Chapter 14: Juggle

Chapter 13 - The Juggling Act

The Knights with No Lords
Chapter 14: The Juggling Act
By Rock Kitaro

The Port of Talons was an inlet harbor shaped like a horseshoe. Ancient walls of limestone stretched up over a hundred feet to conceal its presence from most of the coast. Saltwater entered and passed through its only access-way beneath high arching bridges that connected two colossal cliffs. This strategic seaport was closed to the public, reserved for the purpose of the palace, for receiving and leaving.

Over five-hundred ironclad soldiers had assembled, dotted on the rocky hills that sloped down like an amphitheater. There was a glazing mist. It moved, making the air grainy and tangible to touch. The fog was so dense that no one could see beyond the gap of the two cliffs. It was as if the world simply ended after the gate.

No one made a sound. Save for the seagulls and gushing waves, no one so much as cleared their throats. Everyone had the same grim expression as if they were standing on the front lines of battle. The only one smiling was an eager Princess Isolde, glowing in her white dress and braided blonde hair. As she stood by King Mark’s side, her heart racing with anticipation. She’d been fantasizing about this moment for quite some time.

The Lord Chamberlain, Sir Cador, made it clear that everyone was to be on their best behavior. Anyone accused of shouting or so much as coughing risked getting their teeth knocked out by a fist full of chains. On this, Sir Cador promised to show no mercy.

The Cornish rallied behind King Mark, Sir Ekner, and Tristan, all daunting in black and gold with their banners flapping high in the wind.

The Lothians stood behind King Lot and Queen Morgaus, all coordinated in silver and green, save for Morgaus who insisted on her favorite color of purple.

Gawain was with the Lothians higher up on the hill. Agravain and Gaheris stood his side. The brothers watched in awe as a gigantic ship with seven green sails of dragon wings suddenly took form and emerged from the fog. The dread was sudden and immense. Gawain knew it was the queen’s ship. He’s seen it a dozen times, but never in action. He never thought such a massive ship was capable of moving, let alone float. It was larger than most of the banquet halls, yet it seemed to slide across the water so smoothly that the crests of its wake rolled like silk.

On the other side of the inlet, Morgan sat on her horse from a high precipice. She overlooked the scene dressed like the grim reaper the way her hooded black cloak shredded in the wind. She wasn’t impressed with the ship. She expected nothing less. It was the throbbing in Gawain’s heart that made her purple eyes glower with growing intensity. From two hundred yards out, she could sense the sweltering heat from his tight fisted trepidation.

The ship came to a gentle wood-creeking halt as workers tied the mooring lines ashore. An unloading platform extended from the ship to the dock. Once it was fastened in place, loud horns blared from the trumpeters. It was a jaunty tune, certainly bringing life to the macabre faces on the hills. And when Princess Isolde spotted Sir Ewangish, she nearly jumped with glee. Sir Ewangish was the same weathered knight who accompanied her to the Picts. He was relieved.

Sir Ewangish was the first to disembark, followed by twenty of the queen’s guards. The Hibernians wore dark intimidating green and black armor and carried long pikes that were sharp enough to pierce chainmail. They marched in a double-file formation, stomping in perfect unison, clanking to create a synchronized cadence of rattling steel. The two lines stopped in front of King Mark.

Ewangish signaled to the ship. The horns stopped blaring.

In its place were soft angelic voices that blended and lifted up to the heavens. Their Latin song was so pleasant, so clean and pure. It alleviated the tension and imbued a subtle breath of optimism. Three girls approached the rails high up on the ship. They held hands and kept singing as they looked down on gawking eyes. They carried and extended their falsettos in ways no one had ever heard. The spellbinding emotion invoked by their voices was truly indescribable. They were the queen’s beloved songbirds. Her treasure.

Then, like an elegant swan spreading her wings, the queen herself approached the platform. She was known far and wide as the “Emerald Queen” and it was for good measure. Even as she neared sixty in age, there wasn’t a single crack in her exquisite visage. Her long flowing hair was so devoid of any pigmentation that it appeared pale green, the same shade as her peridot eyes and the waters that flowed through the inlet. Her long velvety gown was forest green and there was the soft fur of a beaver draping her shoulders.

Holding her steady was her current lover and the captain of the guards, Sir Maven. A handsome knight, less than half her age, but an avid swordsman and one she trusted with her security. The entire assembly watched as Queen Iseult walked down the platform with delicate caution. Then, in a jarring juxtaposition, the divine portrait of a majestic queen was ruined when a seven-foot titan of a warrior reared his ugly head.

This wasn’t an exaggeration. Little children had every right to fear Morholt the Destroyer. He appeared to be chiseled straight out of a huge slab of bronze. No shirt or cloak concealed his massive chest. His dense muscular frame was oily and dark as if he had bathed in front of a furnace. Thick veins protruded from his rock hard biceps like strands of copper coiling his arms.

All he wore was a loincloth of brown bear fur. His thick leather boots reached up to his knees. In his hand was a giant ax of wicked design. The ax head itself had an intimating ten-inch extension at the top with a crescent curve like a Saracen sword. It weighed over 300 pounds but Morholt held it by the tips of his fingers as if he was carrying an ordinary hammer.

His face was hideous. The way his head seemed to mesh with the muscles of his shoulders, it was as if he had no neck. Morholt was bald and his default expression was disgruntled. The grapefruit texture of his cheeks was enough to make anyone vomit and he was always sweating.

Perhaps the most alarming feature was the Omega symbol branded over the entire span of his face. The Omega was a theatrical omen Morholt used to forecast his impending doom. Queen Iseult considered this a token of mercy. Her enemies either submitted or evacuated. Only the foolish stuck around to put up a fight.

When he disembarked, the entire ship rose an inch. The platform’s wooden planks cracked with each step he took. A deep hollow groan emanated from his throat as this behemoth scanned the armored souls ashore. In his eyes, no one seemed to pose a threat. It was disappointing.

As soon as Iseult was within distance, Isolde burst forth to wrap her mother in a warm hug. Tristan shot King Mark a look of caution, but Mark shook his head, silently begging his protégé to be nice. King Lot and Queen Morgaus approached with Morgaus starring daggers at the woman who held her eldest son captive. Sensing the suspense, the black-bearded Mark hastily stepped forward and kneeled.

“Most revered conqueror and queen of all Hibernia, we welcome you to these sacred grounds,” said King Mark.

Tristan begrudgingly followed his king’s example. At once, a wave of men in black and gold dropped to one knee and bowed before the Hibernians. King Lot feared the wrath of his wife, but mustered the courage to do the same. At once, a wave of men in green and silver dropped to one knee and bowed before the Hibernians.

Only four souls remained standing in defiance. One was Queen Morgaus, standing a mere fifteen feet away from Iseult. The others were Gawain and his brothers. Regardless, Queen Iseult seemed satisfied.

“You do me much honor, King Mark,” Queen Iseult nodded in curtsy.

“They were kind to me, mother. We are all good friends now,” said Princess Isolde.

“Friend…” Morholt scoffed, his voice deep and heavy.

The princess turned and wagged his finger at the behemoth. Unlike other men, Morholt wasn’t easily seduced by Isolde’s charm. He simply stared at her finger and if she had wagged it a second longer, she knew he would have bit.

“I thank you for showing my daughter such hospitality,” said Queen Iseult.

“The hospitality is yours. All of Tintagel welcomes you.” Mark assured her.

The queen smirked, “I confess, I was a bit surprised to receive an olive branch instead of an ultimatum. I suppose we can set aside our differences, our prior transgressions. All these years of war and strife and for what? Perhaps it is time we all look to more civilized means. To sustain life instead of ending it.”

“It does my heart good to hear you say that. Indeed it does, your highness,” Mark nodded with relief.

There were at least two individuals who didn’t share their optimism. Tristan and Morholt had recognized one another and immediately sized each other up. Morholt knew it was Tristan who defeated Gorcus and Tristan could never forget that it was Morholt who killed his parents. They were mortal enemies. With menacing stares, both men issued the same esoteric threat, “…soon…”

“Allow me to introduce one my most trusted friends, King Lot of Lothian and Orkney.” Mark said, pulling Lot close.

The tall, lanky King Lot approached with a timid smile.

“This is Lot? I’ve heard much of him. Much younger than I expected. It’s an impressive feat to rule two lands, separated by land and sea. And somehow he’s managed to maintain a pact with the Romans. Truly unbelievable,” Iseult said.

“Yes. It is a juggling act to say the least,” Lot chuckled.

“Ah yes. Do forgive me. Had I known young Gawain was one of yours I swear I would’ve ransomed him years ago. As a courtesy from one house to another,” said Isolde.

Morgaus’s mouth gaped open with ire. Lot quickly stepped to block her from view. “You’re most kind, your grace.”

As the royals continued their pleasantries, Gawain searched from the Hibernians to the massive frigate they arrived on. Something was troubling. Someone was missing.

“Three of you…”

A creepy whisper crawled over his shoulders and sent chills down his spine. Instincts kicked in. At once, Gawain, Gaheris, and Agravain whipped around and drew their weapons. Gawain unsheathed his katana. Agravain twirled his twin broadswords and Gaheris stretched his bow.

Algayre’s thin ghostly appearance was sudden and unexpected. Like ripples in a pond, the crowd of stunned soldiers turned and scurried back to give them space. The brothers remained hardened and poised, ready to take this villain down.

His eyes were entirely black like polished river stones. Everything about Algayre was long. His face. His legs. His torso. His beard. His bristly hair was the color of mud. There was a naked dagger tied to right side of his belt while a longer rapier was holstered to the left. He didn’t wear a tunic or a cloak, but only a thick black metal breastplate that covered his chest and spine.

He smiled. With a katana, two broadswords, and an arrow aimed as his face, Algayre found the brothers adorable, like puppies barking at a ravenous wolf.

“Algayre!” Morholt bellowed.

Algayre’s eyes widened. At once, his entire body replicated so that there were five of him standing shoulder to shoulder. Within seconds, all five faded and vanished into thin air. Gaheris and Agravain wondered where he went but Gawain already knew. Algayre was now standing behind Queen Iseult next to Morholt.

“Allow me to introduce,” Iseult said proudly. “A man who needs no introduction is my general, Morholt the Destroyer. To my left is Sir Maven, captain of my personal guard. And this bundle of sunshine is Algayre, a warlock if you still believe they exist. They will join us in negotiations. I’d feel much safer if they stayed with me in the castle.”

It was a troubling thought but King Mark acquiesced. “Your men are welcome.”

“I wonder.” Morgaus finally spoke up. “Is this the same Algayre who had innocent women and children burned at the stake?”

Lot’s face melted with dread. “Please excuse my wife. She knows not what she-”

“They were witches, milady,” Algayre said in a hollow whisper. “All devil worshipers deserve eternal damnation in flames.”

“You disagree?” Queen Iseult asked Morgaus.

“She does not disagree,” Lot insisted. “We only mean to convey-”

“They’ll be no burnings here!” Morgaus warned.

Queen Iseult chuckled. “And they call me scary.”

“Wait till you meet her sister,” Princess Isolde whispered clinging to her mother.

While King Mark was receiving visitors down at the seaport, the Duchess Igraine was tending to another unwanted guest. Sitting in the throne room, the duchess watched as a thirty-two year old knight with callous gray eyes grimaced at the sight of the Cornish banners.

This was Sir Claudas, a conniving warlord serving under High King Vortigern’s regime. News of the Lothian and Hibernians convening at Tintagel had reached the high king’s ears. Tintagel was one of the last few strongholds that stood in Voritgern’s way of complete dominance over all Britannia. Thus, he sent the inquisitive Sir Claudas to assess the situation. If Claudas detected even a hint of conspiracy, Vortigern would rally his entire force and lay siege.

The Lord Chamberlain, Sir Cador, tried to convince Claudas that the Hibernians had come to strike a peace treaty, not an alliance. Sir Claudas insisted on monitoring those negotiations. Sir Cador said no. Thus, they were at an impasse.

Metal clinked with each step. Sir Claudas’s armor was layered in sharp curves and moving plates as if nothing could penetrate it. He thought about kicking over the vacant chairs as he walked around the war table and all its grandure of legends carved into the surface. His eyes exuded a dark thirst for violence. Having been told no was infuriating enough, but now Sir Claudas was fighting the urge to strike first and simply lie about the events. It would be his word against theirs, assuming he left them alive to speak of it.

The duchess beseeched him, “Dear Claudas. Do understand. If the Hibernians find emissaries of King Vortigern in our castle the situation would escalate quickly. What more can we say to convince you? Tintagel is one of peace, not war.”

Claudas scoffed, “Of peace, she says. Then why are you still holding on to that weapon you call Tristan? Send him to my king and I assure you a covenant of unprecedented glory.”

“Milord, Tristan’s not yet a knight.” Sir Cador noted. “He has no desire to-”

“Desire!? My God, man. This truly has become a castle in the sky. Dreamers with your head in the clouds. Uther would roll over in his grave to see the wretched state of this.”

“And what do you know of my late husband?” Igraine said, deeply insulted.

“Only that he was your second late husband. I suspect Gorlois would have also rolled over in his grave,” Claudas smirked.

“You sir! Have gone too far!” Cador shouted.

Sir Claudas was about to say worse until the doors opened with a bass-heavy boom. Claudas and his six knights prepared to draw swords. With anticlimactic flair, Pellinore strolled in casually munching on an apple with loud crispy bites.

“What’s the meaning of this?” Claudas growled.

Even with Claudas ready to attack, Pellinore continued to take loud obnoxious bites. When juice dripped to his red scarf, Pellinore groaned and rolled his eyes with the utmost agitation. Sir Claudas’s eyes widened with rage.

He drew his sword and raised it high. Just as the blade began to sweep down, Pellinore quickly moved in and shouldered into Claudas’s chest. The warlord fell to his back with a bang.

The six knights charged Pellinore. But before they got too close, Pellinore turned and snarled, “HA!!!”

It was sudden and overpowering. His howl echoed off of the high vaulted ceilings. The six knights were unnerved. They continued to inch closer but were reluctant to strike.

“This? This is how you convince me of peace!?” Claudas shouted as he struggled to stand.

“This man is not a tenant. He’s a vagrant passing through. Nothing more,” Cador said, bringing a smirk to Igraine’s face.

The mad Claudas gripped his sword with both hands as he scrutinized the young man in black armor. Pellinore finished his apple, consuming the core and all. Then, he looked at the shorter Claudas through the corner of his scarred eye. They recognized each other from a time when, at one point, they fought under the same banners.

“Is that true? You’re just passing through?” Claudas asked.

“I’ll tell you what. Leave all your money on the table and bugger off. And honestly, lose the beard. It’s just not for you, mate,” Pellinore told him.

Claudas chuckled with high brows and turned to Duchess Igraine. He said:

“Fine. I’ll leave you to it. I’ll convey a message of non-hostility to my king. But heed this. Lot’s days are numbered! I know King Mark regards him as a brother but rest assured, King Lot must die. Him and your bastard grandchildren. And when the memory of Uther and Gorlois fades in the wind like the dust, well, I must say I like this castle. I’ll call it Terre Deserte. So fitting, I think.”

The proud Claudas was about to leave, but Pellinore blocked his path and matched his dark thirsting glare for violence.

“Shall I kill him?” Pellinore asked.

“NO! Let him pass!” Cador shouted with haste.

“You really should let me kill him,” Pellinore insisted.

“PELLINORE!” Cador thundered.

Pellinore spit down at Claudas’s shoes and stepped aside.

“Isn’t there enough royal blood on your blade?” Claudas whispered.

“Not for years,” Pellinore whispered back.

Claudas made his exit and prepared for his immediate departure. Igraine and Cador approached Pellinore.

“It’s a mistake letting him live,” Pellinore said as he crossed arms.

The Duchess Igraine put a hand on his shoulder and kissed his cheek. “One fire at a time, Pellinore. One fire at a time.”

That night, the vested members of Tintagel and Hibernia wasted little time in finding themselves at the deliberation table. The hearth burned well into the night

Both sides aired their grievances. There was a history lesson of broken pacts and failed leadership on the battlefield between both nations. King Mark listed the villages plundered and burned by Morholt, while Queen Iseult recalled the ships and convoys sacked and raided by Uther and Vortigern. Tintagel’s high priests were brought in for a prayer of mercy and forgiveness and after that, terms were addressed for a new treaty.

Queen Iseult wanted safe passage through the channel to trade goods with the Franks and Visigots. In return, she promised to return all of her foreign hostages to the Council of Gold Clovers. She also agreed to pay a monthly stipend based on the profit of maritime trade.

King Mark more or less wanted the same thing. He promised to help Queen Iseult regulate trade in the Celtic Sea, so long as she ceased the practice of pitting tribe against tribe. Above all else, peace and a promise never again to dole out punitive measures without consulting each other was paramount. It was the key to building a more stabilized civilization. To pull them out of the dark ages and usher in a new era of gallantry and honor. It was possible. They just needed to keep their oaths.

This brought them to their next conundrum. As was mentioned, pacts and treaties have been broken in the past. The trust wasn’t there. In this day in age, blood oaths and sacred pledges were about worthless storing fish in a hot summer. They needed something binding, some collateral, something that would inflict the same consequences on both houses should they break their oaths.

The solution was obvious. Everyone was thinking it. It was on the tips of everyone’s tongues but no one had the gumption to say it. In the end, after hours of intense deliberation, it was one of the priests who offered the proposal.

A marriage proposal.

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