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In Camelot’s Shadow — A Word

The monks tell me it is the year of our lord five hundred and fifty.   They tell me it is the feast day of some saint whose name I have already forgotten.   I am an old man.   It is enough that I remember the important names.

            I remember Arthur.   I remember Camelot.

            I remember Mount Badon, and I may be the last who does.   I remember the flush of victory, of the moment we truly understood we had won.   I remember throwing my cap in the air and crying, “The King!  The King!”  and seeing Arthur smile.

            I remember yesterday standing on the sea shore, scanning the horizon for any boat that may have come from the west lands, bearing news of the land where I once lived.   I was told once that some of our people live on, in the mountains and in the north, fighting the invaders, holding to the old memories.   Perhaps I will go to them one day.   Perhaps one of them could use a man of letters, skilled in the arts of maps and of planning.

            One who remembers both the birth and the murder of the great promise.

            You who read this, understand I do not excuse myself.   I know well what I have done.   The priest here speaks of the perfidy of women, and I must laugh.   We are told they are weaker, they are worse.   After all, was it not Eve who plucked the apple?   He frowned like a carp when I did say, “’But ‘twas Adam who was fool enough not to ask his wife what she’d brought him for dinner!”  

            I tell you the evil of the most foul of women is nothing compared to man’s folly, and of all men I have been the greatest fool.   Sometimes I think I should lay out thirty pieces of silver at my own feet and take the same road as Judas.   It would be fitting.

            I have confided this to a holy man who visits upon occasion.   There is a warrior’s look in his eye that reminds me of sometimes of Arthur.   He says that if I would put to use the life God spared, I should cease to sharpen my tongue against the sides of defenseless monks, and sharpen instead my quills.

            I have decided I will do this thing.   I hear the tales they now tell of Camelot, of Arthur and Guienevier, and Lancelot, Gawain, Morgaine and Modred.    The truth is fading, washed away by the tide of story.   Soon there so little left, God will be even be able to find us on the Day of Judgement.   If I am to tie a noose about my neck, it should be done with words.   Words were forever weapon, my prop, my delight, and in the end my downfall.

            All you men, beware the tongues of rumor.   Beware the poison burden of the tale-bearer and the tattler.   These will do naught but raise a canker of the soul that will blacken and swell until there is nothing left but pain.

            But this is not to be a record of my self-pity.   It is to be a record of those days and those deeds led by my brother Arthur, the greatest king our island ever birthed.   Do men love a tale of war?   Do the ladies love a tale of romance and beauty?   Then I, who amused the whole of Camelot time and again with my clever words, shall give them one.  

            Read on then, this tale of magics, white and black, and of the faith of true hearts.   Read then this memory of Gawain, greatest of all knights, and how he came to win the heart of the proud and fair Risa of the Morelands, sometimes after known as the Loathly Lady.  

            Kai pen Hir ap Cynyr

            At the Monestery of Gillean,

            Eire

       ###

       PROLOGUE

The rain pelted down through the trees as if to make a second Flood.  Its noise muffled Jocosa’s moans.  The oaks had provided some shelter when the rain fell softly, but they now they were as useful for stopping the water as a sieve.

Lord Rygehil eased his horse backwards a few steps and lifted back the curtain of Jocosa’s litter.  Rain ran in rivulets down onto the cushions and their occupants.  Jocosa tossed restlessly beneath her woolen cloak, lost in her own tortured imaginings.  The two maids who flanked their fever-racked mistress looked up at him in mute distress.

Rygehil’s throat closed on his breath.  He let the curtain fall.

Curse this rain.  He pounded his fist against his thigh and glared at the darkening sky from under the hood of his cloak.  Curse King Arthur and his coronation, curse his useless physics and curse me, curse me for taking Jocosa so far from help!

The rain fell implacably on his head and shoulders.  His horse stirred restlessly under him, shaking its mane and stamping its hooves.  The animal was soaking wet, and no doubt cold.  He could smell, rather than see the steam rising from its back.  The men-at-arms around him were at least as badly off, if not worse.

Forgive me, God.  Forgive me.  Rygehil bowed his head low over his horse’s neck.  Mother Mary deliver my wife.  I love her, I love her.  Take me.  I’ll go gladly to the grave, but spare my Jocosa, the radiant, the incomparable.  I beg of you!

“Hoofbeats, lord,” said Whitcomb.  Rygehil jerked his head up.  “Liath is back with us at last.”

Without waiting for an order, Whitcomb urged his horse out onto the road.  Sea of mud, more like, he thought ruefully as his horse sank up to its fetlocks in the mire.

Even though the clouds had brought night down far too early, Rygehil could make out young Liath, urging on his dun pony for all the poor beast was worth.

“A fortress, my lord!”  Liath cried as he drew close.  He brushed at his hood and sent an additional gout of water down his own shoulders.  “An old Roman garrison.  The roof is still good in spots.  We shall have some shelter at least, and a place a fire can be made.”

Hope sparked in Rygehil’s heart.  A fire, a dry place to rest, it could make all the difference to Jocosa.

“Lead on, then, boy.” Whitcomb’s voice called before Rygehil could get the words out.  Rygehil glanced behind to see Whitcomb checking the thongs that held the litter to the mules’ backs.

“On the road, then,” Whitcomb cried, with one eye on the litter and the men and one on his lord.  “Be quick, and careful with my lady!”

Rygehil let his men-at-arms pass him by.  They were so soaked that even their mail no longer jingled.  He took his place beside Jocosa’s litter and rode at the very edge of the road.  The thrashing of rain, the squelch of hooves in mud and the hundred small thumps, rustles and mutterings that filled the night kept him from hearing whether she still moaned or not.

Surely, she has not fallen silent yet, not within moments of shelter and warmth.  No.  She is not that weak yet.  Not yet.

His mind filled with a thousand memories; of how the sight of her beauty struck him a blow when he first saw her, of how his heart soared when he first kissed her lips, of how she moved about his hall with such grace and confidence, ordering everything to the very best advantage, of waking from a long, slow fever to the sight of her brown eyes gazing down at him.

Rygehil’s heart squeezed tight inside his chest.  He had been chided many times by his father and brothers for laying so much store by one woman.  He had never even wanted to listen to their words.

Rygehil forced himself to look away from the litter and its limp curtains.  He pointed his attention down the mired road, hoping to catch some glimpse of Liath’s fortress.

The road took a turn and dipped down a small hill.  The men cursed as they tried to negotiate their horses’ way down the mud-swamped slope.

“Just here, my lord!”  Liath hastened his pony on, although the creature started to balk under him.  At last the beast gave up resisting, tucked its hind legs under its tail and slid straight down the hill.  Liath gaped like a fish but kept his seat, even when the pony hopped back onto all fours at the slope’s bottom.  Rygehil took a moment to wonder if the boy was an extraordinary horseman or a very stupid one.  As frantic as he was for Jocosa, he let his mount find his own way down.  He could feel its muscles bunching and rolling as it struggled to stay upright.  Rygehil tried to tear his attention away from the litter long enough to work on keeping himself in the saddle.

The trees parted at the bottom of the hill, opening on a meadow that sloped gently away from the road.  At the top of the rise, Rygehil saw Liath’s shelter.  His first thought was that it was far too small to be a fortress or garrison, but the shadows seemed to thicken as he stared at it and he grew uncertain as to which part was wall and which was twilight.  But still, he could see the gate right enough.  The building looked to be two stories tall with a peaked roof that in the day’s last light appeared sound.  A villa maybe, or an old temple that someone had turned into an outpost or hideaway before Arthur had spread his peace across the isle.

As the horses labored up the muddy slope, the rain redoubled.  Rygehil could see no more than a hand’s span in front of him.  Behind him, Whitcomb was trying to direct the men minding the litter.  He had to shout to be heard above the torrent.  Rygehil dismounted his horse and handed the reins to Liath.  Shouldering away the clod who was attempting to handle the balky litter mule, he caught up the beast’s halter.  With a firm hand and soothing words, he led the mule forward.  Whitcomb took charge of the other and together they slogged toward the shelter.

After what seemed a thousand years of drowning rain and fading light, Rygehil heard cobblestones clatter under hooves.  He lifted the edge of his hood and saw their chosen shelter looming against the dark sky, a black shadow against the thick grey.  He could just make out the covered porch and, to his surprise, the open door.

“Unfasten my lady’s litter,” ordered Rygehil.  “Liath, see if you can find some stabling for the animals.  You and you,” he pointed at two indistinct figures.  “Help with the horses.  If nothing else can be done for them, bring them onto the porch.”

The men undid the litter’s fastenings with fingers clumsy with cold.  Una, Jocosa’s maid and dearest friend, peeked out from behind the litter’s curtain, taking in the situation with a shrewd eye.  She jumped down at once in a cloud of skirts and veils.  She was drenched in a second, but if her scolding was any sign, she cared nothing for it.

“My lady must not be jostled, be careful you oaf, my lord, my lord, you must have greater care how you heave my lady about …”

With her fussing about them like a flustered hen, they gained the porch.  Stepping under its roof was like emerging from the ocean.  Rygehil shook his hood back, and felt a stream of extra water pour down his back.

They manhandled the litter through the black and open doorway.  Rygehil smelled mold and dirt and confinement.  His boots thudded on a dirt floor.  His eyes all but burst from their sockets in an effort to see through the gloom.

“Here seems clear enough, my lord.” Whitcomb’s voice sounded strangely harsh in the darkness.

“Yes, yes, put my poor mistress down.” Rygehil heard a flopping noise and imagined Una wringing her skirts out.  “Oh, not there, for shame, ’tis right in the draft.  Here, here.” Rygehil made out her shadow and guided the litter toward it.  She was right.  Jocosa would be better in a corner out of the doorway’s draft until they could get some sort of fire alight.

He and Whitcomb set the litter down as gently as they could.  He heard the curtains rustle damply.  A form scrambled out.  Maia, who was but lately entered into Jocosa’s service, young and plump and gasping from her efforts.

Rygehil took a deep breath.  “How does your mistress?”

“I … oh, my lord …”

Rygehil dropped to his knees beside the litter.  He tossed his gloves aside and lifted up the sodden curtain with a trembling hand.  He could not see anything.  He reached out blindly and his fingertips brushed skin as cold as marble.

“No.” he whispered.  Jocosa’s arm lay under his palm, icy cold.  He felt his way along its length to her shoulder.  She was so thin, so drawn.  He could feel the bones right under the skin.  He reached across to her breasts, her beautiful, pale flesh that he had kissed and stroked so many times.  Now he lay his hand flat and heavy against them to find her precious breath.  But her bosom lay still and fear strangled his heart and brain.

Then, her chest heaved once under his hand, and again, and yet again.

“She lives.” he blurted out.  “She lives still.”

“Praise be to God!”  cried Una.  “Haste, now, haste, you men and see what fire we can make.  There must be something to be found that can burn.  Maia, hold up your cloak, girl and shelter me from the sight of these ruffians.  My shift is yet dry.  We can strip off my lady’s wet garments and wrap her in that.”

“My lord?”  Whitcomb touched Rygehil’s shoulder.

Rygehil lifted his head.  Some twenty paces away, toward what Rygehil had assumed to be the back of their shelter, stood an arched doorway.  Through it, golden firelight flickered against stone walls and showed a staircase leading down.

Rygehil got slowly to his feet.  “It seems we are not the first to take shelter here.”

“Hallo!”  called Whitcomb.  “Hail fellow traveller!”

They waited for the echo of his voice to fade.  In the silence, Rygehil noted how little the new light revealed.  He could see the doorway, he could see the first few stairs, but nothing else.  He could not see the walls of the room he stood in, nor the doorway behind him.  He could not even, he noticed with a start, hear the rain outside anymore.

What is this?  He restrained the urge to cross himself.  This was a place with a fire for Jocosa.  A fire she must have to stay alive.

“Una, Maia, look well to my lady.” Rygehil laid a gentle hand on the litter curtain.  “Whitcomb, you and I will go speak with the maker of that light.  The rest of you, stand ready.” He touched the hilt of his sword as if it were a piece of the True Cross and started forward.

“My lord …” Rygehil turned to look at Whitcomb.  Whatever he meant to say, he evidently thought the better of it, as he closed his mouth and followed silently after his master.

The light dazzled his eyes that had been too long in darkness.  Rygehil had to touch the wall to be sure of his way.  The stone was smooth and cool under his hand, and smooth and solid under his boots.  When his sight cleared, he saw the hollows worn in the centers of the steps from years of feet passing this way.  This place was old, whatever it was.

Rygehil counted fifteen steps before his boots found dirt again.  They stood in a short corridor of stone that opened up ahead and to the left.  Strangely, this cellar smelled cleaner than the room upstairs.  It felt dry, and was wholesome with the sharp scent of wood smoke.  The flickering light of flames turned the stone walls orange and red and gold.

“Who is there?”  called Rygehil as he moved forward.  Again, silence answered him.

He reached the opening in the wall and peered into the chamber beyond.

First, he saw the fire blazing in its central pit.  Its heat wafted over him like a welcome dream.  Black against the golden fire stood the silhouette of a tall man.  His robes hung in heavy folds all the way to the floor.  Rygehil could make out the profile of a craggy face and deepset eyes, but little else.  The man stood completely still and gazed into the fire as if it held the secrets of Heaven.

Gradually, as his eyes grew accustomed to the play of light and shadow, Rygehil began to make out other details of the chamber.  Along with the strange, rapt man and his blazing fire, it held a large number of trestle tables.  These were crammed with braziers, alembics, retorts, various squat beakers of clay.  Among them were vessels made of clear blown glass, more than Rygehil had ever seen in his life.  They also held lumps of raw minerals, twisted pieces of metal and other forms he could only guess at, but a raw animal stench reached him over the clean smell of woodsmoke and he decided he would be glad not to draw closer.  More beakers hung from the cellar’s wooden roof beams, along with bunches of dried herbs and here and there a dead bird or hare.

All at once, the man turned and fixed Rygehil with a piercing stare.  To his shame, Rygehil took a step back and laid his hand upon his sword hilt.

“Your woman is very ill.” The stranger’s voice was soft and dry, but its tone was almost musical.

Rygehil swallowed hard.  “Who are you, Sir, that you know of her trouble?”

The stranger smiled thinly.  “I am called Euberacon Magus, and, as you see, I am master of this place.” He waved one long hand to indicate the room about him.  “I know all that occurs within its confines.  Thus, I know your woman, your lady wife, I believe you term her, is in danger for her life.”

Rygehil realized his hand was still on his sword hilt.  He left it where it was.  “She needs shelter, and a fire.  Sir, since you are provided of both, I beseech you to allow us to trespass upon your hospitality …”

“She needs more than that.” Euberacon turned his gaze back toward the fire.  “Death on his pale horse seeks her in the storm outside.  He may yet find his way here, if nothing is done to prevent him.”

Rygehil’s stomach knotted painfully at these words.  At the same moment, Whitcomb touched his shoulder.  “My lord, I do not like this.  I do not like this man and his guesses and secrets.  There is something unclean about this place.”

“Your man is right to urge you to caution.” Euberacon turned to them again, again with his thin smile showing on his long, lined face.  “All art, all science and all practitioners thereof should indeed be approached with caution.”

Rygehil waved Whitcomb to silence.  “Are you a philosopher, Sir?  Have you some skill as a physician?”

Euberacon inclined his head modestly.  “I have, Sir.  Bring the woman to me.  I will see what may be done.”

“My lord.” breathed Whitcomb again.  Rygehil ignored him.

“I thank you, Sir.  We will bear her here directly.”

He started up the stairway again.  He felt Whitcomb at his back, bursting to say something more.

“Here is hope for Jocosa, Whitcomb.” he said softly.  “What more am I to care for?”

“I fear here may be more peril than hope.” muttered Whitcomb.  “If she dies now, at least her soul and yours are safe.”

Despite the close quarters, Rygehil whirled around.  “Speak so again, Cein Whitcomb and I will have your heart out of your body.  Jocosa will not die.  She will not die.”

He hurried up the remaining stairs to the darkness of the upper chamber.  His company received him without a word.  They had doubtlessly heard his outburst, but he did not care.

“We have met the master of this house.  He is a philosopher and may be able to aid my lady.  We shall take her to his chamber.”

It was impossible to fit the litter down the narrow stairway, so Rygehil scooped Jocosa tenderly into his arms.  Her maids had wrapped her in Una’s dry shift and found a cloak that was still dry inside.  Despite this, her skin was damp from her own perspiration and far too cold for a living being.  She made no sound as he lifted her.  Her head fell back against his chest.  He bent to press his lips to her brow and felt the heat of the fever like a fire beneath her skin.  The only sign of life inside her was the all too infrequent rise and fall of her breast.

He carried her down the stairs with Whitcomb and Una at his heels.

Euberacon had moved from his place at the fire.  Now he stood beside one of the trestle tables that had been cleared of its instruments and flotsam and covered with a clean, bleached cloth.  Rygehil laid Jocosa down and stepped back.

Euberacon looked first at him, then at Whitcomb, then at Una.

“Send the dross away.”

Rygehil faced them.  “Return to the upper chamber.  I will send for you if there is need.”

“My lord …”

“But my lord …”

“Go!”  Rygehil ordered sharply.  “All will be well.  I will attend to all that is needful.”

They did not protest anymore, but Rygehil could tell they wanted to.  When the sound of their footsteps had vanished, Euberacon looked down at Jocosa once more.

For a time he examined her closely.  He bent his ear to her mouth and listened to her shallow, sparse breaths.  He laid a hand on her brow and measured her fever.  He touched her hands and feet and felt the coldness of them.  He lifted first one lid and then the other and peered into her blind and staring eyes.  He laid a hand on her belly and stood as if listening to some far away voice.

At last, Euberacon straightened up.  “Death has almost found her.  There is none of man’s physic that will save her from him.”

It seemed to Rygehil that the world split in two.  “There is nothing you can do?”  he heard himself ask.

“I did not say so.  There are things that may be done, but for them, I will demand a price.”

Whitcomb’s remark about souls came echoing back to Rygehil.  “What price?”

Euberacon smiled his thin smile.  “Compose yourself.  I am not the Devil.  I have no interest in souls in that way.” Rygehil wanted to bridle at that, but he looked again at Jocosa, pale and still in the firelight and did not dare.

“Your wife carries a daughter in her womb.  I claim the life of the child in return for the life of the woman.”

Rygehil opened his mouth to say ‘How do you know?  How dare you?  What manner of man are you?’ But he looked again at the room with its jars and mortars and nameless shadows.  This stranger who asked for the life of his child.  His child who waited within his wife …

His wife who would die, and presently.  He felt it as he felt the blood and fear roaring through his veins.  What was one child?  They would have a dozen.  One girl to be given in years to come?  There were many solutions that could be found before then.  This man, this sorcerer, might be satisfied with gold or land or some servant woman.  It was nothing, this promise now.  It was everything.  It was Jocosa’s life.

“If that is the price, I will pay.”

Euberacon’s dark eyes glittered.  “Very well then.”

The sorcerer melted into the shadows and returned with a piece of parchment.  He spread it out on one of the work tables.  From overhead, he selected a gourd and untied the thong that held it to the roofbeam.  He unstoppered the gourd and instantly the room filled with the scents of myrrh and rich resins.  He poured some of the powder out into a shallow dish.

Euberacon picked up a small knife from the table.  With one sharp stroke, he scored his own palm.  Rygehil gasped.  The other man gave him a look bordering on contempt and held his wound over the dish.  Bright blood dripped into the powder.  From a bundle of plumes on the table, Euberacon plucked up a crow’s ebony feather.  With delicate strokes, he mixed the blood and powder into a dark ink.  He laid by the crow’s feather and selected the feather of a white swan.  With the same knife that had cut his hand, he trimmed the quill into a point.  He dipped the pen into the ink Despite the blood, it’s point came out blacker than Euberacon’s rich robe.  The sorcerer bent over the parchment and began to write.

Rygehil tried to see what words Euberacon laid down, but he could make no sense of the waving lines and dots.  He had seen some Hebrew written once and thought it might be that, but it did not look quite right.

Whatever he wrote, Euberacon was soon finished.  He sprinkled sand over his work and brushed it away.  Then, he blew gently across it.  Apparently satisfied, he reached for a glass beaker that seemed to contain nothing but the purest water.  As he stretched out his hand, Rygehil saw his palm.  The wound was completely gone.

Rygehil resisted the urge to cross himself.  It is for Jocosa’s life.  Her life.

Slowly, carefully, Euberacon poured the water from the glass across the words he had written.  He tilted the parchment so the liquid flowed down into a brass bowl.  When all the water had crossed all the words, he set beaker and parchment down and picked up the bowl.

“Hold her head.” he instructed Rygehil.  “Open her mouth.”

Rygehil cradled Jocosa’s head in the crook of his arm, and as gently as he could, prised open her mouth with two fingers.  Euberacon set the bowl to her lips and tipped it forward.  The liquid ran into her mouth.  Euberacon stroked her throat.

Jocosa coughed, once, and then again.  Her eyelids flew open.  Euberacon clamped her mouth closed.  She stared wildly up at Rygehil for a moment and then he saw her throat move as she swallowed.  Almost at once the fear left her as she looked at him, and recognized what she saw.

Euberacon withdrew his hand.

“My lord?”  whispered Jocosa.  “What day is this?  How long have I lain asleep?”

“Lady!”  Rygehil fell to his knees.  His hand trembled as he touched her brow.  The fever had departed and her skin was once again warm and dry.  “Oh, my love.” He bowed his head to her hand and could not speak another word.

Above him, Euberacon’s voice spoke.

“You and your people may rest the night here.  Be on your way in the morning.  And do not forget your promise.  When the child is of age, I will come for her.”

“I …” Rygehil looked up.

Euberacon was nowhere to be seen.

Rygehil swallowed hard.   Jocosa touched his hand.  “What was that?”

‘Nothing.” Rygehil embraced her.  “Nothing at all, my love.”

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