artwork created by WLOP for his online series.
The Knights with No Lords
Chapter 15 – Crush
By Rock Kitaro
“Yes. Is it truly so surprising?” Isolde chuckled. “Political marriages date back for centuries. You’ll probably be bound to one yourself someday. To keep the hounds at bay, the belligerents in line, a show of unity in which both factions have a vested interest for the sake of diplomacy. A preemptive strike to conflicts without the common side effect of bloodshed and mayhem. It’s ideal, really.”
It was a hazy day. The same as before, except it was getting colder as autumn said goodbye. Gawain and Princess Isolde were alone on the breezeway three stories up in the Western Ward. From their position they could see the training grounds below. There were more soldiers than usual. Apparently everyone had the same idea, to shake off their anxieties through the burn of rigorous exercise.
While Constantine and Gaheris practiced their archery, Pellinore and the Black Bloods displayed an unusual amount of goodwill as they volunteered to help train the more inexperienced soldiers in close-quarter combat. Over 300 men had separated into groups of eight and took turns in freestyle sparring sessions. The Black Bloods watched and pointed out flaws. Pellinore was the loudest. He yanked older men and screamed in their ears.
This went on for some time…until Agravain grew weary of his spit-flying insults.
Agravain charged Pellinore, determined to even the score from their last bout. Everyone stopped what they were doing and cheered them on. Even Toothless Kersey and the lancers took a break and brought their horses over. Pellinore was taking it easy on the fourteen-year-old at first, but more and more, Agravain gave him no choice but to clutch his claymore with both hands. It was amazing, like a choreographed dance of aggressive swings and silver flashes. Agravain was smirking. A flustered Pellinore was beginning to sweat.
“Like a damn jackrabbit!” grunted Pellinore. He was about to say more but Agravain was on him.
Isolde giggled before she realized Gawain was barely watching. His eyes were on the match but his sights were on the future.
“Yes?” Isolde said as she leaned into his shoulder.
“You say ideal but that would suggest…I dunno. I suppose you’re right. I just, I guess I never dreamed we’d reach a point where our houses could ever be joined as one.”
Isolde picked up on his skepticism and reacted with a twitch. “Because we devils are so treacherous and evil?”
“Forgive me but I do recall being enslaved and abused for a number of years. And that’s putting it lightly.”
“Yes and why do you think that is? You assume we have nothing better to do than lock you simple people up in chains? Don’t make me laugh. My father was murdered by pirates flying under your Tintagel banners. They sacked his ship and killed him and my uncle. I’ll never forget the sight of crows picking at their bodies. It was your people who forced my mother to take slaves and engage in wholesale annihilation. Or did you think our clans stayed loyal out of the goodness of their hearts, that they’d follow a woman into battle out of respect for my father or silly things like oaths and honor! No, Gawain. A ruthless show of force was necessary to keep my mother’s kingdom from falling apart. And yes! We’ve turned a profit by pitting warlord against warlord. But it’s more so to keep them occupied. If they’re too busy defending their own, they won’t think of invading ours.” Isolde declared with tears glossing over.
“I never knew,” Gawain uttered.
“Well of course you wouldn’t, my handsome little crow. Algayre and Morholt are vile creatures, sure. But you shouldn’t judge us by our worst. I bet they think we drink from the blood of goats and pass our children through fire out of sacrifice to some pagan god. You’ve sheltered with us for years. You of all people should know that we’re not so different, our houses. One could even argue that we’re equal but opposites. It’s all this blood for blood that needs to cease. Otherwise, we’re stuck on a perpetuating cycle, doomed to repeat the sins of our fathers for generations to come.”
Gawain smirked. “Who knew you gave so much thought.”
“We are heirs to the throne, you and I. The legacy of our kingdoms rests on our shoulders. Down there, they will never know what it’s like to make difficult decisions for the betterment of an entire nation of men, women, and children, to govern. They are free to live for the here and now while we are forced to sacrifice the present for a more prosperous future. A wise man once taught me that.”
“Merlin the Magician, back when I was a little child and too stupid to remember which dress to put on. For some reason, I never forgot those words,” Isolde said as she gazed off in the distance.
Pellinore and Agravain were still going at it. It was good to see everyone in good spirits. Gawain stood up to stretch out his back. He started smirking at the next subject he wanted to broach.
“So a marriage then. Given your history, I do wonder how well you’ll get along with Tristan.”
Isolde smirked and batted her long eyelashes. “You girl!”
“What?!” Gawain chuckled.
“If you want to know, just ask. I’m not Morgan. You don’t have to walk on eggshells around me,” Isolde assured him.
“Alright, fine. Do you want to marry Tristan?”
Isolde’s blue eyes widened with excitement as she stood up and arched her back against a stone pillar. And as she inhaled through the nose, moaning at the thought, she suddenly erupted with joyous laughter.
“He’s all I ever wanted!”
“WHAT?!” Gawain gasped with elated shock.
“Ever since I was sixteen, I started hearing stories about the Lion of Dumnonia. A handsome young man named Tristan, not even a knight, yet besting them all in nearly every tournament. They spoke of his blond hair, just like mine. The gravity of his beautiful blue eyes. I used to dream of what he’d look like and when I saw how he defeated Gorcus, oh my gosh…I wanted to ravish him right then and there.”
“God. I can’t listen to this,” said a face-palming Gawain as he started to walk away.
Isolde threw her arms around him. “I can’t wait to marry him, Gawain. I’ll give him all the children he wants. I’ll cook his meals. Bathe him. I’ll even polish his armor and all of his swords. Gawain, I mean all of them!”
“Stop!” Gawain begged.
“He’s the greatest man in the world! I won’t settle for anything less,” she giggled.
An amused Gawain wrestled free and turned to say, “For the sake of playing devil’s advocate, what if Tristan doesn’t feel the same way?”
“He will. I’ll have him or I’ll turn heaven and hell on end. I kid you not,” Isolde said with a fiery grin.
Gawain chuckled but it was an awkward one. The scary look in her eyes was unsettling. Just then, he caught site of a dark shadowy figure at the end of the breezeway. As soon as he focused his sight on it, the shadow darted away. Gawain bit his lower lip in agitation. He couldn’t tell if it was Morgan or Algayre. Either would’ve been bad news and all of it was annoying.
The sound of marching metal came coming from behind. Gawain turned to see Sir Ioness leading four guards. They came and bowed.
“Milady, Queen Iseult sends for you. The royal council has gathered in the throne room. They’re waiting.”
“This is it! I’m off!” Isolde giggled.
“You’re off!” Gawain repeated, happy to see her so excited.
As Gawain watched Sir Ioness escort down the hallway, that unnerving feeling crawled back under his collar. Again, he turned around and threw his sights on the other end of the breezeway. Algayre was there, watching attentively with those dark ghastly eyes. That toothy smile of his seemed to brag, as if he now knew some kind of secret about the prince. Gawain clenched his jaw and moved one hand over his katana.
A roaring ovation came from below. Agravain had managed to knock the claymore out of Pellinore’s hands. Everyone was congratulating the boy, but none more so than Pellinore himself as he carried the fourteen-year-old prodigy high on his shoulders. Gawain was surprised and proud. He wished he was down there. When he returned his sights to Algayre, Algayre was gone.
That night, there was a banquet where the Hibernians and Cornish broke bread in the great hall of the citadel. Queen Iseult’s songbirds sang their heavenly tune. Jesters danced and entertained with their toys. Conversation was lively and full of tranquility as the guests sat in the wide U-shaped arrangement of tables. Attendees appeared pleased but there was still a lingering tension among the guests, even with Morholt and Algayre absent as they elected to dine with their men outside the main keep.
The moody Morgan was present. She sat in-between her sisters, the brunette Morgaus and the blonde Elaine. As Queen Morgaus joked with King Lot and their Lothian knights, Elaine gossiped with her own ladies-in-waiting about the marriage rumors and how Tristan would hate to be chained to one woman.
Elaine didn’t seem to be wrong about her assumptions, because as Tristan was sitting next to Princess Isolde at King Mark’s table, he looked somewhat perturbed, more grim than usual. Gawain observed. It wasn’t just Tristan. Even Isolde appeared tragic and distressed. Something wasn’t right. The stark contrast from her earlier optimism put Gawain on high alert.
As he sat pretending to listen to his brothers, Gawain scrutinized everything. The way Tristan never took his eyes off of a burning candle. The way Isolde reached for her cup with trembling hands… It could have been that she was nervous about sitting next to the man of her dreams.
No, that didn’t seem right. Tristan and Isolde had spent plenty of time together. Gawain doubted a betrothal could have shaken her off her foundation so much. He’s seen her fight. He’s seen her kill. It wasn’t fear. And yet…her face was pale. Her blue eyes, dim. There was pain in her heart as if she was slowly withering away.
“I’ll tell you what though, that Queen Iseult looks something delicious. Let me tell ya.” Pellinore shouted with a goblet of wine.
A horrified Gawain nearly choked on his own saliva. Pellinore was too loud. They were a good distance away from the queen’s table, but still.
“Maybe. Were there fewer years between us,” Gaheris added.
The appalled look on Gawain’s face caused everyone to rip with laughter. Pellinore pointed at him and shouted, “Look at him! Look at him!”
“You know she’s well over sixty?” Gawain scolded.
“So?!” almost all the boys said in unison.
“Filthy bastards…” Gawain chuckled, issuing in another round of laughter.
As the lads continued to ogle over the emerald queen, Gawain felt the scathing gaze burning a hole in the side of his head from across the banquet hall. With a blatant look of annoyance, Gawain rolled his eyes and settled his sights on Morgan. She smirked. Wrapped in a lacy black dress, Morgan arched her back and let the milky white gleam of her supple breasts press up against her neckline. Normally, Gawain would melt over such seduction, but her suspicions as of late had worn thin on him.
He tilted his head and bounced his brows, conveying “What is it?”
Morgan raised a single brow and shook with innocence, conveying, “Whatever do you mean?”
After throwing a glance to see if his brothers were watching, Gawain flashed his palms, conveying, “Why do you keep watching me?!”
She simply batted her lashes and tightened her lips to convey, “Problem?”
Gawain and Morgan were locked in a stare down like two hawks that had their talons clasped on the same prey. Suddenly, the high-pitched crystal tapping silenced the banquet. All eyes were directed to Queen Iseult who was prepared to make an announcement.
“Ladies and gentlemen. I’d like to commend King Mark for the remarkable hospitality. I see now how truly committed he is to a lasting peace and friendship between our two kingdoms! To peace!”
“TO PEACE!” Everyone repeated with a round of applause.
Tristan and Isolde were the only ones not clapping.
Queen Iseult continued with, “To usher in this new era of harmony from a world where men live and die on the battlefield, it is with great pleasure that I announce a wedding ceremony!”
Elaine exploded with a cheer, but it was premature. Everyone was still listening in silence, thus her giggling ladies-in-waiting had to restrain her.
Iseult continued, “In three days’ time, we will join our houses in holy matrimony. It is with great pleasure that I now announce the betrothal of my beautiful daughter, Princess Isolde and the great King Mark of Tintagel!”
The hall erupted. But for Gawain…there was a deafening silence ringing through his ears. His mouth slacked open but he wasn’t breathing. Pellinore and the Black Bloods were knocking on the table as they happily cheered for the bride and groom. King Lot and Queen Morgaus rushed from their seats to come over and personally congratulate King Mark who was blushing with pure delight.
With tears welling in his eyes, Gawain painfully looked to Princess Isolde. The poor girl was devastated.
Tristan was also sulking, but Gawain’s indignation brewed as he presumed the reason for his disappointment. Tristan still harbored resentment toward the Hibernians and saw King Mark’s marriage to one as a deep sense of betrayal. So badly, Gawain wanted to storm over and yank him up by the scruff of the neck.
Everyone else was zealously happy. Celebration consumed the hall with no sign of abating. Only Gawain, Tristan, and Isolde were hollow and empty. King Mark took the tortured princess by the hand and paraded her around the tables. Isolde smiled and curtsied but there was no one inside. It was all routine, rehearsed, and instinctive.
The fiddles began to play and one-by-one, couples joined King Mark and Isolde on the floor. Queen Iseult and her lover Sir Maven showed their flare with graceful spins and twirls. Gaheris danced cautiously with the twin daughters of Sir Ioness as the burly knight supervised his every step. Pellinore had one of Elaine’s ladies-in-waiting while Elaine herself had chased down Agravain to get him to dance. And last but not least, King Lot was overly affectionate as he dazzled an inebriated Queen Morgaus.
Gawain circled the dance floor from the shadows with a stone face. He wanted to club Tristan in the back of the head with a scroll. He wanted to pull King Mark aside for “a word” and reveal the princess’s true desire. As Gawain crossed arms and leaned against one of the columns, his eyelids closed heavy with anger and despair. A single tear rolled down his cheek.
“Thought you’d be happy. It’s for the good of the country,” Morgan whispered over his shoulders.
“Away with you. I’m in no mood.”
“So you do love her. You need not deny it. I see it, the world shattering all around you. What will the righteous one do now? Now that his dearly beloved is promised to someone else?”
Gawain turned with an emotional glare. He cringed and clenched, restraining every muscle from reaching out and shaking some sense into her.
“What happened to you? Honestly, at what point did you become so heartless?” He asked.
Morgan pointed at Isolde and stepped closer with a snarl. “That cur is the devil! Unlike you, I am not blinded by lust to see her for what she truly is. If push comes to shove, she will cast you in the fire to get what she wants. She will stomp over your bloated body to reach her prize. Yet you stand here weeping like a naïve child. For her! How do you think that makes me feel? What am I supposed to think?!”
“Right now, I don’t give a damn. Honestly, I don’t.”
Morgan shoved him. The back of his head hit the stone column. He immediately bounced forward and stepped so close that the air from his nostrils caused her bangs to flutter. Their cheeks quivered with rage like two territorial cats about to lash out.
Then, cutting through their tension was a high-pitched whimper. Gawain’s eyes darted to his left. Isolde was covering her mouth as she bowed to King Mark and the guests. Her face was flushed red with an outpour of emotions as she forced a smile and excused herself. The princess cut through the crowd, rushing for the exit. Gawain was about to follow but Morgan blocked his path.
“No. No! You will not go!” Morgan growled.
“Out of my way!”
“She doesn’t love you, you idiot! Why can’t you see that?”
“I don’t care!” Gawain shouted.
Gawain finally juked from Morgan but she grabbed the cuff of his wrist and pulled on his shirt. “Tell me! Tell what happened? Why do care so much. Tell me!” Morgan screamed.
By now, she was making a scene. Eyes were looking over. All they caught was Morgan ripping a sleeve off of Gawain’s shirt and Gawain sprinting for the exit. Morgan used the cloth to cover her embarrassment as she faded to the shadows. The Lady Elaine quickly took control of the situation by whisking King Mark by his hand and spinning him around. Everyone applauded the king’s effort to keep up with Elaine and the dancing resumed.
Princess Isolde was hobbling down the torch-lit hallways when she heard the fast steps of someone sprinting after her. As soon as she saw it was Gawain, Isolde released a heart-wrenching whimper and submitted. Oh how she sobbed and wept, Gawain along with her. He held her tight and kept her from falling.
“Oh, Gawain! Kill me now!”
“Shssh. Come on. Don’t talk like that. It’ll be alright. King Mark’s the kindest man I’ve ever known,” Gawain said as he carried her closer to the wall.
“Why me! It’s not fair. Someone else will marry Tristan while I’m stuck with that hairy old ox. It’s not fair, Gawain! Oh god, help me!”
Gawain was at a loss for words. He closed his eyes and seethed at his own inability to help her.
A vindictive Morgan watched from just outside the banquet doors fifty paces away. Her fists were balled. One of them coiled tightly around Gawain’s ripped sleeve. The angry tears on her face glistened in the torchlight but she didn’t blink, not once. It was a murderous stare. The kind that was ready to chew through somebody’s neck if no weapons were present. An ire that feared nothing.
Perhaps that’s why she wasn’t afraid when she felt the presence of Algayre fading in from the shadows behind her. Slowly, she looked over her left shoulder and there he was, smiling that creepy, wide, toothy smile, with those bleak marble eyes. Morgan squinted at the warlock.
“It’s in your best interest to disappear and stay vanished,” Morgan said in a dark shaky whisper.
Algayre put a hand where his heart should be and bowed. “As you wish, milady.” Just like before, Algayre replicated into five images and faded in thin air.
Morgan scoffed, rolling her eyes. She scowled at Gawain and the wailing princess. “Your days are numbered. All of you.”