The Knights with No Lords
Chapter 2: The Lion of Dumnonia
By Rock Kitaro
Susumu HIrasawa – “Aria”
“YOU, SIR, ARE A COWARD!”
“I DARE YOU TO SAY THAT AGAIN!”
“EVERYONE SIT DOWN! NOW!”
“YOU CAN’T REASON WITH THESE MEN! THEY’RE NO BETTER THAN ANTS WITHOUT A CAUSE!”
“I GOT YOUR CAUSE!”
All class and decorum went out the window hours ago. Spit flew from beards and bugling eyes looked like they were about to pop out of their skulls. Ambassadors from over thirty volatile kingdoms had convened at Tintagel Castle. It was the final week of August. For eight years, this “Council of Gold Clovers” congregated in an annual attempt to resolve differences with diplomacy. With the honorable King Mark presiding, the initiative was supposed to spark hope for a greater future.
However, as of late, the council had turned into nothing less than a competition of who could talk the loudest. Empty words and false promises were passed out like playing cards in a pub. Their resolutions were always unrealistic and there was a running joke that the only reason why people kept coming back was to gorge themselves on the food.
The throne room was large enough to shelter an army of 2,000, yet for some reason it felt congested. Over 150 disgruntled knights, barons, and chancellors had broken from their assigned tables and were now separated in conspiring huddles as if anarchy was in the works.
The day started with everyone dressed in their second-best suits, but by noon, they all looked like sweaty peasants from having stripped off their outer garments. Collars and capes of all colors were discarded like dismantled decorations. Spilt wine lined cracks of the floor. Daggers were driven through tables. It was as if a tornado had ripped through the room and the look on King Mark’s face was priceless.
Mark, the King of Tintagel, just sat there on his gold throne with his head held up by his fists. The black banners hanging above his dais displayed the sigil of fifteen gold coins in an upside-down triangle.
Four knights in full metal armor stood behind the king with their hands resting on the pommel of massive swords. Sixteen servants waited in the wings, ready to tend to the king’s every need. Unfortunately, what the king really needed was some sense of civility, not these animals looking to exert their dominance.
In spite of his position and the veneration bestowed upon him, King Mark’s appearance was far from impressive. He was nearing fifty, shorter than most with a potbelly, bristly hair, and a thick black beard that concealed whether he was smiling or not. Perhaps King Mark’s most endearing feature was his sympathetic gray eyes. He was relatively soft-spoken and hardly yelled, even on the battlefield.
To his left was an empty chair reserved for his wife. However, the queen passed away decades ago and King Mark had yet to remarry. The chair to his right was occupied by the Lord Chamberlain, Sir Cador, a no-nonsense taskmaster. Cador was also Duchess Igraine’s cousin by blood and a strict but doting father to the sixteen-year-old Constantine.
The bickering was unbecoming but everyone knew the topic of discussion would produce such reactions. The main grievance on the tip of everyone’s tongue was the ceaseless terror by the Hibernians.
Unlike Britannia, which was fractious and split with a myriad of formidable warlords, Hibernia was a singular powerhouse of unified clans just beyond the Celtic Sea. It was home to some of the deadliest warriors the world has ever seen. She was a seafaring nation, ruled by a matriarch whose fame and reputation was almost revered and worshiped as the pharaohs of old.
Her name was Iseult, Queen of Hibernia. She benefited from the division and strife amongst the British, fighting for the kingdoms that paid the most. In her web of lies, Iseult orchestrated a number of political murders and framed rival generals, effectively pitting them against each other like pawns on a chessboard. The blood money was steady revenue that made Queen Iseult one of the wealthiest women in the world. She’d promise loyalty and discretion but at heart, the Hibernians were loyal only to Hibernia.
During Iseult’s near thirty-year reign, Cornwall has remained Hibernia’s main rival. Back in the day, King Mark had some powerful allies on his side. Big names like High King Uther, Duke Gorlois, King Leodegrance and even the sorcerer Merlin. But due to a series of unfortunate events, Duke Gorlois was murdered, Uther died, Merlin parted ways, and Leodegrance had to defend own kingdom against legions from an usurping King Vortigern.
Hoping to capitalize on the chaos, Queen Iseult launched a massive siege upon Tintagel Castle. King Mark prevailed in his defense but it cost him dearly. Two thirds of his army was devastated and thousands of villagers loss their homes in the crossfire.
That was nearly sixteen years ago. Queen Iseult’s hatred never faded. Systematically, she’d send hunters across the sea to kidnap sons and daughters from indiscriminate villages. They were brought back to Hibernia and forced to slave labor.
Bereaved parents fell to their hands and knees begging the courts to do something, anything to bring back their children. It was a reoccurring nightmare. To date, all sixteen rescue attempts were crushed at sea. The one vessel that managed to reach Hibernia’s shores fell prey to a massacre that was so barbaric it was omitted from the scrolls.
Thus, the Council of Gold Clovers debated. They argued. They pointed fingers and accused one another of cowardice.
“Are your knights not brave enough?”
“Where’s your courage?”
“Where were you when my daughter was swept off in the night!?”
“I dare you to say that again!”
“You sir, have no class!”
“To hell with you and your antiquated, highborn sensibilities!”
“Let’s see your tongue wag after I’ve split it with my ax!”
“I have five arrows thirsting for your blood!”
“Don’t tempt me!”
“LET’S HAVE IT!”
It was all the same with no end in sight. Duke Guinea slammed his fist on the table every time he felt someone was “missing the point.” The loud bang caused Sir Cador’s shoulders to jerk forward like a pit bull on a leash. King Mark would notice and smirk. The mild amusement was about the only perk King Mark derived from the meetings.
An unexpected knock began to crawl over the overlapping conversations. Initially, no one heard it but its persistence began to annoy the competing speakers. The double doors croaked open.
To the king, Morgan was a sight for sore eyes. As soon as he spotted her in that cotton pink dress he was immediately filled with joy. The cluster of old men glowered down at her as she weaved her way to the throne. She wanted to present herself as a young lady should, humble and modest. But no matter what, she couldn’t stop herself grimacing at the nauseating stench of wine and sweat.
Following the short brunette was the majestic silver-haired duchess. Igraine was wearing a satin blue dinner gown with an exquisite fur capelet. Her two nuns followed with their chins tucked and their eyes closed as if they relied solely on the clicks of Igraine’s heels to stay close. Gradually, everyone brought their discussions to an end and stood in awe.
With a sweet smile, Igraine seemed to glide across the floor until she was obstructed by rows of men kneeling before her. Some would later swear that they saw angels carrying her forth when it was really just their imagination.
Morgan had already reached the king when she turned around in disgust to see everyone fawning over her mother. King Mark couldn’t help but chuckle.
“Morgan, you are a treasure,” the king told her.
Morgan was relieved to hear him say that. She threw herself at his feet and kissed his hands, begging forgiveness for the intrusion. King Mark laughed and took her by the shoulders.
“Now, now. None of that. Come. What brings you? What tidings, they say.”
“It had better be good,” Sir Cador grumbled.
The king shushed his chamberlain but Sir Cador had good reason to be cynical. He was Constantine’s father after all. Constantine and Morgan had known each other since they were toddlers and Sir Cador knew his boy wasn’t half as creative enough to come up with the mischief by which he accused his cousin.
Morgan waited. She wanted her mother to be there but the men continued to delay the duchess with waves of salutations. Alas, it was Cornwall’s very own elderly Sir Ekner who took the duchess by the hand and escorted her over.
“Speak,” Mark encouraged.
All eyes were on Morgan and the anxiety swelled. But after Igraine gave her a strengthening nod of approval, Morgan stood up straight and tried her best to project sincerity.
“Oh good and most gracious king of all Dumnonia. I humbly ask of you to grant me a wish of…”
“Come now, Morgan. There’s no need for such formalities. Please, speak to me as you would any other man,” King Mark told her.
“Right,” Morgan said as her heart rate increased. “Your majesty! I’ve had a vision. The Hibernians are back on British soil! And not only is a princess with them but they have Gawain. Oh kind and generous king, I ask that you send an emissary north. Let us save him!”
“Kack! Another vision is it?” Sir Cador barked.
“She’s quite serious,” Igraine quickly spoke up. “We’ve long since realized Morgana is capable of wondrous works. It’s why we sent her to Lake Avalon. To harness her magic so the magic does not harness her. My king, can’t we spare but a few scouts to see if her claims are true?”
“No. We can’t.”
The voice of resounding authority came from the other side of the throne room. Morgan’s heart sank at the sound of it. The thorn in her side, the chink in her armor, the one who always had to come in and foil all of her plans. Obstacle had a name and his name was Tristan.
Tristan led a party of five strapping young men in V-shape formation. Their marching boots clapped the floor in unison. Cheers and random applause sparked up among the guests as they welcomed the heroes home.
At the ripe age of twenty-three, Tristan was the Champion of Cornwall, King Mark’s nephew, and the heir apparent to the throne of Tintagel. He was called the Lion of Dumnonia for good reason. Tristan had long stringy hair the color of sand, braided in various places that reached the back of his neck. His body was tan and chiseled like an Olympic wrestler. A long sword was strapped to his belt. His incredible strength was self-evident from the ripples in his back, the way his shoulders were always hunched up as if he had just finished manhandling a bull by its horns.
His beard was so blond it was almost imperceptible. Even though he was widely regarded as handsome, there was a cold stillness in his eerie blue eyes that scared away ladies who got too close. They appeared devoid of any joy or human emotion. It was an empty gaze that revealed a wretched youth, the kind that witnessed way too much death, too many tragedies to feel warmth or happiness about anything.
Following Tristan was his childhood friend Bruno, a commoner with a stout heart and a sharp ax. The five warriors had just returned from fighting off a horde of goblins. It was a taxing battle and Tristan wasn’t in a mood to go look for another. He approached and towered over Morgan with those callous unmoving eyes. She glared up at him in mutual contempt.
“Tell me something, Morgan. Exactly how many visions have you had since the day they took Gawain? Ten? Fifty? A hundred?” Tristan questioned loud enough for everyone to hear.
“You’re mocking me?” Morgan warned with a scary grin.
“Reminding you,” Tristan said sternly. “I’m not about to send men off on a fool’s errand every time you cry wolf.”
“If it wasn’t for me crying wolf, your Bruno would’ve been swallowed by a leviathan last summer. Speaking of reminders, last time I checked, someone tried to poison you at King Lot’s tournament. Remind me! Who dropped everything to run over and slap the goblet from your ungrateful lips? Please. By all means, remind me. Don’t worry. I’ll wait.”
“Spare me, Morgan. As if you had anything to drop in the first place?” Tristan quipped.
At the nearest table, Duke Stewart of Glam leaned closer to Jonah the Baron of Mon.
“Who is this Gawain they speak of?” Duke Stewart asked.
“Ah yes. I forget this is your first time at council. If I’m not mistaken, Gawain is the Duchess Igraine’s grandson. Although, from what I hear, the boy’s not related to any of them. Not by blood. Gawain and his brothers were adopted when they were still toddlers,” Jonah explained.
“Ah. That makes sense. With so many heirs falling in battle its almost becoming custom to pluck fruit from the vineyards of peasants. And what became of this Gawain?” Duke Stewart asked.
“Queen Iseult became of him. About four years ago Gawain was abducted and taken to Hibernia. Apparently Morgana, the young spitfire there, she and Gawain were playmates. Although if you were to see her now with uneducated eyes, one might assume they were something more than just friends,” Jonah whispered, smirking at the thought.
Duke Stewart chuckled. “Oh you! You have a devilish tongue, you do.”
Morgan overheard their cackling and assumed it was at her expense. She looked around. Everyone was whispering about her, all of them with the same mocking leer.
Tristan continued with, “Right now the lands are unstable, lawlessness abounds, and barbarians have taken to the woods. To venture north means crossing into enemy territory, specifically those ugly goat lovers, Hengists and Horsa. They’ll gobble up a plump little egg like you for breakfast. That not withstanding, I’ll not risk the lives of my men based on the whims of a mistempered brat playing at alchemy!”
His words burned like an iron searing into her chest. Everyone heard Tristan and it was humiliating. She did everything in her power to fight off a panic attack but she was paralyzed in place. She couldn’t tell if her eyes were sweating or crying but they stung and she couldn’t blink.
Tristan jerked his cocky chin and grinned, “Anything else?”
“You unimaginable bastard!” Morgan snarled.
“Morgan, please…calm,” Igraine said as she hurried to separate them.
“Your men? YOUR MEN!” Morgan roared. “Who do you think you are, Tristan?! Forgive me but at what point did the king make you lord over all the light touches?”
“I’m the Champion of Cornwall!” Tristan shouted back. “For king and country the soldiers listen to me because I lead by example. They trust me with their lives!”
“Okay, Morgan.” said an uneasy Igraine. “We’ve said our peace. It is out of our hands. We must obey their wishes.”
Morgan spit on Tristan’s boots and asserted, “I only obey the king! Not his lapdogs!”
Tristan’s eyes widened with rage as he whipped off his glove and came close to slapping it across Morgan’s cheek. King Mark stepped in.
“Morgan. Forgive me but Tristan is right. I promise if we receive word of Gawain’s resurfacing we will send a legion…”
Morgan didn’t wait for King Mark to finish. She closed her eyes and started walking. Tristan clapped his hands and started laughing. Everyone joined him.
Morgan’s scowl intensified. In every direction, the mob of sneering old men filled her sights, their hairy faces, so mean and contrite. Their boisterous laughter echoed off the high vaulted ceilings, downing out her mother’s vain attempts to console her. Morgan’s lips quivered and she refused to wipe the tears trailing down her cheeks. Save for her mother or King Mark, no one felt bad or sorry for her. In their eyes, the humiliation was much deserved. In Morgan’s eyes, they were all a bunch of giggling hounds who were begging to be put down.
“Insolence! You’ll never change!” Tristan laughed out loud.
“I WON’T FORGET THIS!” Morgan screamed.
“I’m shaking in my boots, Morgan!”