Okay, so mostly original. At least they’re all well and truly out of copyright. Written in a mood of violent reaction against the grievous libel heaped upon Sir Gawain by Geoffrey Chaucer. Also written to kill time while Nasriel and Kijé go off to find Baral Favain and make him tell me another story for Grace.
It was the feast-day of Saint Joseph, an unimportant festival as a rule, but this year, coinciding as it did with the presence of all the Knights of the Round Table at Camelot, Saint Joseph’s Day was the occasion of a major celebration. The last snow of winter had fallen; the pure whiteness of the ground outside and the crisp bite of the air contrasted with the flickering firelight and smoky warmth within.
At first all was serene. Sir Galahad was not quarrelling with his father. Since Sir Gawain’s marriage to the enchanting – in fact the once enchanted – Lady Ragnell, the few rough edges seemed to have magically smoothed themselves off his manners, and now he was quietly talking shop with Sir Kay. Sir Bors and Sir Bedivere had just that morning returned from a hugely successful quest. In short, everybody was home, and everybody was happy.
Then Gawain’s squire Terence slipped noiselessly in from the courtyard, padding across the hall to his master.
“So I said to her – you’re not listening, Kay!” The mildly soporific effect of Gawain’s soft Orkney brogue was perhaps partly to blame for this.
Sir Kay smiled. “I am all attention. She asked why you were helping her, and you said…?”
“Hmm. I said, ‘We come to serve, milady,’ and – yes, lad, what is it?”
“There’s… a lady outside, sir.” Frowning, the squire explained, “That is, she said I should ask someone – anyone – if she could come in, and yours was the first name she thought of. I think she mostly wants to talk to the king.”
“Ask her in, then.” Kay sighed. “This will mean another quest, breaking up a fine feast.”
“Do you think – I mean, she’s not terribly – oh, all right.” Terence trudged back to the courtyard, returning some minutes later accompanied by the oddest lady any of King Arthur’s court had ever seen.
In that beautiful hall with its gilded fittings and brilliantly-colored tapestries, a hall peopled with knights and courtiers in their full silken holiday splendor and furnished with a singularly excellent feast, the visitor appeared like a ghost from another world.
When Arthur Pendragon was king of England and held his court at Camelot, that court was magnificent in peace and noble in war. A man who understood that age once said that then, men did not, except for necessity, go about in shapeless sacks of cloth, and drab was not a favorite color.
Yet the visitor, while long enough of hair and feminine enough of build to make confusion difficult, wore an overlarge man’s tunic and breeches in dull brown, and high leather boots as if she had journeyed far over rough roads, where beauty would be more a liability than an asset. Sir Gaheris hid a smile, recalling his wife Lynet’s first appearance at court, similarly garbed.
Like Lynet, this lady turned slowly about, eyes slightly narrowed, until she was facing King Arthur where he sat enthroned with his queen at the High Table on the dais. Unlike Lynet, she fell to her knees on the stone-flagged floor, holding out her hands to the king in pleading.
“Rise, lady,” King Arthur bade her gently. “What is your name and what would you have of me?”
Rising obediently to her feet, the lady replied, “My name matters little, for I do not come on my own behalf. I would ask your help, sire.” Gawain started when she spoke, and looked again at her, to see that she was little more than a child, certainly younger than Terence’s apparent seventeen years.
“On whose business come you, girl?” Queen Guinevere asked curiously.
“On that of my country, your majesties, knights of the Round Table. We are in sore peril. The pagans flood past our borders every day, and we are bound into unjust treaties with other lands, treaties that lay a heavy burden on the people and have near bled dry our exchequer. The land is given over almost entirely to unnatural customs: children pour poison into their veins, infants are slaughtered with no demur, and all kinds of loathsome perversions are lauded and lawful. God’s holy church is weak, and splintered into factions, and His priests are few and little respected. This is the plight of my country, sire.”
Sir Kay leaned forward across the table, fingers interlaced on the white linen cloth. “Can not your king remedy even such dire straits as these?”
Desperately, the girl turned to him. “Our ruler is old, and the power of the crown is rotted away like a twist of silk thread by a horde of advisors, some wicked, some merely foolish, a very few good.”
She saw Sir Gawain next to Kay, and her flashing eyes met his. “They say you are called Sir Gawain the Maiden’s Knight. Listen to a maiden’s plea: join your prayers to mine. My lord King Arthur,” she cried in a ringing voice that echoed throughout the stone hall, “I have asked help of Charlemagne and of Alfred, of Robert the Bruce and of the High King at Tara. You are the last of the heroic Christian kings. You are our last hope. I beg you to come: my people will listen to King Arthur Pendragon when they will hear none other. If you will not come yourself, at least send one of your knights.”
Gawain was the first to his feet. “Send me, Uncle! To bring healing to a sick land – this is a noble quest indeed.”
“Wait.” In a voice so low all had to strain their ears to hear the king’s words, Arthur asked, “Damsel, whence do you come to ask my help in this matter?”
“From England, sire.”
And there was silence in the court of Camelot.