It was but three days since the battle of Camlann had been fought, some forty miles away. Arthur was dead, killed by the Bastard, who now took the name King Mordred and sat in his father’s seat and wore his father’s crown. For all that, for all the killing, the country folk saw little change. Birds flew overhead, worms tunnelled below the earth. Calves were born healthy and fat, which some augurs said was a good sign, while others whispered it merely showed treachery and corruption ever bore fruit. And as night fell, a man in a cloak limped heavily on a staff, dragging himself closer to a farmhouse that lay nestled in the fold of a low green hill. He had been fleeing for three days.
He reached the timber door of the house and raised his hand to knock, but instead stumbled and his calloused palm simply slapped against it. He drew a deep, shuddering breath and drew himself as straight as he could, balled his shaking hand into a fist and thumped hard, once, twice.
The door opened but a crack. A boy’s voice sounded. “Da?”
“No. A…guest. Open the door.”
“I can’t. Da’s not back til tomorrow. You can sleep in the cowshed if you’ve a mind.”
“Open your door in the name of the King!”
The boy paused. “The King?”
“The true King. The King…heh…the King under earth, now, or wherever those damned witch-women took him. Open in the name of Arthur!”
It was the right thing to say. The boy lifted a squealing latch and dragged the door open. “Who are you?”
“A man on verge of death.” The wounded man dragged himself across the threshold and fell against the boy. “Chair,” he whispered. “Please.”
The boy half-dragged him to a rough wooden seat before the fire. The man slumped in it, breathing softly. “Water, please,” he said, but when the boy brought him a cup, the man was already asleep.
He awoke with a yelp when warm water ran through the gash in his side. The boy had undressed him to the waist and pulled off his boots. The man’s smaller wounds were already wrapped tight, but the one in his side ran deep. “How did you know…”
“Da gets hurt a lot. He likes to fight a lot.” The boy was sandy-haired and tall, but could not have been more than twelve. “He’s not very good at it.”
“Heh. I’d wager I’m not much better.”
“He’s never been near run through with a sword before.”
The man did not try to deny it, but sat silent as the boy brought a bone needle and some strong thread. He stifled his yelps as the lad sewed the wound shut before wrapping more gauze about his lean torso.
“It’s been open too long,” the boy said. “You’ll have a scar.”
“You did well, lad.” The man wiped the sweat from his face. “Have you any mead?”
“Da has a crock. He’ll expect you to pay for it. Have you coin?”
“No coin. Things of value.” He nodded at the lumpen sack that lay by his discarded cloak and tattered, bloodstained shirt. “I can pay.”
The boy bought him a cup of mead, which the man drank in slow, measured gulps. “Thank you.”
The boy handed him a hunk of bread.
“Thank you again.”
As the man ate, the boy spoke up. “I know who you are.”
The man’s eyes flicked to him, dark glints in his shadowed face.
“The serpent tattoo on your arm. The black-bladed sword. You’re Sir Kay.”
Kay did not try to deny it. “Then you know I’m no brigand at least.”
“Unless the Bastard is the King.”
Kay spat onto the floor. “You don’t become King by wearing a crown. You become a King when all your enemies are dead. And we aren’t, yet.” He shook his head. “I’m not, yet.”
The boy said softly, “I don’t want him to be King.”
“Tell him that.” Kay swallowed and grimaced at the pain in his raw throat. “What’s your name, boy?”
“Fancy name for a farmer’s lad.” He didn’t seem to expect a response. “Where’s your father, boy?”
“He’s…out. He has a friend who – she lives…” Percival trailed off.
Kay snorted. “Don’t feel too ashamed of him, lad. Even great men have trouble keeping that sword sheathed.” There was a sour twist to his mouth.
Percival looked up, eager. “Is it true? What the Bastard said about Lancelot and the Queen?”
“Only time he’s cared about the truth,” Kay muttered. “Aye, it was true. So far as it went.”
“Nobody thought Lancelot could have done it.”
“The thing about Lancelot is, when you’re the ‘mightiest knight in the kingdom’” – the words were given a mocking twist – “you can do anything.” Kay pointed at Percival. “You couldn’t do it. I couldn’t do it. Lancelot didn’t think there was any problem he couldn’t fight his way out of. And look at us now. He was bloody right.”
Percival opened his mouth, but Kay was quicker. “Enough. I’m not here to talk. Give me a blanket. I’ll sleep here tonight and be on my way in the morning.”
The boy swallowed his questions, and did as he was told. Kay was already asleep when the blanket was draped over him.
Kay woke later than he had intended, of course. He’d never been an early riser even when he was young and unscarred. A broad, balding man stood over him, holding Kay’s black sword. “You’d be Percival’s father then,” he said.
The man nodded. “And you’d be Sir Kay, Arthur’s brother and seneschal.”
What? Oh yes. The boy had puzzled that out, thanks to Kay’s own carelessness. He stood, carefully. “Let us say I was a traveller in need of help, which I received and am happy to pay for.”
The man frowned. “No. No, I don’t think so.”
“You’ll pay for nothing here. The Bastard might sit in Camelot now, but the land is still Arthur’s. And you’re in no shape to travel. You’ll stay ’til you’re healed.” The man nodded at Kay’s chair, inviting him to sit. “My name’s Ludo. Now I’ve work to do. You, sleep.”
All that day and much of the night, he slept, waking only when Percival changed the dressings on his wounds. He ate. He drank what he was given. He talked in curt, short sentences, when he had to talk at all. As he healed, he began to perform every day a strange ritual of stretches and movements, testing the strength of his arms and legs. “Lancelot would do this before a battle,” he explained between grunts of effort to a watching Percival. “We laughed at him, of course. But it worked.”
It was less than a week before he announced one evening he would be moving on the next day. Ludo raised one hand. “Hold, if you please, Sir. I’ve no right to detain you, a lawful knight, I know. But I’d ask of you a favour. I’ve a trip to make to town, tomorrow. And I’d ask you, if you please, to stay and watch my lad. Cows still need milking and chickens still need feeding, I can’t take him with me. And since the battle, well…there’s bad men about.”
Kay had never been in the business of granting favours and said as much. Ludo was unperturbed. “Consider it payment, then,” he said. “You were awful keen to give us something for our help not four days ago. This is what I ask.”
Kay flexed his fingers. They were still stiff. “Very well. How long will you be gone?”
“Two days, not more.”
The next morning, Ludo kissed his son goodbye, bowed to Kay and mounted his small ox-drawn cart. It bounced down the rough track leading from the farmhouse, until it rounded a bend around a small copse of trees and vanished from sight.
Percival was less shy without his father around. He chatted as he fed the chickens and milked the cows and pulled the weeds from the garden and Kay, for lack of anything better to do, followed him as he did.
“– I had a dream myself, sir, of becoming a knight. The tales are full of them. Common boys who save a maiden or slay a beast and win their place at court. Did you have many?”
“And around the Round Table they all would have been equals, even to Lancelot or Gawain or Arthur himself –“
“Dammit boy, I don’t want to talk about Camelot!”
Percival fell silent as if struck. He continued his milking, slowly. Milk streamed into the wooden pail. Kay, sat on a pile of hay, bowed his head and raked lean fingers through his grey-streaked hair. The silence was heavy, like a storm about to break.
“It was…so good.” Kay spoke to the hay and dirt between his knees. Percival carefully did not look over, but the tremor in the old knight’s harsh voice surprised him.
“So good,” Kay said again. “We had, oh, we had everything. A land at peace. The companionship of brothers-in-arms, the admiration of maidens fair and others who were less maidenly but like as not more fun to be around. We had Arthur and he had us and we made this land a land of wonders.”
The milk had slowed to a trickle.
“And then it all went wrong. And now I’m the only one left. Boorish Sir Kay. Kay the braggart. Kay the bully. Arthur’s last knight and I failed him.”
“That was Mordred, sir,” Percival said, and then could have bitten his own tongue. Instead he said in a very small voice. “You can’t blame yourself.”
Kay was silent for a long moment. “No,” he said without looking up. “It all went wrong long before the Bastard came to court.”
* * *
Midwinter’s feast, years before. The tables were laden with food and drink, as were the knights, squires and ladies that sat them. Kay stood in the shadows, leaning back against the wall, watching all before him with a half-empty cup in his hand. Arthur sat in his throne, his queen at his right hand, his young heir Gawain on his left. Guinevere was radiant, a winter’s jewel, her dark hair sleek above her pale face and cascading down over her snowy gown. She held Arthur’s hand. There was Galahad, newly come to court, taken aback at the rowdiness of these celebrated warriors of justice. His father Lancelot held court at the head of his own table, gesturing with a fowl’s leg like a sword. These were the Knights of the Round Table, behaving like a bunch of drunken pig farmers. Kay allowed himself a small smile.
A serving boy carrying a platter of roasted ribs hurried out of the doorway next to Kay, and gave a start to see the seneschal there. “Sir Kay! I –“
“Get about your business, boy,” Kay snapped. “Don’t bother your betters.” The boy hurried on his way.
Kay was clad formally tonight. His black hair had been tamed and pulled back in a tail, and his lean hawk’s face freshly shaved. As seneschal and Queen’s Champion, he and Lancelot were the only men without the royal blood allowed to bear weapons into the feasting hall, and Kay’s nameless black sword was scabbarded at his side. His doublet was rich green, his leggings russet brown, and despite the chain of office about his shoulders, Kay looked drab and unadorned compared to some of his fellow knights.
Guinevere leaned over to her king and whispered in his ear. Arthur smiled and nodded, teeth flashing white beneath his beard. She rose and walked swiftly out of the hall, lifting her skirts above the worst of the mess. Kay watched her go and, some minutes later, he watched Lancelot rise and also slink out of the feasting hall, as secretly as a man like he could manage.
Kay followed them.
They had left the hall by different doors but Camelot was a maze and the pair were well-practised. Kay found them standing in a stone balcony in the palace’s eastern wing, a long shaded walkway that looked out over a snowy garden. Kay ducked into a shadowed alcove and listened.
“This cannot be right,” Lancelot was saying. “It cannot be right to want to come to you like this, alone, away from prying eyes.”
“Perhaps not by the laws of the kingdom,” Guinevere said. “But when have you been concerned with the rules lesser men made?”
“Arthur’s laws. He is hardly a lesser man.”
Guinevere bowed her head. “Lancelot, you will make me weep. Love burns in both of us, so strong I fear it will scorch us to cinders. And you taunt us with our loyalty?”
Lancelot was taken aback. “Not a taunt, my Queen. A reminder. We cannot be as we are. Whether that means we leave Arthur’s court and go elsewhere together, or stay here and be apart.”
She looked up at him. “Who would you choose?”
Lancelot was a man quick of sword and deep of courtesy, but slow with words. Some said he had been mad for a time, and the way he ordered his careful speech, it was easy to believe. Kay had no more than wary respect for the man, yet even he winced as Lancelot said, “My duty is to my king.”
Guinevere pushed him away. “Then why follow me here? Hypocrite! I have not denied my feeling. I do not deny that I came here hoping to be followed. So why must you, who followed, lecture me and tell me my duty? So you can satisfy your lusts and still say you’ve broken no vows? Your chastity does not extend to your right hand, does it, or to the dreaming images that dance behind closed eyes?”
Far enough. Far enough and then some. Kay stepped forward and coughed. He pretended to be looking at the floor, muttering to himself, before looking up and coming to a halt. “My lady Queen. Sir Lancelot. I fear I have intruded.”
Guinevere’s white cheeks were pink. “There was nothing to intrude upon,” she said. “I will return to the feast.” Hitching up her skirts again, she strode off. Lancelot watched after her like a lonely puppy.
Kay stepped forward and placed a hand on Lancelot’s muscled shoulder. “She is truly a queen above reproach.”
“She is,” Lancelot agreed.
“And so she must remain. For the King’s honour, I mean.”
Lancelot glanced warily at him, but Kay was looking out over the winter-clad garden. “I mean only,” the seneschal said, “rumour or scandal does not touch such a fine woman.”
“No,” Lancelot said, too firmly.
“And should such rumour or scandal attach itself to her, it would be cast off. Cast onto the person who she had supposedly scandalised herself with. What then would happen to his honour, I wonder? He has no such royal protection. The strongest sword arm has little hope against shame and dishonour.”
“Or love,” Lancelot said quietly.
“Love. What is love? Does love bind a kingdom together, does it bring in the crops, does it beat back the foe? Love is a fine thing, but it is the jewel in the pommel of a sword.”
Lancelot took a deep breath, then forced a laugh. “I believe we’re both a little drunk, to be talking of such things!”
“You may well be right,” Kay said. “Love is not the business of honest fighting men, after all.”
Lancelot threw an arm around the seneschal’s shoulders. “Come now, my sour old friend. Let us return to the feast. Bors has promised to sing for us later.”
“I should prefer to leave that to the minstrels. Bors sings like his namesakes grunt.”
Lancelot’s laugh echoed from the stone walls as they walked back to the feasting hall. Where the real trouble began.
They entered to see Guinevere in her high seat, but the raucous uproar from the rest of the men and women had sunk to a low rumble. A grey-robed man stood before Arthur, stooped, a hand on his should and his mouth to the king’s ear. A moment after Kay and Lancelot entered, stood, and his hood fell back, and with a chill in his guts Kay recognised Merlin. The wizard looked older than he had at his last visit, years ago, but his eyes still shone with a strange deep fire and his mouth, as he looked out over the drunken warriors in the hall, was twisted in a sneer.
Merlin walked silently away from the throne, disappearing out one of the hall’s doors. Arthur stood, pale-faced, as the low murmur of talk began to swell. “My friends,” the king said, his hand raised. “Sadly our merriment must be curtailed. Knights of the Round Table, I summon you to your seats.”
They rose, some steadily, others wavering from drink. Threescore or so in all, there were many still left in their seats, the lesser knights, tributary lords, the maidens and the wives and the squires. Kay waited until all had moved towards the Knight’s Hall, and followed, the last one to leave.
The Knight’s Hall was a sombre, dark place, hallowed by old ritual and dominated by the vast circle of painted, carved stone that was the Round Table. Even the drunkest of the knights recalled the solemnity of their station here, as servants scurried about, lighting extra candles. Kay dismissed them with a flip of his hand before taking his seat. He rested both hands, open, on the cool stone of the Table. “Brother,” he said to Arthur, for it was a tradition of the Round Table that all rank save the warrior’s fraternity was discarded here, “Why have we been summoned? What did Merlin have to say?”
Arthur did not answer immediately, rubbing at his eyes with one hand.
“Dire news, I fear,” Gawain said. “My uncle went quite pale.”
“From shock, not weakness,” Arthur said. He raised his head about the table. “Merlin has offered us a sacred duty.”
“Can you be offered a duty?” Ywain quipped.
“Merlin says…” Arthur took a deep breath, “It is time for the Grail to be revealed.”
Kay’s eyes widened, but it was the most subtle display of shock around the table. Galahad clasped his hands, Bors bowed his head. Lancelot stangled a curse in his throat and shook his head. Gawain rose to his feet, quelling the murmurs. “But surely we must be after it then, my King?” he said.
Lancelot slapped the Table with his open palm. “Of course we must! It is a quest such as we have not faced in long years!”
Galahad nodded. “Should one of us here be worthy of beholding or bearing God’s Grail, it is our sacred duty to find it.” Bors murmured his agreement.
“A moment!” Kay said. “A moment before you all lose your heads and go chasing a magic cup.” Galahad looked shocked at his blasphemy. Kay ignored him. “My brother,” he said to Arthur, “What use is this to us? The fields are full of grain, the land is at peace and the people are happy. What purpose does the Grail serve?”
“We are not all tally-men and servants!” Lancelot barked. “Some of us were made to fight and hunt!”
Kay flushed. “Then fight and hunt things that need hunting. We are warriors, not monks. Who here considers their souls so without stain they could find the Grail? You, Lancelot?”
It was Lancelot’s turn to go red, though from shame, not anger. “Even to take part in the quest,” he said quietly, “would be a redemption for us, surely.”
“If it exists,” Kay said. “If it is not some fable, or if Merlin has not misunderstood his vision. If –“
But Kay was silenced, and the room was, as every candle in it was snuffed out, plunging it into darkness. Men broke out into hoarse whispers before Arthur hissed, “Quiet!”
Above the table then, hovering, like a star fallen near to earth, came a faint glow. Stronger and stronger it grew, but it brought no illumination, instead drawing all sight into it, silver and white and shining. Brighter and brighter it grew, and Kay thought he could smell honey and rain on the wind and even the scent of Morgan’s hair, so long ago. He pushed the thought aside but could not look away from the light, until it threatened to sear out his very eyes – and then, without warning, it vanished. Above the table, held by some invisible hand in mid-air, was a cup, a simple thing of red clay, and within it pooled white, swirling light.
“A vision,” came a slow, deep voice, “That even you might understand, Sir Kay.”
And in that moment the cup was gone and the candles leaped up. Kay blinked back tears from the sudden flood of real light and saw Merlin, standing tall and proud on the table, turning to face them all in a slow circle. His eyes blazed and his grey hair fell to his shoulders. His chin was lightly stubbled in white, but for all his age, he looked still strong and fierce as a wolf.
Merlin raised his hands. “The quest will have dangers, yes. Not all shall see its end. But the Grail will be found, and the land shall be filled to overflowing with peace and glory.”
“What say you now, Kay?” Galahad said, emboldened by the vision.
Kay shrugged. “I say our knights are needed here. I say Merlin can conjure visions to lift the hearts of men, and I say Merlin does things for his own purpose, not ours, and not God’s.”
Merlin smiled. “These things all are true,” he said. “Just as it is true that a silver coin is valuable, but a gold coin,” he snapped his fingers and one suddenly appeared in them, “is worth more.”
“I would not lose a silver coin in the hope of gaining a gold,” Kay said.
Merlin shrugged, suddenly disdainful. “I have done my duty. I have relayed my vision. If you wish to follow the tally-man’s lead, do so.” He flicked the coin from his fingers and it landed with a ringing thump before Kay. “You may have this one without needing to stake your timid soul on a wager,” the wizard said and, moving slow and erect, he stepped from the table and went out of the room.
There were three heartbeats of breath and everybody began to talk at once. The debate was not ended until near dawn, when Arthur, as he so rarely did, called on his kingship. “Enough!” he roared, silencing both Kay and Galahad. He looked at Kay, regret in his dark eyes. “Brother, I agree with you,” he said, “but I cannot command men’s hearts. Not in this. This is without question a sacred quest and in this each man must follow his conscience, not royal decree.”
“I will stay by your side,” Kay swore.
Arthur smiled a sad smile. “I know. All others who wish to leave would be best advised to wait for the spring thaw. But here and now, I release you from your vows of service, on the condition that one day, if you can, you return to take them up again. Quest as far as your soul urges you, but know that Camelot is waiting.”
The knights did wait. Not patiently, not in peace. And when the spring came they left by the dozen, and with each departure Arthur seemed to shrink.
And very few ever came back.
* * *
“But…” Percival’s hands were motionless on the cow’s teats now. “But the Quest for the Grail, it was…”
“A damn waste,” Kay spat. He still had not looked up, but he did now, and his furious eyes made the boy flinch. “Men, grown men, proven warriors all, throwing their lives away for religion. Religion!” He shook his head. “It crept into Camelot that night, maybe even before then when that pious turd Galahad came, and it never left, even when the Quest was done. Look at where they are now. Guinevere a nun, Lancelot in a monastery. Bedivere too, if the news is true. The greatest warriors and rulers this land had ever seen, ground down into dust by prayer and piety.”
“But not you,” Percival said.
Kay did not reply for a long moment. “No,” he said at last. “Not me. But they forgot I was a warrior long ago. To them, maybe to Arthur too, I was just his bookkeeper.” He stood and brushed off his legs. “Forgive me, boy. I ramble.”
“I don’t mind.”
Kay ignored him. “I will leave you to your chores.”
He left, and the boy did not see him again until that evening in the house. Percival was stirring porridge when he heard the thump of halting steps and the door creaked open. He turned up and smiled at Kay, whose face was white and drawn with pain. “Not as mended as I thought,” the knight grunted. “I saw some men riding past though. They flew the Bastard’s serpent banner. Your da was right to ask me to stay, I think.”
Percival spooned a lump of oats up into a bowl. Kay took it with a nod and sank with a grateful sigh into the chair he had slept in the night before. “Too old,” he muttered. “But we were too old a long time ago.”
Percival glanced over. Kay was looking down at the serpent tattoo on his arm, his mouth set in a twist.
“Sir?” Percival dared to ask. “If I may? What does the tattoo mean?”
“That I was a warrior once.” Kay sighed. “When I was born, a witch made a prophecy over me. It pleased my father, but I believe he forgot all about it when Merlin brought us the baby Arthur. The serpent is...part of that.”
For a moment Kay’s eyes flashed and his mouth twisted in the beginning of a snarl, then he sighed. “The witch Maba came to my father and told him my heart would always be cold, I would be more stubborn than a stone and nobody would stand fire or water like I could. She said I would be able to go nine days and nine nights without rest, to grow as tall as a tree and to burn a man with my touch. And she said nobody would ever be able to heal a wound from my weapon.” He looked down at Percival, whose eyes were round as eggs. Kay shrugged. “Well it was a pack of nonsense, of course. Witches give powerful fortunes to great lords and knights, it’s how they earn their keep. But the part about not curing a wound I gave? Easy enough to achieve. And that’s what the serpent is for.”
Kay snorted. “I poison my weapons, boy. Always have. People only pay attention in duels but it’s a habit and I like to know a man is dead for sure after I stick him.”
Percival gaped. “But that’s so...”
“Ignoble?” Kay laughed, mocking. “Yes, Arthur said so too. He knew. Gawain knew but he was ever more practical than Arthur in matters of battle, and he said nothing. But Arthur found it distasteful, for all that his sword was reputed to have the same properties.”
“Did it?” Percival’s mind leaped from one moment to the next with considerable ease. Kay almost had trouble following it.
“Arthur was good enough that it seemed that way, at least. That was what mattered. I sometimes wonder, if he had taken up sword against Lancelot...but no. He wouldn’t. Not his brother.”
Percival did not know what to say to that. Kay did not appear to expect him to say anything. His eyes had gone distant. “Even when it all came crashing down. Even when Lancelot ruined Camelot.”
* * *
The halls of Camelot were humming like a hive. Kay hurried along the corridors, flinging his most ferocious scowl at any servant unfortunate enough to catch his eye. As he neared Arthur’s throne room, he heard raised voices dim through the oaken portal. Long habit made him want to stop and listen, to gauge the situation before he entered it. But urgency was demanded. Without hesitating, he pushed the door open and strode in.
“We must bring Lancelot to justice!” Gawain was raging. Arthur sat his throne, greyer and older than Kay had ever seen him. Well, the seneschal reflected, that last was always the truth.
Some way from the throne, smooth and calm and handsome, stood Mordred in his customary white garb. He glanced at Kay, hi eyes unreadable. Kay averted his eyes and hurried up to the throne. “My King,” he said, kneeling.
Arthur raised him up with a waved hand. Gawain gave Kay an irritated glance. Kay tried not to take it personally.
“Lancelot betrayed you,” Gawain said. “Your wife betrayed you.”
Arthur was silent, his head bowed. Gawain stared at him a moment, and then lunged forward and gripped the king’s arm. “He fucking killed my brothers!” he snarled.
Kay leaped and prised Gawain’s hand away from Arthur. The king barely moved.
Gawain shook his head and pulled his hand free. “Will you do nothing?”
Mordred stepped forward. “The prince’s fury is understandable,” he said. His narrow face was quick and alive, his black hair elegantly curled. “Even if it leads him to rash actions. He speaks the truth. Lancelot must be brought to account.”
Gawain’s scornful glance at the Bastard was more poisonous than any blade Kay had wielded. “I forget not that it was your meddling that caused this, Mordred.”
“By all means, next time I shall leave our king in ignorance,” Mordred said. “Is that a more noble act, by your measure?
Gawain spat. “You waited for the last moment to tell us, by your own account! Endless meetings, exchanged messages, protestations of love...all this you knew, but the first time they tumble into bed together, you come running quick enough.”
“I had hoped I was mistaken. Who could have thought Lancelot would stoop so low as he did?”
“He must be punished,” Arthur said.
All three men were silent, abruptly, like a snuffed candle.
Arthur stood. His fur-lined robe rustled as he did. “The kingdom is all. The kingdom is all. Lancelot broke that trust. He stole my wife, which is one thing and is forgivable, but he also stole the queen.” He looked at Gawain. “He killed my kinsmen, my knights. He dealt grave injuries to me. And for what?”
“Love, I think,” Kay said, remembering that long-ago conversation by the snowy garden.
“Love!” Arthur spat, much as Kay had then. “Men like him should know better.”
“I think, my king,” Kay said, “you will find the queen as much at fault.”
Arthur glared at him, and Kay felt a shiver up his spine. Arthur’s eyes had not shown that much ferocity for years. “The queen,” he growled, “will be dealt with in turn. Lancelot will not keep her in his fortress, his Joyous Guard. He’ll send her somewhere safe. We’ll storm his fortress and clap him in irons, then we will turn to wherever he has stashed her, like some prized jewel, and we will demand an accounting.”
“In irons, father?” the Bastard looked concerned. “We have seen what Lancelot alive can do. Truly is he known as the mightiest of your knights. Would we not be better to have of him his life, when it is in our hands?”
Arthur turned to him. There was grey in his beard and his hair, and his face was lined like their father’s had been, but Kay’s heart swelled to hear his next words. “You do not kill a man like Lancelot when he is chained like a dog,” the king said. “But your ‘mightiest knight’ has not met me in battle. He may not fear me. He does not need to. He need only draw his sword to find out what I am made of.”
It was a fine boast. Kay saw himself and Gawain straighten to it. Then he flicked a glance at Mordred. The Bastard stood with a slight smile settled on his lips, and Kay knew. Mordred saw only an old man, a man unable to keep even his wife, swearing impotent vengeance on a foe far away, across the sea. For one treacherous heartbeat, Kay even wondered which of them was right.
Then he sank to one knee, wincing as his joints cracked. “When do we leave, my king?”
“‘We’ do not.”
Kay was motionless. “Brother -”
“No. In this I am your king, not your brother. I need you here. I need you watching my kingdom. There is no man in the land more feared.”
“No more feared or disliked.” the Bastard raised his hands to forestall any rebuke. “I mean that as no insult, Sir Kay. You are our king’s enforcer, and you do the task well. But surely it would be better to leave a more popular man to hold the regency?”
“I wonder who that would be,” Gawain muttered.
Arthur turned to face Mordred, his face hard as stone. “I leave Kay here because I cannot trust you, son. Oh, I can trust you to fight, and to win, even. But ruling takes more than that. You have not learned those skills, and it is my failing as a father. I admit that. But the kingdom cannot be made to suffer for my faults. Learn from Kay. When I return, I shall make you into a man Gawain can be proud to call his heir.”
The news that Arthur still regarded Gawain as his heir shook Mordred, though he took it well. Two spots of high colour appeared in his cheeks, and he bowed his head. “My father’s wisdom shall rule,” he said.
Kay had his own misgivings. But he hid them, and he hid his hurt that his brother would go hunt a traitor without him. Arthur was Arthur, after all, and since when had he known to be fallible?
* * *
“Of course, we know that answer,” Kay said. The bowl lay emptied of porridge in his lap. “He was fallible the day he married Guinevere. The day he swore brotherhood to Lancelot. The day he welcomed his slimy...that bastard Mordred into Camelot. The Round Table had been for true brotherhood once. Bedivere. Dagonet. Sagramore. Myself. Gawain. But its reputation grew and grew and...ah, suddenly, there were kings and lords who wanted to be part of it. Men who could not possibly hold the Round Table above all other oaths, all other callings. But Arthur, Arthur believed. Arthur was an optimist. I suppose it’s why he kept me around.”
Percival nodded. “You think Arthur dreamed too much,” he said.
Kay glared at him. “I think I resent ignorant, porridge-stirring farmboys telling me about what kings should have done. Leave me be. I will sleep.”
Percival woke early the next morning, but Kay had been up sooner. The lumpen sack that had stayed untouched since the wounded knight had arrived was empty now, flat and flaccid on the floor. The boy pulled on a long shirt and shuffled outside, wincing as the cold earth bit into his feet.
Sir Kay was there. He was clad in armour, but not the steel and mail of the tales. He wore boiled leather shaped to fit his lean frame, over his torso and shoulders, forearms and legs. He moved with his sword, a black streak through the air, darting and lunging at nothing, then leaping away before nothing could strike back. It was a dance, Percival thought, though he wouldn’t like to be the knight’s partner.
Then Kay stumbled, and swore, and dropped the blade as he landed on his knees. Suddenly Percival was looking at an old wounded man, cursing as he struggled back to his feet. Kay groaned as he picked up his sword and shook the mud from it. He turned and saw Percival and his scowl deepened. “Too old,” he growled. “Too old and too slow.” He slashed violently at the air. “Shouldn’t you be doing...something?”
Percival turned to go but something stopped him. “Sir?” he said, without looking back. “What do you plan to do when you leave here?”
“I will bring my king’s justice back to our land,” Kay snapped. Percival heard the thumping of his footsteps as he walked off.
“You can’t,” Percival said, quietly. Not quietly enough. The footsteps halted. Then they began again. Faster. Percival squeezed his eyes shut.
The blow was an open-handed one over his ear and it sent him sprawling. He bit his lip and the inside of his cheek as he fell. As he tried to rise, Kay’s boot caught him none too gently in his ribs, flinging him gasping onto his back. Percival squinted up, past the ringing in his head. “What did you tell me?” Kay snarled.
“I only meant -”
“You meant I was weak, yes? Enfeebled? You, farm boy, presumed to tell me how a knight should conduct himself?”
“No, sir, I -”
“I am the last one left!” Kay shouted, looking half-deranged. “I am Arthur’s last knight and I will not be forsworn!”
He actually grabbed his sword hilt and stood rigid for a moment, glaring down at the bleeding boy. Then he swore again, spun, and strode towards the farmhouse.
“I only meant I wanted to help,” Percival said to the empty air. The mud was very comfortable and he decided not to try standing just yet. He turned his throbbing head, slowly, to see Kay staring back at him.
“Help me?” Kay said. He looked shocked. Percival decided it was safe to try to stand up now.
“If I can,” he said, slowly picking himself up, limb by limb.
Kay chewed his lip, then shook his head sharply, but not in denial. Eyes still sparking with anger, he strode forward. Percival forced himself not to quail.
But Kay simply took the boy’s chin in his hand, turning his head from one side to the other. “You’ll bruise there,” he said. “I’ve some herbs that will ease the swelling though.” He shook his head. “My bloody temper,” he said, more to himself. “Come on, boy. Let’s get you patched up.”
They went into the house, where Percival sat in Kay’s chair. The old knight set a cup of water to warm by the hearth and dug into his pack. He pulled out a bunch of dried, flattered flowers, sniffed them, and nodded. He plucked the withered blooms and tossed them indifferently, before he began to grind the stems to powder against the rough wood of the table with the butt of his knife.
They were silent, man and boy, but for the creak and grind of knife on wood. “I could help,” Percival said.
Kay snorted. “Valiant. Boys are all so valiant.”
“You could teach me to use a sword, or even a knife. It wouldn’t take long, I’m a fast learner.”
Kay laughed. “I’m doing you a favour, boy. You’ll know horror and blood and nothing else if you come with me.”
“Dying in battle is glorious,” Percival said stoutly.
Kay swept the powder he’d made into the palm of his hand and walked over to the fire to tip it into his cup of water. “There is nothing,” he said, eyes on the brew, “glorious about battle.”
* * *
“I failed you,” Kay said numbly.
Arthur’s squire was strapping on the king’s vambraces. Arthur looked over at his seneschal. “What?”
“What waits for us out there is my fault.” Kay sank into a chair. Arthur’s tent was as richly appointed as a house. “I had Mordred. I...he slipped through my fingers. I failed.”
“That thinking does not win battles, Kay,” Arthur said. He stood with his arms outstretched as his squire buckled his belt about his waist.
“I don’t know that we can,” Kay said. “We are outnumbered, by God how we are outnumbered. How did Mordred go so great?”
“How could he have failed to?” Arthur said. “Yes, the cloak, boy. We’ll talk to Mordred before we fight him. That’s the civilised way to do it.” His squire brought Arthur’s great golden cloak and began to fasten it about the king’s armoured shoulders.
“How could he have failed to?” Arthur repeated. “Camelot has been rotted for years now. That much is plain from this angle. The people, the lords...they saw their king dining out on old victories. They saw him lose his wife.” His voice grew bitter. “They saw him fail to bring one recalcitrant vassal to justice, and lose his heir in the process.” His eyes misted a moment. “I buried Gawain in a foreign land and came home with Lancelot left untouched in his tower. Is it to be wondered Mordred made a good case for his leadership? Those with him are not all evil-hearted.”
“He bloody is,” Kay said.
“I fear it’s so.” Arthur shrugged his shoulders as best he could, one by one, forcing the armour to settle around him. “It does not mean he does not have a point. My kinging has gone to seed of late.”
Kay stared at him. “So...what, we just walk out there and surrender? Exile ourselves? Acknowledge his right to rule? I’ll be swimming in naked virgins before he lets us leave this field while either you or he still stands.”
Arthur chuckled. “Surrender? Oh, brother. Maybe we are too old if you think that badly of me.” He turned to Kay and smiled and through the lines on his face, through the grey hair and past the beard, Kay could almost see the boy who had pulled a sword from a stone and won a kingdom thereby. Arthur lifted his gloved hand and clapped it on Kay’s leather-clad shoulder. “I mean to go out there and feed him every last inch of Excalibur. I’ll cut him to pieces on this field and then we’ll beat the kingdom back into shape and give people reason to hope again.”
“Just like that?” Kay stood up, his leather armour creaking.
“I make it sound easy,” Arthur admitted. “But since when have we worried about avoiding hard work?”
Kay shook his head. “You’d kill your own son, then? As easy as that?”
Arthur grimaced. “You’ve a knack for skewering me where I’m most tender, Kay.” He sighed, and picked up his crown, a golden, gem-studded circlet. He stared down at it. “Would I kill my son? No. Not even now. But...I am not me, Kay. If I were just me, just a man, Lancelot could have taken Guinevere, with my blessing. Mordred could have the kingdom and I would leave without outcry. But I am a king. And if as a father I cannot kill my son, then as a king I am duty-bound to kill a rebel.” He lifted the crown and placed it on his head. “Come now, Kay. We have a traitor to confront.”
Arthur left the tent, his squire hurrying after him. Kay rubbed at his eyes. “Between king and man, as easy as that,” he said to himself. He shook his head again, dismissing some thought. “I am no king.” He left the tent.
Mordred waited, in armour coated with white enamel, on the field of Camlann. The place was a vale, turned to a rough triangle by sloping hills and two burbling rivers. It was a beautiful place. The kind of place that made Kay even more reluctant to die.
Mordred had two of his vassals with him, rough men, lords by title if not lordly in nature. The Bastard smiled as Arthur and Kay approached. Behind him was spread his army. It greatly outnumbered Arthur’s. “Father,” Mordred said.
“Mordred.” Arthur’s voice was iron. “You would go through with this folly, then?”
“Is it folly, to want to grant good government to a kingdom in sore need of it?” Mordred shook his head. “I would have granted you honourable retirement. Father.”
“I have disavowed all kinship with you,” Arthur said.
Mordred’s eyes met Kay’s. He smiled. “So be it, old man. I shall see your corpse is not defiled. I cannot promise the same for your retainers. Are we done here?”
Arthur shook his head. “It would seem so. I promise you nothing, Mordred, save a quick death.”
Mordred smiled again and without another word turned and left. His lords followed him. Arthur closed his eyes a moment, then nodded. “Let’s go.”
The armies formed. They clashed. In the midst of the blood and steel Arthur and Mordred met and for the first time, Excalibur failed. Mordred was hurt. Arthur was killed, but the Bastard was unable to carry out his veiled threat. The king’s army fought long enough that his body was taken by a coterie of witch-women, away into the shadows. Kay thought he had seen Morgan, but he had fallen soon after. Bedivere had fled with Arthur’s sword, and Mordred’s army moved on, marching resolute towards Camelot, where even now the Bastard sat in Arthur’s throne. And when night fell, Kay rose, bleeding and empty, and he left the field, and his king, and everything that Camelot had been.
* * *
Percival was silent.
Kay wrapped a bandage around his jaw, pouching a bunch of the sweet-smelling herbs in the cloth. “That will ease the swelling.”
The old knight stood and dusted his hands off. He turned away and looked around. “I’m bloody tired of porridge. Have we any meat?”
“Nothing fresh,” Percival mumbled, his jaw held tight by the cloth. “Some dried beef in the back, sir.”
Kay grunted. “I’ve had enough damn dried beef to last a lifetime of soldiering.” He looked around, then brushed off the edge of the table and sat on it. He stared into the fire.
“I want to be a knight,” Percival said.
Kay burst out laughing. He buried his face in his hands and laughed until his shoulders shook. “A knight?” He stopped laughing, abruptly, “A knight!” He spat in the fire. “The one knight you’ve ever met, boy, took to beating you to moment you caught him in an awkward moment.”
“But they’re not all like me?” Kay sneered. “You think they’re noble men? Great men? You want to be one of them?”
“I want to fight!” Percival snapped. He shoved himself up off his chair, ignoring the throb in his face. He shoved a finger in Kay’s face. His anger swarmed him. “I know you haven’t given up! I know you want to fight them too!”
“I know it.” Percival was quieter. “I know it. And you bloody well know it too.”
Kay pushed off the table. He did not look at Percival, but only stared into the flames for a long moment. Then he shrugged. “What of it?” he said, not to Percival. “That’s the kind of story they all liked, isn’t it?” Kay stood up, and strode to his sword, leaning against the door-jamb. Gripping the hilt, he pulled it out slowly. He turned to Percival and despite himself, the boy flinched. Kay grunted. “Eh. You’ve no need to be afraid, child. I...well. Kneel.”
And Percival did, on both knees, though the earthen floor of his house bit into his skin. Kay touched his blade lightly to the boy’s shoulder. “In God’s name, you will be just.” He lifted the sword an instant and rested it down again. “In the name of justice, you will defend the king.” The steel rose, fell. “In the name of the King.” Kay paused. “In the name of King Arthur, I charge you to guard the people. And so I, Sir Kay, Lord of the Round Table, dub you, true knight, Percival the Bold.”
Percival looked up. His eyes were a little wet. “Bold, sir?”
“I beat the hell out of you earlier today, boy, and you demanded I knight you.” Kay smirked. “You’re either brave or stupid. I imagine you’ll give the Bastard some trouble.”
“As will you, my lord.” Percival pushed himself to his feet.
Kay smiled again, and looked back to the fire. “Heh. I think I’ve done what I need.”
They slept the rest of the night, and Percival woke to hear shouts outside his home. He sat up to see Kay, in his leather armour, standing at the door. One lean hand toyed with the hilt of his sword.
“Out! In the name of the king!” The voice came from outside.
Percival scrambled to his feet. “Sir! Arthur! He’s here!”
Kay turned to him. His eyes were cold. “Don’t be damn stupid, boy. And stay where you are.” He twisted the latch on the door and stepped out into the cold morning air. Sir Percival followed him.
Percival’s father was there, off to the side, watching, sweating. There were at least a dozen men on horseback, spears in their hands. And at the centre of their arc he was there. White-garbed, white-armoured. His long dark hair fell past his lean face. Mordred smiled at them.
“You’ve my thanks, crofter,” he said. “This man is indeed the vilest of traitors. You shall be rewarded.”
Percival stared at his father. Ludo glared back, and then looked away. Percival looked back at Kay.
Kay stared at the men before him. “I could kill some of them,” he said.
“Some,” the Bastard agreed. “But not me.”
“I beat you before.”
“You evaded me.” Mordred shrugged. “I confess you were not utmost in my mind. But when I did not see your corpse among the fallen - ah, I know well how a missed chance can nip one like a serpent.”
“You talk like you fight, Bastard,” Kay growled. He drew his sword. On his right arm the serpent tattoo almost seemed to shiver, and Percival allowed himself a moment of hope.
“Ah, yes.” Mordred smiled. “The deadly blade of Sir Kay.” He brushed a strand of his long hair out of his eye. An iron ring slipped into his voice. “Put it down.”
“You know when that will happen.” Kay gripped the blade in both hands and lifted it above his head.
His men lowered their spears. Behind him, Percival grabbed for the pitchfork, or the shovel, or the scythe. It felt like a wooden handle, anyway. He dared not take his eyes from the drama unfolding before him.
But instead of ordering his men forward, the new king merely laughed. “Oh, Kay.” He shook his head. “You had your chance with me. You knew me and you knew what I could do. But here I am, slipped from your grasp. Did Arthur ever know why?”
Kay gripped his sword tighter. “Quiet,” he growled.
“Did they ever know?” Mordred pushed. “Did they truly know? Oh, I’ve no doubt many blamed you, in their secret hearts, for the kingdom’s fall. Arthur’s evil counsellor. But we know better, yes? Did you tell your...your bloody beloved king, in the last moments you knew him?
* * *
Kay sat the regent’s chair, a small, simple construct of black-painted wood. It was his time of audience, the time Arthur would have held it, from three hours after dawn to two before dusk. The hall was empty. Either justice was done or people had given up seeking it in the king’s court. Kay rolled Merlin’s coin between his fingers. He would not take that wager.
The great doors screeched open. Kay made a note to have a servant oil the great iron hinges. They would need a ladder for the upper ones.
Into the room came a servant, sweating and pale. “My lord,” he said, bowing. “Merlin is without.”
Kay fought the urge to scowl. “Show him in.”
“He...he has a woman with him, my lord.”
“Show him in!”
The servant scurried away. Wordless, he nodded at the guards, who gripped the iron rings sunk into those old wooden doors and pulled them open with an ancient groan.
It was Merlin, right enough. The wizard wore only a grey robe and laced boots. He danced his way up the paved road to the king’s throne, arms spread, face upheld beatifically to the sky - the roof, at least. A small smile rode his face. Behind him came a woman, tall and slim, a willow-wand, her hair cascading behind her like tumbling fire.
She bore her years a lot better than Kay did. He half rose from his seat, then sat back down firmly and turned his eyes to Merlin. “Your business here, wizard?”
“Merely a guide.” Merlin still had not looked at him, keeping his eyes uplifted to the smoke-stained beams that bore up the arched ceiling. “A man to reunite two lost souls, out of the goodness of his own.”
Kay’s lip twisted. “Reunite?”
“Man and woman. Lover and lover.” Merlin stopped before Kay’s chair and stopped, looking down at him for the first time. “Father and mother.” He smirked. “These are the indisputable parts that make a whole. And I am a man who makes things whole.”
Kay rose slowly. He was taller than Merlin, though leaner too. “Get out,” he growled at the wizard.
“I’ll have your head if you stay.”
“And they said Arthur chose a regent with no spine.” Merlin shrugged. “I shall go, tally-man. Count your sins instead of coins, while you have the breath for it. You’ll have more to add before long.”
The wizard turned and walked with stately gait to the great doors at the entrance to the hall. The guards opened the great portals to let him past and then looked at Kay. White-faced, he dismissed them with a curt wave. The doors thudded shut behind them.
At last Kay met Morgan’s eyes. Arthur’s half-sister was tall and pale, her red lips firm. Her face bore a faint maze of lines and her black gown was severe. She was a witch, men said, and all knew the tale of how she and her brother had dallied together all unknowing. It was whispered Mordred was the fruit of that union. She was depraved and ambitious, a murderess and a woman who nursed a poisonous hate for Camelot next to her heart.
Kay had always loved her.
She bent her knees slowly before him, this proud noblewoman, and lowered her head. “I have come to intercede for my son, Sir Kay.”
Her feigned subservience irritated him. “Stand up, woman,” he growled.
She did. Near as tall as him, she looked him hard in the eyes. “You have him in your dungeons.”
“They have not seen much use in Arthur’s reign. I felt like doing something different.”
She sneered. “Jokes. I will ignore them, if you do not mind. What possessed you to imprison my son?”
“You mean Mordred? The rumours are true then?” She did not answer. Kay pressed on. “He was fomenting rebellion. Treason. He can count himself lucky I did not have his head, but the king has ever been inclined to mercy where the Bastard is concerned.”
“Talking to lords discontented with Arthur’s rule is hardly rebellion,” Morgan said.
“You are well-informed.”
“I have my ways.”
Kay shook his head. “He is convicted by his own actions. Should his friends wish to clear his name...”
“You would throw them in the dungeons beside him.”
“Well.” Kay smiled. “Not beside him. Far enough away they couldn’t talk.”
Morgan’s eyes narrowed. “I know why he is not dead.”
“As I said, the king -”
“You are afraid.”
“Of Mordred?” Kay snorted. “He has a following, I grant you. But Camelot does not cower before brigands.”
“Not Mordred. Me.”
Kay raised an eyebrow. “You’re a formidable woman, Morgan. But you do not frighten me.”
“Not my spells, no, and not my words and not my name. But you fear me just the same. You fear what I could tell you. Something I think you’ve known for a long time.” She sank to her knees again, more genuine this time. “But I will spare you that. I only ask for your mercy. Please. Release Mordred. He will do no harm.”
“He knows how to do nothing else.”
“For the love you bear me,” she said. “Or that you bore me. For the stolen nights we spent together. Please.”
Kay closed his eyes. When he opened them, she was still there. Obviously. “I love the king,” he said slowly. “I love the kingdom and what it gives us. I do not love the king’s bastard and my love for you...” he looked away. “It means nothing. It can only mean nothing.”
Morgan blanched like he’d slapped her. She stood, and he knew she wouldn’t be kneeling again. “The king’s bastard?” Her voice was soft and cold. “Who said he was the king’s?”
Morgan smiled at him, all venom and contempt. “Coward. You knew.”
“You knew and you could not bring yourself to hurt him to save your damn precious kingdom. Oh, when Arthur returns! Arthur will do it! Arthur will take it off my hands! So you think, and so you lie to yourself again and again, until it passes for truth. Brave Kay, Arthur’s seneschal.” She spat at his feet. “I had thought better of you, once. You were a warrior, once. Now you skulk about and order the deaths of bolder, better men.”
Kay found his voice. “You lie.”
“I have a reputation for it. But why would I lie to you? You are beneath my ambition, Kay.” She glared at him.
“I...cannot free him.” This was in a whisper. Kay could not look at her.
“Then you’ll watch him die.” Morgan’s voice was a whip. “You speak of Arthur’s mercy; he has none for traitors. Nor should he. He is a king. You? You are no king. You’re a father.” She turned her back and began the long walk down the throne room’s hall. “I have done what I can. I hope you free our son, but if not, I hope his passing causes you more suffering than you can bear.”
She passed the doors, and was gone, and Kay stood, alone and at the centre of a storm.
He reached a decision that day without realising it and that night, as the moon traced its path among the stars, he woke, and he dressed, and eschewing a torch he walked through the castle. Through Camelot. Its corridors and halls, its passages and avenues, all rang with his memories. Arthur, young and golden, knighting his warriors before the throne. And there, there Lancelot had stood when he first laid eyes on the Round Table. And here Arthur had first beheld Guinevere and she him, and though the love that had sprung from that moment had wrought such bitterness, Kay would not undo it if he could. Gawain’s jokes, Bors’s simple friendship, Agravaine’s booming laugh - even Galahad’s earnest piety Kay could miss now. Without them, Camelot was hollow, a grim grey ruin filled with ghosts and weaklings. Kay wondered which he was.
The guards by the dungeon doors were asleep. Kay was unsurprised. Merlin’s arm was long.
He stole down the torchlit stone hall. Iron-barred doors were set into the sweating black rock to either side. Eventually, he reached the final door on his right and turned to it, and hesitated. It was not too late. It was. Even just being here, it was too late. “Mordred,” he whispered.
There was a rustle and a clink of chain. A shape moved in the shadows behind the door. “I am here.”
“Your mother came to see me.”
“She is sentimental like that.” Mordred paused. “She told you, didn’t she?” His voice was only mildly curious.
“Why didn’t you?” Kay shook his head. “You would still have had an honoured place at court.”
“But not a prince’s.”
“You are not a prince now.”
“Now? Now I am only a prisoner. Thanks to you and your spying. And nor will I be. Arthur will kill me when he returns, though it will rend his heart to do so. And yet...I could have been. Gawain will die over the sea. Arthur would have had no choice but to appoint me his heir.”
“One of your mother’s visions?”
Mordred huffed a quiet laugh. “Common sense. Gawain is a man of honour. Lancelot killed his brothers. He will fight Lancelot, and in doing so, he will come off the worse. Lancelot may hold back, unwilling to finish him, but...no. No, the pride of both of them will be Gawain’s undoing.”
Kay swallowed. “You will be even less than a prisoner, should I give the word.”
“You could have given the word without ever laying eyes on me again.” Mordred shuffled closer to the door, pressing his face against its small window. He was grimy and his glittering eyes were shadowed in the torchlight. “So why are you here?”
Kay had a dozen answers to that and none. I loved your mother, he might have said. For my duty as a father. So the crown might earn your thanks. Because I pity you.
But in the end, there was only one reason, and it came from the small, embittered boy who had watched his hapless little brother pull a sword from a stone and cast an eternal shadow over them all. They left me behind. They think I’m nothing but a bookkeeper, a servant. They forget I am a knight.
Kay tossed the keys through the door and left without a word.
* * *
Kay’s sword fell to the dirt.
“Better.” Mordred smiled. “Pick it up, boys. And put this traitor in chains.”
Kay stood still as steel as they fixed the iron collar around his neck. His hands were manacled behind him and one of the riders affixed a long chain to the collar. “You’ll walk, traitor,” he grinned.
The knight ignored him with supreme disdain. He looked over at Ludo, who was chewing his fingers by the fence. “Thank you for your hospitality, farmer. I can only hope the price for me paid for the mead I drank and the porridge I ate.”
Mordred shook his head. “Porridge and mead. A fine last meal for Arthur’s last knight.”
“There are others.” Kay’s voice was careless and he did not look at Percival.
“Lancelot? Bedivere? Old men in monk’s robes. I will leave them to their prayers.”
Kay smiled. It was a smile of pure spite and satisfaction. “We will see, Bastard. We will see.”
They left, the bound knight stumbling behind the horses. The rider holding his chain would pull it sharply every so often, just to laugh as Kay fell and slid on his knees in the mud. Percival watched them until they rode past the trees and out of sight. Then he turned and went into the house.
“Perci?” His father’s voice was pleading. “Perci, I know you liked him, but we had no choice.”
Percival looked at his father’s butcher tools. He picked out a knife, a long, solid piece of whisper-sharp steel, and wedged it carefully in his rope belt.
“They paid us in enough silver to make us rich, Perci.”
The boy wrapped a nut-studded load of bread and some dried meat and apples into a cloth. This he knotted and gripped in one white-knuckled hand.
“Percival!” His father’s temper had broken. “Look at me!”
Percival did. Ludo was a small man. He could not be blamed for his weaknesses. “I understand your motives, father. But I cannot stay.”
“What? Where - I forbid it! Where are you going?”
Percival pushed past his father and walked away, out the door, to the gate. He nodded a farewell to the chickens.
“Boy!” His father roared. “Get back here!”
Percival turned and drew his butcher’s knife. “I’m no boy, father. I am Sir Percival the Bold. And I am a Knight of the Round Table.”
His father’s splutters of fury and befuddlement were ignored. Sir Percival pushed the gate open and set foot onto the road. He began to walk.
What had Kay said, at the end? Camelot had been the people, not the place.
In silence, Percival vowed he would be Camelot until the day he died.