.”

Gareth laughed. “It would be unlike them to
spare a British soul.”

Their conversation was drowned out by the
clink of marching chain mail approaching in the hallway. A jagged
chill trickled up my spine. Four guards entered my cell, refusing
to make eye contact, their faces blank to me. I could have saved
them so much bother if they had only unchained me, but they went to
the trouble to lift me, chains and all, and lug me down the
hall.

We emerged in an overgrown courtyard where
the guards deposited me in the bed of a waiting wagon, the same one
in which I’d ridden the day before. I landed in a semi-seated
position, with my back against a pile of chain mail. The guards
gave no thought to the fact that, thus trussed, it was nearly
impossible for me to right myself. Surrounded by armed men and the
rubble of deteriorating buildings, I had no time to think of my
morning ablutions or to rejoice that my jet lag was finally
gone.

The red-haired boy from the previous day
climbed aboard to drive, glancing over his shoulder to make sure I
was securely fastened and unable to do him mischief. He clucked to
the horses. The cart jerked forward to rumble along the uneven
streets of the walled, ruined fort Lancelot called Poste Perdu.
Armed men watched us from the doorways of cement barracks. In the
drying mud of the streets, soldiers ceased their dice games to
witness our rolling passage. The few women seated at the well
stopped washing, allowing their braceleted arms to soak their laps
while they gazed at me.

I wanted to pull my blood-crusted hair away
from my eyes, but my wrists were chained and it was too late to
attend to beauty. I gazed back at the women, making a conscious
attempt to appear to be at peace but not placid, confident but not
indifferent, brave but not defiant. Eyes open wide. Not too much
blinking. No smiling, but no frowning either.

Lancelot, Bedwyr and the rest of the
previous day’s party awaited us on horseback at the end of a walled
street. Together we exited the fort by a southern gate. Although I
feared what the day would bring, I wished Poste Perdu good
riddance.

 

-----

 

Our band of travelers was much the same as
before, augmented by about two dozen of Lancelot’s men and the pair
of soldiers who’d arrived that morning: lean Medraut and the tubby
sidekick he called Pawly. The only other difference I noted was the
laurel branches with which the brothers Agravain and Gareth had
freshened the hearse wagon, and the three horses, probably those of
the dead soldiers, plodding behind, tethered by their reins.

Retracing our steps, we headed west. Within
a couple of miles we came to a crossroads indicated by a giant
stone marker and lined with leafy trees. I had seen the marker on
the previous day’s ride but had been too delirious to recall it in
detail. Cut into the stone, taller than a man, was a weathered
cross inside a circle, carved with symbols and festooned with bird
droppings.

Our choices at the crossroads were south,
north, or west. Without lingering, we continued west. In the early
miles the men scoured the hillsides and groves, wary as our wagons
rolled through open country, wheels groaning against the stone
road. I watched, too, but saw no threat, only wildflowers and
tilled fields. The few people we passed labored amid crops in the
open. Each ceased his work to salute us as we went by, with a hand
raised to a ruddy cheek.

If not for the iron rubbing against my skin,
if not for the ache in my muscles from lack of movement, if not for
fear of where I was and knowledge that I couldn’t possibly be
there, I might have thought I was in paradise. A picture from my
storybook had come to life: the one of the road winding through
watercolor green meadows and rising in the distance to a castle in
the clouds. Grassy lumps, sprinkled with flowers and too small to
be hills, dotted the landscape on either side of the road. They
might have been graves, but not recent ones. Some were marked by
giant stones that had long since fallen, allowing waving grasses to
grow across their pocked shoulders. Small groves of trees peeked
around this lump or that hill, and the sun gloated over
everything.

My fate would soon be in King Arthur’s
hands. All morning my heart hurtled between wonder and despair,
terror and romance. The thought of dying out of time chilled me
even in sunshine. My presence in that wagon on that road was a
scientific impossibility, but when we hit a bump and I tensed to
balance myself, the weight of the shackles was real, the clang of
jostled chains was loud enough to draw attention from the mounted
guards, and the bump on the back of my head when it hit the
driver’s seat was perhaps a small thing but painful enough, real
enough.

I tried to remember what I’d learned, in the
yoga classes I’d bothered to attend, about holding a pose. The lack
of movement gets tiresome but you
are
moving; you hold the
pose because you’re working in that pose, you’re stretching or
feeling a muscle. You’re becoming stronger. You know that. You
aren’t supposed to take pride in yoga but you do, or at least I
did, when I did it well. But I was too impatient for it. I couldn’t
see the point. Why sit there for so long doing nothing? What was I
going to need that skill for? When was I ever going to have to sit
for any more than a few minutes in the same position?

Hours in the wagon, chained and unable to
move, did not give me a sense of pride or achievement. The pain
deadened itself. I grew blessedly numb and less blessedly bored.
Keeping the larger dread at bay, little things occupied my mind:
how Bedwyr’s braids bounced against his back when he bounced on his
horse; how Sagramore was in ways Bedwyr’s opposite: so large and
broad it was inconceivable for him to bounce, and I pitied his
horse; Medraut’s dark eyes poking in every direction as though he
thought he was watched, yet always watching, too; Pawly a constant
at Medraut’s side, rarely saying a word; and Lancelot, shining and
fine as I had always imagined he would be though not quite, with
that strange shadow of mistrust between us I wished I could
shatter; not to mention his shadow of a cousin Lyonel, who I wished
would disappear.

 

-----

 

When the land flattened we stopped by a
stream in the heat of mid-day. The men took their rations and sat
by the water, and the horses were allowed to graze. By their joking
and laughter I assumed the allied warriors were on friendly terms,
though Lancelot’s men tended to stick together and speak “the
Gallic” among themselves.

Bedwyr and Gareth came to attend to me. By
then I was vulnerable to baking in the sun and I was relieved not
to be forgotten. My chain mail sweater was damp with sweat and my
chains were heating up like little irons.

“We’re within Arthur’s borders,” Bedwyr
said, unlocking my shackles. “As the king’s lieutenant I’m now in
command.” He began slowly unwinding the chains at my wrists. Gareth
worked at my ankles. “This will hurt,” said Bedwyr, his tone
matter-of-fact.

A few yards away, seated beside the stream,
the men shared a leather flask, passing it around in a circle.
Their voices wafted to us. Lancelot and his cousin spoke to each
other and glanced our way. A murmur came from among the men, then
laughter.

The chafing iron had scabbed in places and
my wounds opened again when Bedwyr pulled the chains away. I sucked
in my breath and held it. I would not let Lancelot hear me cry out.
The wounds were small, I told myself.

“Can you walk?”

“I think so.”

With the grace of a drunken sheep I crawled
around the piled shields to climb out of the wagon. The two
soldiers helped me to the ground, allowing time for my aching legs
to unbend. I was weak, but my wounds would heal. Eventually I’d
have little white scars on my wrists and ankles. While Gareth
rummaged among the supplies, Bedwyr ushered me to a shady spot near
the stream, away from the others.

“I’m releasing you against Lancelot’s
wishes,” he grumbled under his breath. “Unless you can fly, any one
of these men can kill you in seconds. Don’t make me a fool.”

“I won’t.” I wouldn’t. Where would I go?

“Here we are.” Gareth stomped over with an
armload of bread and dried meat, which he dropped on the ground
without concern for germs. Bedwyr took his food a few feet away
and, with a middle-aged groan, lowered his bulk to sit with his
back against the wagon wheel in a spot of shade.

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