William walked through the square next to the castle, taking in the sights and sounds of the bustling marketplace. He stopped a moment, trying to get his bearings, when he heard an unusual noise through the usual city clamoring; a woman humming.
He looked up and saw her - a woman, older than he was, but still beautiful, sitting at a window in the palace wall with bars, and sewing. She had dark skin, and her long ebony hair fell around her face. She looked so sad to William, and the expression looked wrong on such a face.
He watched her, absolutely mesmerised, but she didn’t look up from her needle until a bird seller passed. His birds fluttered and chirruped in their cages, and the woman looked up, a smile covering her face for the first time.
She leaned out of the window as far as she could to talk to the bird seller.
“And how are they today, sir?” she called.
“Hungry as ever, miss,” The man smiled indulgently, and passed one of the cages on a long stick up to her window.
She smiled delightedly, and stroked the birds through the bars.
“Greenfinch, linnet bird, nightingale, blackbird -” William heard her break off and sigh mournfully, “Listen to you all singing. How do you do that? How can you jubilate, sitting in cages, never flying free?”
She looked away from the birds, at the sky above.
“Outside, the sky waits, beckoning you,” she said to the birds, “Just beyond the bars. How can you remain, staring out, maddened by the moon and the stars?”
William’s heart went out to her. He wondered if she was trapped, like the birds.
“How is it you sing anything?” The woman gazed sadly at the birds, and then passed them back to the bird seller, who went on his way.
She then turned to a lark in a cage beside her. She started to talk again, but William felt as though she was speaking right to him.
“My cage has many rooms, damask and shadowy. Nothing there sings, not even you, my dear. Larks never will, you know, when they’re in captivity...” She trailed off, staring after the bird seller.
"Maybe I should," she murmered again as she stroked the lark gently, "If I cannot fly. Maybe I should just sing like those caged birds."
“I have sailed the world,” breathed William, “Beheld its wonders, from the pearls of Hispania to the rubies of Ariana, but not even in Camelot have I seen such a wonder...”
He moved closer to the window, trying to catch her eye.
“Look at me, look at me, miss,” he cried breathlessly, “Oh, look at me, please, oh, favour me with your glance!”
The woman looked up, and his heart leapt, but she was staring off into the forest behind the city walls.
“Ah, miss, what do you see off there in those trees? Oh, won’t you give me a chance?”
He laughed to himself, overjoyed at his good luck at having found this woman.
“Who would sail to Hispania, for all its wonders, when in Camelot’s castle lies the greatest wonder yet?”
But then, as beautiful as she was, she looked so melancholy.
“Ah, miss,” he sighed, “Look at you. So pale, and looking so sad and strange. Promise not to retreat to the darkness, away from your window, not till you look down here! Look at me!”
Suddenly, she looked down, and their eyes met. They stared at each other for a long moment, when a clawed hand grabbed William’s arm.
William turned, frustrated, and realised it was the beggar man that had been there when he and Mr. De Rege had first arrived.
He took a wary step back. It was a filthy tendril of a man, his foul clothes of rags hanging off him like a second skin.
“Alms, alms,” the beggar man croaked, “For a miserable man, on a miserable, chilly morning.”
William hurriedly dug out a coin and dropped it into his hand.
“Thank yer sir, thank yer kindly,” He peered up at him. “Beg pardon, sir, it’s you!”
William turned to find the woman had gone and the shutter was closed.
“One moment, sir,” he said to the beggar, “Perhaps you know the name of the king living in this castle?”
“That! Oh, that’s the great King Agravaine’s castle, that is.”
William couldn’t help but think the man had sounded a little nervous, but he pressed on with his questioning.
“And the lady who resides there?”
If anything, the beggar man now looked even more nervous – shifty eyed and starting to shuffle away.
“Ah her! That’s Guinevere, his pretty little ward. Oh, but don’t you go trespassing there, young man. Not if you value your hide. Tamper there and it’s a good whippin’ for yer!” He laughed suddenly. “You or any other youth wif mischief on his mind!”
Then he suddenly was right up close to William again, laughing wildly and screeching like he did that morning, “Gimme your clothes! Gimme your food! Come on, gimme your money!”
William tossed some coins at him and pushed him away, exasperated. He had been beginning to think that the man had some of his sanity left, but evidently he was wrong. The beggar picked up the coins and scampered off, cackling wildly.
The sailor turned to the bird seller, who was still wandering round the marketplace.
“Which one sings the sweetest?” he asked him.
“All’s the same, sir,” the bird seller replied, “Six pence and cheap at the price.”
William selected one and handed the man a coin. He held up the cage.
“This one sings bravely,” he remarked, “But why does he batter his wings so wildly at the bars?”
The bird seller looked up, uninterested now he had made his sale. “We blind ‘em, sir,” he explained, “That’s what we always does. Blind ‘em, and, not knowing night from day, sing without stopping, pretty creatures.” He started off. “Have pleasure of the bird, sir.”
William turned back to the window, and to his delight, saw that the woman – Guinevere – was back. He held up the cage, indicating that it was a present. She hesitated, then smiled and leant down. He reached up to give her the cage, and their fingers touched.
“I see you, Guinevere,” he said softly, as he stared into her eyes. He’d been half convinced he’d suddenly awaken, satisfied enough to dream her. But happily, so happily, he was awake, and she was real.
“Guinevere,” he smiled, and she returned it, “I’ll steal you away.”
They were so absorbed with each other that neither of them noticed Agravine come up behind her.
She turned sharply. “My lord!”
Forgetting the bird cage, she ran back into the room. Agravaine glared at him, and then followed her, slamming the shutters closed.
William stood for a moment, unsure of what to do, when Agravaine and another man appeared at the door at the top of the steps.
“If I see your face again on this or any other neighbour street,” he snarled, striding down towards William, “You will rue the day you were born. Is that clear enough speaking for you?”
“But sire,” William started, “I swear to you that there was nothing in my heart that but the most respectful sentiments of -”
“Dispose of him, Drustan!” Agravaine called to the man beside him, striding back towards the castle.
Drustan smiled at him smugly, fondling the sword at his belt.
“You heard His Highness,” he grinned.
“But friend,” William tried helplessly, “I have no fight with you.”
Drustan grabbed the bird cage from him, reached inside, and took out the bird.
He very deliberately wrung its neck, and then tossed it away.
“Get the gist of it, friend?” he sneered, before following Agravaine back into the castle.
Inside, Agravaine stood behind Gwen, smiling sickenly at her. She refused to turn or meet his eye.
“Guinevere,” he said in mock horror, “If I were to think you encouraged that young rogue..”
Gwen gritted her teeth. “I
hope,” she growled, swallowing down her revulsion, “always to be obedient to
Agravaine laughed lightly. “Dear child.” His patronising gaze turned to lust. “How sweet you look in that light muslin gown...”
Gwen shivered and stood up to move away from him. Agravaine stood staring at her for a moment, then growled under his breath and strode out of the room.
Still outside, William glowered at the house. His decision was made. He threw the empty cage to the side, smashing it.
“Does he think that walls can hide you?” he yelled at the now empty streets as he walked away from the castle. “I will be at your window, in the dark beside you, my dear, sweet Guinevere!”
He turned one last time, to look at the window. “One day,” he promised himself, “I’ll steal you. Till then, my love!”
He blew a kiss to the window, and then turned and set off at a run.