Camelot & Vine (8 page)

Gareth motioned me to sit on a clump of
earth beneath the branches of a willow by the stream. He joined me
there, dipped a brass cup in the water and offered it to me. My
thirst overcame any concern I might have had over the little
floating bits of algae and dirt in the cup. The cold water tasted
thick. Gareth was already eating.

“What kind of meat is that?” I asked.

He didn’t swallow before answering.
“Venison. Aren’t you hungry?”

“I’ve never had venison.”

“What do you eat? Rabbits? You look pale.
The king will not be pleased if we bring him a sick wizard.”

So that’s what they thought. No wonder
Bedwyr thought I’d fly away.

“Eat, please.” Gareth gnawed off another
bite, then stopped chewing to let his eyes follow my hand as I
reached for a piece of venison. My nail polish, ridiculous under
the circumstances, was chipped, but Gareth seemed to find it
fascinating. I raised the meat to my mouth and tasted salt. It was
tough but my teeth worked off a bite. Venison proved the antidote
to nausea.

“Aha! She likes it!” Gareth grinned, a piece
of venison dangling from his mustache.

“It’s good. Thank you.”

“You are most welcome, mistress.” It was a
courtly response, reminding me that this rough road, this dirt,
this hardship would come to an end, and we would arrive at
Camelot.

My dashing young guard leaned across me to
refill my cup in the stream. Accepting it, I said, “May I ask, sir?
The man who drives the funeral wagon—is he your brother?”

He laughed. I thought he might even be
enjoying my company. “You needn’t call me ‘sir.’ Just Gareth. Yes,
Agravain’s my brother—one of my brothers. Our father is Lot of
Orkney,” he bragged. “Gawain’s the eldest. He commands Beran Byrig.
Then comes Gaheris. He’s stationed at Essa to lead Arthur’s troops
in the southwest. Then Agravain, then me. We’re all in King
Arthur’s service, of course. And do you know?” He leaned forward,
cocked his charming chin and waited.

I shook my head. I didn’t know.

“King Arthur is our uncle!”

“Oh.”

“Agravain and I are as yet unproven, of
course.”

“But...”

“There are family privileges, yes, but our
uncle is a fair man.”

“Of course.”

“He has fought eleven great battles. A
twelfth is nigh. Agravain and I are ready.”

“I’m excited to meet your uncle.”

Gareth raised his dark eyebrows in surprise.
“Why, you met him in the woods, mistress. He ordered Lancelot to
bring you to him.”

I sucked in a short breath. Was it King
Arthur toward whom I had hurtled through the gap in the darkness?
King Arthur, the murdering savage with the Dick Tracy jaw? “And
Lancelot is...?”

“A good man. A great man! A friend. You’ll
come to admire him as everyone does. It can’t be helped.” He
laughed, with a shrug of his brawny, young shoulders.

“How long before we reach Ca-Cam—?”

“Cadebir?” Three, four hours. We’d be faster
without the carts. It’s a good road. Roman.”

Of course. I was seeing what the Romans had
built, relatively soon after they’d built it. My father would have
been thrilled. Briefly, I felt privileged. But Lancelot chose that
moment to dampen my mood by sauntering toward us across the waving
grass. Gareth rose quickly and struck a stern, guarding pose.
Bedwyr snoozed against the wheel of the cart.

“I wish to speak to the lady,” said
Lancelot, placing a brotherly hand on Gareth’s shoulder. Gareth
nodded and backed away.

When we were alone, Lancelot extended his
hand to help me to my feet. I had no choice but to accept. Shaking,
I touched the blond hairs of his iron-hard forearm, allowing him to
pluck me to my feet as though I were a blade of grass.

“Walk with me.” Lancelot offered said arm
and I took it. Was there a Guinevere, I wondered, to be enfolded in
those arms? Was it possible Lancelot could be gentle with such
weaponry for appendages?

He could. Sensitive to my wounded wrists,
Lancelot patted my hand. He led me to the edge of the stream where
we stood in the willow’s shade. It might have been romantic if I’d
bathed in the previous twenty-four hours.

Lancelot studied me. “You are not afraid of
the water?”

“Should I be?”

“Perhaps not,” he said, eyeing me with new
curiosity.

He led me further away from the wagons, I
assumed because he didn’t want our conversation to be overheard.
Knowing he didn’t like me or at least didn’t trust me, the few feet
between us and where Bedwyr snoozed felt like a chasm.

“Bedwyr is in command now that we are within
Arthur's borders,” Lancelot whispered in his guttural, Frankish
purr. “At Cadebir, the king rules. These are kind, trusting men. My
friends.” His glassy, blue eyes pierced. “I am kind, too, Mistress
Casey. But I do not trust. I will watch you, and if you pose a
threat to my king, I will kill you.”

I was still wondering how the words “I will
kill you” could come from such full, soft lips when he said, “It is
time to go.”

 

 

 

 

ELEVEN

 

A wide, flat hill emerged in the distance.
It shimmered, a dark green ocean liner on a light green sea. Black
smoke rose in puffs at one end, as though from smokestacks upon the
great ship’s decks.

“Is that...?” I began.

“Cadebir,” said Sagramore, his droopy eyes
glowing. He and Lucy had taken a shine to each other. He rode
alongside her behind the cart where she plodded after me, tied by a
swinging rope.

We were still too far away to see turrets.
“I’ve heard it’s beautiful.”

“It is the greatest fort in all of Britain,”
said Lancelot. His white steed swished a fly with its tail. “There
is none larger, none better fortified. You see it holds a position
of power. Beauty, however, is not one of its qualities.”

The men laughed, gathering around, in good
humor now that they were close to home.

“What’s the fire for?” I asked, fearing it
was for the burning of prisoners.

“Smithy.” Bedwyr reined his stout brown
horse alongside my wagon. “Work never stops.”

“Nor does the feasting,” said Gareth.

“Oh yes, the banquets,” said Lancelot. “King
Arthur spares no expense to entertain his allies.”

“He favors his allies over his own son,”
said Medraut, entering the conversation like a pin enters a
balloon.

“It’s only politics,” said Gareth. “The
king’s son always has a place in the hall.”

“Whether deserved or no.” The deep, measured
voice came from the wagon behind mine. It was the first time I’d
heard Agravain speak.

Medraut turned in his saddle to curl a
supercilious lip at Agravain. A tense moment took too much time in
passing. Then Medraut laughed. “You speak so rarely, cousin. Why
must you always be right?”

The men around me laughed softly, but not
freely. Conversational ease had ended. Silence returned for the
most part, with the exception of the occasional cluck to one’s
mount or word to the rider nearest by.

I was having a little trouble following the
king’s family tree, but I was beginning to think that Medraut might
be the Mordred of legend, King Arthur’s illegitimate son. If
Cadebir was Camelot, maybe the real names weren’t all the same as
the storybook ones. The legends had it that Mordred was the son of
Arthur and his sister Morgan le Fay, who were tricked into making
love by Merlin the magician. If it were true, Medraut was not only
illegitimate but the product of incest. All that in a century
without psychotherapy.

 

-----

 

Closer to Cadebir hill, the ocean liner
began to look more like an inverted, earthen battleship, with four
tiers diminishing from the largest at the bottom to the smallest at
the top. No turret or flag adorned its layers. Instead, a wall of
vertical logs, punctuated by stone-built guard stations, surrounded
the topmost tier. It looked more like an early American cavalry
fort than the medieval castle of my imagination.

I knew by the increased pounding in my left
temple and the purple light at the edges of my vision that my
headache was becoming a migraine. The realization brought an extra
sense of dread. Surely there wasn’t a prescription drug to be found
at Cadebir, and being chained in a wagon in the wrong century was
difficult enough without blinding pain and cognitive impairment. I
hadn’t been forced to endure a migraine’s full progress since my
doctor had prescribed a drug to stymie them. But I hadn't forgotten
the steady march from purple light to nausea to weakness, all
accompanied by a deep-drilling pain behind my eyes.

There was nothing for it. My migraines were
caused by stress and I’d had an overdose. So when Bedwyr chained me
again “for show,” I took a deep, futile breath and tried to
relax.

About a mile from the base of the hill, our
caravan entered a small town. The one and only street, down which
Lancelot and his men made an impressive procession, was lined with
small buildings, made of mud packed into frames of wood and sticks.
The townspeople, more finely dressed than their country
counterparts (a merchant tucked his pants into his boots, a town
wife shielded her skin from the sun with a hat), recognized my
companions and welcomed them like celebrities. We were a parade.
People stopped what they were doing and came out of their huts to
see us.

“Death to the Saxons!” the people cheered,
with blissful smiles and raised fists.

The soldiers shouted back, “Death to the
enemies of Britain!”

Everyone loved that. Young men roared and
the older folks waved and hoo-hooed. Girls cooed and blinked at
Lancelot, which he accepted with a parade wave. His cousin, brawny
Lyonel, even jumped off his horse and lifted a pretty, screaming
lass to kiss her.

The people marveled at me, too. “It’s a
woman!” “Is she a prisoner?” “She’s wearing trousers! Maybe she's a
warrior.” I might have enjoyed their attention were it not for my
headache, plus my awareness of the state of my appearance. I was
reminded of Roman triumphs, when the victors paraded their captives
through the city. The best I could do was sit up straight and try
to appear benign.

At the edge of the village, the road led out
across open fields between the town and the great hill before us.
To the southeast, tents spread across the land, hundreds of them,
teeming with men and smoke. Arthur’s armies, I guessed. To the
northwest lay marshland, clouded with fog.

On we went, the mood of the soldiers
climbing the heights before we even arrived at the base of the
hillside. As we neared it, the hill appeared steeper, and at last
we came to the beginning of a path that zig-zagged up a series of
switchbacks to a great, wooden gate. There, shouting guards leaned
over the wall to hail us, their arms waving like stalks peeking
over a garden fence and swaying in the breeze. With a groan, the
gate pushed open and out poured a dozen men, shouting and rushing
down the muddy zig-zag in a torrent of testosterone.

Lucy betrayed her nervousness with a loud
whinny.

“Welcome back!”

“How’s Gawain?”

“Did everyone survive?”

“Surely Beran Byrig has better women to
offer.”

I tried to ignore the jab by staring at my
lap. The laughter ended when someone asked about the riderless
horses tied to Agravain’s cart. Questions and shouts filled the air
until Bedwyr raised his hand for silence. “Get these carts up the
hill,” he ordered.

The brutes bent their shoulders to the work
without argument. The wagon lurched, zig-zagging up and across
earthen ramparts wide enough to ride two or three abreast, steep
enough that an invader would be hard put to climb them, old enough
that grass, weeds and even trees sprouted between their stones.
Below, the town we’d passed through was laid out like a map of
itself. Miles of road we’d traveled curled back across the plains,
disappearing into the morning we left behind.

Anticipation built in my breast as the cart
pitched and swayed, drawing near the gate. Finally we made it to
the top and rolled under the high, wooden arch where the horses
could pull the weight on their own. I jerked and wriggled to turn
myself to see. Like the opening shot of a grand epic, my first
sight of Camelot was revealed to me.

Sun bore down on a grassless camp. Men and
women came and went pushing carts, trotting briskly in the dust or
meandering along the wide path that led away from the gate. With
the red-haired boy driving, we rode among the meanderers along a
path as deep as a trough, worn to a ditch in the dark soil by
centuries of rolling cartwheels and trampling feet.

Could this Cadebir be Camelot? It was a
working fort, and working hard, from what I could tell. The dust
couldn’t settle, being constantly kicked up by activity. I had no
choice but to breathe it. Even the young wore work on their hard
faces. Sunburned men pushed carts loaded with produce, animal
carcasses or black dirt along the path. Women carried bundles. No
hand was empty. Even the animals, at least the live ones, bore
burdens, pulling wagonloads of stones or wood across the hilltop.
Sweat glistened on every neck, from bent laborer to plodding dray
horse, dripping in dusty rivulets through fur and hair.

Our carts bumped past a row of cement
barracks like the one in which I’d spent the previous night. Across
a lumpy expanse, the ground rose to a promontory where a large,
rectangular structure commanded the rise. Its steep, thatched roof
swept up to meet a pair of beams at the crest, declaring the
building to be the main hall. On the slope at its flanks several
high-peaked, round huts huddled near it like campers at a fire.

We rolled to a stop at the hall's massive,
wooden doors. Bedwyr dismounted and climbed aboard the wagon to
unlock my chains and help me to the ground. Blood rushed into my
feet and I thought they wouldn’t hold me, but my ankles warmed
quickly. Standing felt like a reward. I awaited instructions.

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