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I was woken before the sun came up the next morning by a servant who brought me water to wash and a clean change of clothing that was not dirty from my travels. I had slept better than I expected to, most likely from mental exhaustion more than anything else, but I had slept the entire time in my dusty traveling clothes and I was glad of the chance to wash and change.
I had been given instructions the night before to report to the barracks where I would be staying from then on, to help Sir Gawain ready himself for the morning. I was unsure of whether I should bring him breakfast, but decided it best to ask him when I got there as I knew nothing of his habits or what he liked to eat.
I found his room and came upon him while he was sitting on the side of his bed, yawning and stretching, but he still spared me a grin as I came in. “Ah, young Mordred. I hope you are well rested after your travels. I am sorry that you are not yet a knight as you had hoped, but I will be glad to have you as my squire.”
“It is all right,” I told him, trying a smile back, rather unable to help myself in the presence of his contagious grin, but I was so out of practice. I had not smiled in years. “What shall I do for you first, sir?”
“First, you can call me Gawain or Sir Gawain in polite company, but nothing else,” he said with a grimace and I blushed slightly. “Second, you can fetch me a bowl of water to wash and find me something for breakfast. After that it’s out to the lists.”
I did as he asked and once he had eaten, insisting I eat with him, I helped him on with his armor and we headed out to the lists in a field outside the castle grounds where other knights could already be seen clanging away at each other with their swords, quarterstaffs, maces and flails, and all manor of weaponry. Some had their horses and were tilting against targets, while others were teaching their mounts maneuvers for battle.
My task, I found, was very simple, I was to stay on the sidelines with Sir Gawain’s various weaponry and wait until he called for a specific type. I watched him fight with the other knights, all of them laughing and jesting amongst each other in a happy brotherhood that I envied deeply. Not only that, but they were excellent fighters, and I saw easily why Sir Gawain was one of Arthur’s closest and most trusted companions. He fought with a grace that belied his size and seemed adequate in all forms of fighting and weaponry. It was a joy to watch him and the others fight, for while I knew a little of swordplay, which Lady Morgan had taught me from her vast knowledge, I had never seen men fight who really knew what they were doing. I found myself hoping, rather childishly, that Gawain would consider teaching me some of his skills.
At that moment he was fighting a man even bigger than himself, though younger, and I thought that it was possible he was even a student himself, though he could certainly fight me into the ground any day. Just watching the power behind the blows he and Gawain swung at each other—and this only practice—both frightened me and inspired awe.
By midmorning, Sir Gawain and his fighting partner called a draw and walked off the field, hardly even breathing heavily, and came over to me where I stood on the sidelines with a bucket of water for them to refresh themselves.
“This is my new squire Mordred,” Gawain presented me to his companion as he pulled the dipper out of the bucket and drank deeply. “Mordred, this is Sir Percival, another of Arthur’s circle.” I took that to mean they belonged to the rumored ‘Round Table’ which, according to what I had heard, was one of Arthur’s revolutionary ideas that he created to show that no one man was greater than another, for no one, not even the king, can sit at the head of a round table. I was curious to see this round table for myself.
“He’s a bit thin,” Sir Percival said, sounded almost worried for my welfare, and I supposed he would think so as he was a bear of a man, though likely only six years my senior at the most.
“We’ll build him up,” Gawain said, slapping my back so hard I was nearly thrown to my knees, though I tried hard to stay upright to prove Sir Percival wrong; that I was indeed strong despite my slender appearance. Gawain smiled a bit pityingly at me and patted my shoulder more gently as if to make up for his nearly sending me onto my face. “I shall begin your training this afternoon, Mordred. You shall learn swordplay and other knightly skills so that you will be ready when Arthur sees fit to knight you.”
“I would be most honored,” I said sincerely, and I found I was rather excited to have the chance of real training from a skilled knight. I also thought Sir Gawain would prove a good instructor, for he seemed to have unending patience and I didn’t think I would feel bad showing off my poor skills to him.
“We shall have a bit of lunch and then I want you to saddle my horse so I can practice for the upcoming tourney,” Gawain told me, handing back his shield and mace he had been using last. “Come then.”
We went back to barracks and ate in the common room with all the other knights and their squires. When I had finished, I left Gawain to finish his own meal and went out to the stables to start saddling his horse.
His mount was a lovely roan mare named Fenna and I couldn’t resist giving her the last bite of the apple I had brought with me from my midday meal. She seemed to take it as an offering of friendship, for she gave me no trouble when I pulled her out of the stall and saddled her up.
I was just finishing checking the girth to make sure she had not blown herself up like my horse tended to do sometimes, when a shadow darkened the doorway, and I turned, expecting to see Gawain, but finding instead, that three other knights had come into the stables. I was about to go back to my work, but they were staring at me and one, seeming to be the leader of the trio, gave me a sniff and curled his lip.
“Ah, what have we here? Sir Gawain’s new whelp? Surprised Arthur even let you in, boy, you’re so thin you look as if you could blow away.” He shoved me hard in the chest and I couldn’t stop myself from stumbling back a step, my back hitting a stall behind me.
The man paced around in from of me, like a great lord, or at least an actor impersonating one. He practically exuded self-importance, and his well-dressed manor as well as his dark, well-groomed hair and beard made it quite clear he was some sort of noble. Not of character, but by birth.
“He lets in strays and whelps who would become knights, but he casts away his best men under paltry accusations by foolish women who do not know any better, and couldn’t tell the truth if their lives depended upon it.” Had I know at that moment he had been referring to Queen Guinevere, I would have taken a shovel to him right then and there and been done with it, but I was not to learn the story of this man, who was to become my enemy, until later. However, I did not like to be pushed around, and I straightened my back and tugged my tunic down to unrumple it as I faced the strutting man.
“If you are indeed a knight, perhaps it would more become you to fight men, and not stray whelps,” I informed him cuttingly.
His companions glanced at each other as the man stopped his strutting and turned to face me, anger clouding his face and making him look even darker. “What did you say to me?” he asked quietly.
I was not stupid enough to repeat my accusation but I allowed a small thin-lipped smile to appear on my face. “You heard me, sir.”
“You would call me a coward?” the man said slowly, coming towards me in a threatening manor, his hand reaching out to grab a shovel that was leaning up against the wall. “I will teach you a lesson, boy, and I’ll use this to do it. No need to sully my sword on a yapping pup.”
He kicked me down into the hay and kept his boot pressed into my chest none-too-gently as he raised the shovel to beat me. I grabbed a handful of hay. I had learned little bits of magic from Lady Morgan before she had turned on me, and one of those things was how to start a fire. I might be able to distract him if I could concentrate enough to light the handful of hay. However, before I could do anything or he could start my ‘lesson’, a hand shot out and grabbed the haft of the shovel to stop it from descending on my prone form. I looked up with relief and not a little boyish adoration to see Sir Gawain standing there.
“That’s my squire, Lancelot, and if you hurt him, I swear I will ask Arthur to put you in the stocks naked for a day and see how your pride and misdirected dignity holds out then.”
The man, Lancelot, sneered but lowered the shovel, though that might have been mostly Gawain forcing it down. He continued to glare at the dark man—It was not often Gawain got angry, but when it happened, I had to admit it was a frightening sight—and Lancelot grudgingly took his boot off my chest, though not before grinding it against my ribs painfully. As soon as he was off me, Gawain shoved him backwards and reached down a hand to help me up, dusting hay off my hair and back for me.
“Are you all right, Mordred?” he asked.
“Yes,” I replied. I was mostly embarrassed. I had not even been able to defend myself against a man with a shovel. I had endured Morgan la Fay’s torments for so many years in silence and resignation, it appalled me to think that I hardly knew what it was to fight back anymore. I would have to re-learn those instincts from Gawain.
“You were lucky this time,” Gawain growled, turning back to Lancelot. “If there had been so much as one mark on the lad, I would have had to give you back as good and more. Now get out of here!” He instigated the final order with a kick to Lancelot’s backside that had him fuming but unable to refuse. His companions followed silently as always and Gawain turned back to me.
“Well, now you’ve met Sir Lancelot. He’s a sore fellow if ever there was one. Granted, he wasn’t any better before Arthur banned him from his circle, but he’s even more insufferable now.”
“What happened?” I asked. “Why was he banned?”
“Lancelot isn’t exactly what you’d call ‘knightly material’ apart from the fact that he’s by blood a noble, therefore he can’t be called a knave. That doesn’t stop him from having knavish qualities, however. About a month ago or so, he starting showing interest in the Queen, unwanted attention, and when Guinevere finally told Arthur, fearing she wouldn’t be able to keep him away, Arthur was so angry—with good reason—that he took away Lancelot’s privilege of sitting at the round table. He had made it there in the first place because of his skill with a sword, but Arthur knows that is no useful quality without a heart to match. Lancelot doesn’t know how lucky he was. King Uther would have had him executed, but Arthur just shut the door on him. Now that he’s only a low ranking knight, he likes to make trouble. Be careful around him, Mordred, because he has skill with a blade, as well as with a crop, and he will be more than happy to beat you given half the chance. No one lower than him is safe; he likes to take his anger at Arthur out on them.”
I nodded. “I will be.”
He smiled. “Ah well, but enough of that. You’ll learn soon enough your way around and who to avoid. I will train at the tilt for a while and then we can start on your own training.”
I followed him back out to the lists and watched him tilt on Fenna, hitting the target dead center every time and never getting knocked by the sandbags on their way round.
I enjoyed my training with him that afternoon, learning much more than I ever knew there was to learn about swordplay, and after a hearty supper, I fell gladly into my cot in the small room off of Gawain’s, pleasantly sore from the workout and bruises I had sustained, but feeling good for my day’s work.
However, I did not forget the darkness that hung over me, nor could I stop the ache that started in my heart as I was alone in the darkness, listening to Gawain’s soft snores from the next room. I felt the tears prick in my eyes again, knowing it was foolish of me to find any pleasure here, and to make friends, for I would only lose them all in the most cruel way in the end. But I again vowed to myself that I would fight Lady Morgan’s will, no matter what happened. But a tear escaped nonetheless and I squeezed my eyes tightly before I once again suffered the shame of crying myself to sleep.
©Copyright 2013 by Hazel B West
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