The Knights with No Lords
Chapter 22 – Weighed Down
By Rock Kitaro
White lightning stretched like veins across the night as a single rider stormed over the hills. His cape rustled violently in the wind. He coiled the reins and held on tight as the hooves of his warhorse pounded the earth.
The darkness, he did not fear. Being thrown from his horse, he did not fear. Even when he was skirting the edge of a bluff with a fifty-foot drop, Gawain was not afraid. He throttled his horse and spurred harder, faster. Time was of the essence, but more than that, the danger, the adrenaline coursing through his body was like morphine to the anxiety of self-loathing sorrow.
After riding for nearly two hours, Gawain arrived at the southern coast. St. Michael’s Mount appeared as a black iceberg floating five hundred yards off shore. It was an island with an abbey erected on top. As Gawain stood on the rocky shoreline with waves crashing beneath his feet, he could see signs of life, candles flickering from the windows.
However, Gawain did not come to see the abbey. Even if the nuns accepted Isolde into their convent, it seemed unlikely that Tristan would go through all that trouble just to give her away and leave.
A breeze blew through his long curly locks. Demons seemed to be laughing from the clouds with each flash of light. As if the storm was daring Gawain to plunge into the unforgiving waves.
Gawain turned his attention to the vertical landmass to his right. It was a sea cliff with jagged edges and jarring protrusions, dotted with dozens of caves. Some say these were the caves of harpies, the same ones from Homer’s Odyssey. As the trade winds swept through the channel and scraped against the massive wall, an eerie howl whirled about like wailing banshees begging for a swift and merciful end. At present, the caves appeared dark, hollow, and vacant.
Gawain removed his cape and strapped it to the horse. He considered removing his chain mail and breastplate but elected to keep them on. It was nearly pitch black. The lightning provided brief flashes of his surroundings, flashes he had to commit to memory.
Stepping into the sinking sand with the edge of the tide grazing over his boots, Gawain skirted the shoreline as he approached the sea cliff. Once the water was up to his knees, it was time to climb.
Exploding waves drenched Gawain from head to toe. He’d cringe and turn his face away from the spray. Then he’d continue on, sliding his fingers into the cracks with his toes and insoles carrying the grunt of his weight.
“This is insanity!”
Gaheris’s words persisted like a sore throat. Gawain’s forearms were burning and his metal breastplate made it difficult to hug the wall the way he wanted. He inspected three hollow caves and found nothing. There had to be at least two dozen more. To check them all, given his increasing fatigue, “insanity” seemed about right.
An hour had passed. Sweat and saltwater made his eyes sting. He could barely see. That was, until he looked down. At that exact moment, lightning flash and showed him a nightmare from which he truly wished he could wake. The dark ocean looked like boiling oil beneath his feet. Loud blasts of thunder resonated in his chest and in the split second of sheer fright, Gawain lost his grip. His mind went blank. The cliff wall was right in front of him, and suddenly so far away.
It happened so quickly. He didn’t realize he was falling until his back hit the water with a table-breaking crash. The cold sea had swallowed him whole.
Gawain stared in a half sedated state, submerged in place as if the ocean was still deciding what to do with him. The sky had other plans. It struck the sea with a powerful bolt of lightning. The electric current hit Gawain, accelerating his heart. Now fully alert, he gasped and sucked in more water, choking as he clutched his throat and cringed at the burning sensation filling his lungs. He tried to swim up towards the blurred flashes of light. But no matter how much he tried, he kept sinking. The armor was weighing him down. Seemed pointless. Easier just to let go and die.
As Gawain closed his eyes and felt but a taste of not having to worry about anything else ever again, he was grabbed by his breastplate and yanked up with an incredible force. Gawain emerged from the salty sea and was dragged up the cliff wall, wheezing and coughing up all sorts of fluids, desperate to fill his lungs with air. Tristan was holding him with one hand, and scaling the stone wall with the other.
Upon reaching a cave twenty meters up, Tristan slung Gawain in like a ragdoll, causing him to roll and hit his head on a rock.
“DON’T!” Tristan shouted.
A flash of light revealed a wide-eyed Isolde hovering over Gawain with a dagger aimed for his heart. Gawain was scared stiff. It was if Isolde didn’t even recognize him. The absence of emotion or compassion, the cold stillness in the way she brandished her blade. Gawain didn’t move a muscle. The last thing he wanted was for the viper to strike.
Tristan tapped his flint with two sharp cracks. Sparks flickered and Tristan was able to get a small fire going near the cave entrance. Gawain instinctively scanned his surroundings. The cave’s ceiling was four feet high. It’s layout was essentially a wedge that became more narrow and tight as one moved away from the entrance.
He saw Tristan’s armor and sword, Isolde’s bow and arrows. A bag full of stale bread, molding carrots, beetroots, and celery were stationed near an angular rock. Tristan appeared weary with heavy concern. Then there was Isolde. She hadn’t budged an inch. Her crystal clear eyes seemed translucent, devoid of any color.
“Did you come alone?” Tristan asked.
“You know I did,” Gawain answered.
“You should never have come here, Gawain,” Princess Isolde said as she moved the dagger from his chest to his throat.
“Isolde. I said don’t do it,” Tristan warned.
“We have to dispose of him! He’ll just run back and tell the others,” Isolde stressed.
“And by the time they get here, we’ll be long gone,” Tristan assured.
Isolde scowled at Gawain before holstering the blade. She then crawled to Tristan’s side, rubbing his back with a tender kiss to the cheek. Gawain was utterly dumbfounded. Just two days earlier, Isolde was crying in his arms. Gawain commiserated with her, empathizing with her pain and strife. Now here she was, so quick to dispense of him just to aid in their escape. The more Gawain thought about it, the angrier he got.
“Morgan was right all along. You’re despicable, Isolde. I thought we were friends. Truly I did. Because the crazy thing is…if you had come to me, if you had told me that you wanted to abscond with Tristan in the dead of the night. I would’ve helped you!” said Gawain.
“Bullocks!” Isolde snapped. “You’re a slave to your own conscience. Fettered and chained by some antiquated sense of honor and duty.”
“That’s right, damn it. You’re absolutely right. Honor! That’s how you know I’m not lying. Had you have come to me, I would’ve facilitated your escape. And Sir Cador would still be alive!”
Tristan cringed upon hearing the name. Isolde saw his pain and warned Gawain with a silent glare. Gawain wasn’t about to back down. Not now.
“Tristan…my oldest friend, my highly respected brother. What in God’s name were you thinking? This isn’t like you. Tell me this is the work of some magic, some spell that’s been cast upon you. I’ll believe you. Hell, the entire court would believe you! The king and queen would understand.”
“You mean to send us back!?” Isolde scoffed.
“YES!” Gawain shouted. “Over twenty men died last night! Thousands more are in danger! Our houses are at each other’s throats and for what?”
“Nations will always war against nation. I’ll not feel guilt for this one. The Cornish killed my father!”
“Tristan is Cornish! You have the blade! Kill him then! With that profound logic of yours,” Gawain argued.
“I warn you, Gawain. Do not test me,” Isolde snarled.
Gawain moved to sit up with his back against the wall while facing Tristan and Isolde, the crackling fire burning between them. Tristan’s gaze was fixated on the flames but Gawain could see it in his eyes. Tristan felt responsible. Perhaps it was Sir Cador that Tristan saw in the flames, a man he’s known since childhood.
“You’re wrong about me,” Gawain told them. “I’m not just some obedient slave driven by an innate code of chivalry. I never swore an oath to a king and I barely agreed to become a prince. The truth is, I yearn for liberty. I feel weighed down by the heavy chains of propriety. Heavy is the crown, truly it is. Perhaps I know better than most how you two feel. Because I’ve been plagued by the symptoms ever since Duke Gorlois brought me here. To be madly in love with a woman I can never have. If there’s a fate worse than death, this is it.”
“Morgana’s not your aunt, Gawain. Not by blood,” Tristan stated plainly.
“Thank you, Tristan. I am so happy to find the one sympathetic voice on earth who’s willing to accept that fact. We both know it would bring dishonor upon Gorlois’s entire family. They’ll call us a family of disgusting inbreeds. We’d be the laughing stock of all Britannia. None of the lords would respect us. No one would conduct business with us. If I even showed my face to some council of nations, we’d be insulted and there’d be skirmishes at every assembly. They’d call our house the nation of incest, of imps and invalids. Regardless of the facts!” Gawain stressed.
“You’re a coward!” Isolde declared. “If you truly loved her, the law wouldn’t matter. You wouldn’t care what some snobby highborn thought and if anybody opposed you, you’d fight for her.”
Gawain nodded with the sniffles, “That’s easy to say when you’re a single child who’s only living relative happens to be the most powerful woman in the world. That’s easy to say when you love just one person, and no one else.”
“Excuses,” Isolde hissed.
“Is that what you think, Tristan? Is that what we were taught? To disregard the wellbeing of everyone else? The multitude of innocent civilians who’ll be slaughtered in the crossfire by Morholt’s army? The entire country is depending on us for their safety and security. Why else have you spent your life honing your skills? Is this why God’s blessed you with your incredible strength? To serve yourself and only yourself? Tell me something, Tristan. At what point did King Mark deserve this betrayal?”
Tristan’s eyes widened. Like a coiled spring, Tristan leaped across the fire and clapped both hands around Gawain’s neck. The massive jolt on his neck caused Gawain’s eyes to roll back.
Convulsing in his cheeks, Gawain whimpered, “Killing me won’t change the fact that…Don’t kill me, Tristan. Please!”
A single tear rolled down Gawain’s cheek. He was just about to pass out before Tristan released his grip and pulled him in for a warm embrace, whispering all sorts of apologies.
“Tristan, no!” Isolde shrieked.
“He’s right, Isolde. This love. The world is rotten enough without my sins caving in and making it worse.” Tristan cried.
Isolde rushed and threw her arms around him, “But I love you!”
“And I love you. God knows I do,” Tristan said.
“Then let’s kill him! Let’s kill him now and dump him into the sea,” Isolde urged.
“Isolde…This boy is me,” Tristan said as he gently lay Gawain down on the cave floor. Gawain was still conscious but dazed and groggy. He couldn’t hear what was being said but only saw the outline of Isolde holding onto Tristan.
“If I were in Gawain’s boots, I would’ve done exactly as he did. Except, I would’ve come with an entire legion after the blood we’ve spilled. Yet he came alone. What kind of man would I be to run away from a boy like this?” Tristan asked.
“You’d be my man!” she whispered, nibbling on his ear.
He turned and kissed his beloved Isolde, ending with, “We have to go back. As much as I love you, I doubt you’d find much joy in a degenerate old man, downtrodden and burdened by the weight of… I’m the Champion of Cornwall. I swore an oath. I am a knight serving King Mark of Tintagel. I am Sir Tristan and you are Princess Isolde. No matter how far we run, no matter who we pretend to be, the truth will always prevail.”
“But Tristan, my beautiful Tristan. If you go back you will die,” Isolde whimpered.
For nearly two hours Tristan and Isolde sat on the edge of the cave. They stared out over the horizon where the dark shade met with the lighter shade of sky. The thunder and lightning reflected the anguish wreaking havoc in their hearts. For deep down, they knew. They knew this would be the last time they’d ever have each other.
Two hours later.
Tristan was holding onto Isolde and Gawain as they emerged from the waves of the Celtic Sea. Gawain fell face first into the wet sand. An orange glow shined over all three with Isolde squinting with a scowl of disbelief.
“That’s right. He came alone. My ass!” Isolde scoffed.
Mounted side by side on their horses were Constantine, Gaheris, Agravain, Toothless Kersey, and five lancers. The orange light came from their torches. Tristan looked at Constantine and saw the pain in his eyes. He had no words to console young man for his loss.
“Brothers!” Gawain said as he struggled to pick himself up. “What part of alone do you not understand?” He said before collapsing in the sand again.
Gaheris rolled his eyes. “We fought tooth and nail to get you back. D’you really think we’d risk losing you all over again so soon? Selfish ass.”
“Right? All Gawain does is think about himself,” Agravain added.