artwork by WLOP for his “Ghostblade” series
The Knights with No Lords
Chapter 23 – Despair
By Rock Kitaro
Never before had there ever been such a polarizing reception from the massive crowds that lined the thoroughfares. The disgraced Tristan and Isolde were paraded through the capital in an iron carriage. Armed guards kept raving mobs at bay as the couple sat embracing their demise, hand-in-hand like forbidden lovers in a Greek tragedy.
Many demanded justice for the slain Sir Cador, Sir Ioness, and the eighteen other fallen soldiers. They scowled and spit at Princess Isolde, blaming her for turning their beloved Tristan asunder. Some were even calling for a swift summary execution right then and there. Others were opposed to it.
The opposition had heard a romantic tale of love that stretched back for many years. Merchants from the Northern Ward remembered the way Tristan and Isolde helped them in their chores just days prior. They were sympathetic to the plight of two young adults who’s hearts simply yearned for each other. They refused to believe that the massacre happened the way the town crier described it.
It was around midday when the carriage arrived at the front portico of the royal palace. The entire household had assembled on the giant stone steps to witness the transfer of prisoners. King Mark stood front and center with his gold crown sinking on head. Such disappointment and sadness was apparent. The Duchess Igraine was by his side but she wasn’t sad. She was bitter. She loved Tristan. But she loved her cousin Cador even more.
Gawain, Gaheris, and Agravain stood near King Lot and Queen Morgaus with the baby Gareth resting in Morgaus’s arms. And of course, Gawain noticed Morgan was absent. He had no doubts that she was somewhere on high, watching them from the shadows, as was her nature.
A crossed-arm, squinty-eyed Pellinore was at the bottom of the stairway with his Brood of Black Bloods. Tristan was yanked down from the carriage and immediately two burly dungeon guards took hold of him, forcing him to his knees. Pellinore shook his head.
“The bloody state of you,” Pellinore grimaced.
“Back away, you!” a guard warned.
Queen Iseult was watching with Algayre and Morholt by her side. Her emerald eyes exuded the embarrassment felt by Isolde’s foolishness. This was not the way of the Hibernians. Strict discipline and obedience was ingrained in all of her subjects. For her own flesh and blood to attempt such a juvenile stunt…Queen Iseult was only barely containing her rage.
The princess was escorted out of the carriage. A guard was about to put her in chains before Algayre appeared behind the guard and whispered, “If you’d like cold steel kept out of your arse, I’d suggest you leave her be.”
“No!” Isolde shouted. “If Tristan’s to go to the dungeon, so shall I!”
Ever so swiftly, Queen Iseult dashed forward like an eel from a crag. Her hand flashed out and slapped Isolde so hard that the princess was flung to the ground. The smack echoed throughout the courtyard. Tristan saw how badly Isolde was trembling and like protective mastiff, Tristan growled with a vibration so heavy the guards felt it through their armor. His furious blue eyes glared up at the queen. And just as Tristan was about to stand, Morholt clubbed him with a double-fisted swing to the back of his neck.
Gawain cringed at the sight. His anger was piqued but he remained composed.
“Take her to my quarters. Four men to the door. She’s not to leave under any circumstance,” Queen Iseult commanded Sir Maven.
It was painful for King Mark, but he said nothing in reproach. As Tristan’s unconscious body was carried off, the downtrodden king turned and entered the palace with Duchess Igraine rubbing his back.
There wasn’t a trial, just a hearing. In King Mark’s court, the pews were packed shoulder to shoulder as over five hundred in attendance watched a brutal interrogation that depicted Tristan to be some bloodthirsty animal driven by lust. Tristan was the only one who stood accused. Princess Isolde wasn’t even allowed in the court to testify on his behalf.
For over three hours Sir Maven berated him, poking holes in his excuses, and reciting a list of Tristan’s prior offenses against the nation of Hibernia. His clever tongue weaved a storyline of Tristan’s alleged cruelty against Queen Iseult’s people, claiming this incident was no different.
When an emotional Tristan dropped to his knees and declared his love for Isolde, King Mark reminded him of their private conversation just minutes before Tristan was knighted. The king begged him for an explanation. He begged him for a reason, just one reason. What could have possibly happened to change his resolve from then to now? Tristan had no explanation. All he could do was beg for forgiveness. For he knew nothing could ever justify what he did.
Sir Maven wasn’t about to let the touching declarations of love and affection sway public opinion. He accused Tristan of being a liar. He asked Tristan a number of trivial questions about Isolde’s personality, where she was born, her favorite color, her favorite song, her favorite food, her favorite story. Tristan couldn’t answer any of these. His silence and that cold disposition for which he was known did very little to draw the judicial committee to his side no matter how badly they wanted to.
By noon the next day, a verdict was rendered. With a heavy heart, King Mark stood before the eyes of God and man and signed Tristan’s death warrant. In two days time, Tristan was to be beheaded by First Knight Sir Ekner with Constantine assisting. There wasn’t a single dry eye in the court. King Mark adjourned to his private garden and mourned. He refused to speak to anyone for the rest of the day.
“IT WAS A FARCE!” Queen Morgaus shouted.
There was a small gathering in King Lot and Queen Morgaus’s quarters. It was a lofty stateroom, very spacious with soft gray light pouring through the many windows that seemed to band around the walls like the letter C. A fire was burning in the hearth and two Lothian knights in full armor guarded the doors.
Queen Morgaus was bouncing as she spoke, smirking from time to time through her reflective spite. It wasn’t that she found the situation amusing, but because she was sitting on Gawain’s back as he performed a brutal routine of pushups. Gawain had already completed two hundred, yet he continued to exercise without any sign of fatigue.
Fifteen-year-old Gaheris sat on a wooden chest near a window while Constantine stood perplexed with his arms crossed, peering out the windows. King Lot held baby Gareth in his arms as he paced the room, barefoot on the plush carpet of brown mammoth fur. The Lady Elaine was also present, lounging with a glass of wine. She didn’t have much to add to the conversation, but she too appeared deep in thought.
“I swear, if our boys are ever put on trial like that I’ll riot through the streets!” Morgaus declared.
“Duly noted, my love,” Lot said as he tickled a giggling Gareth in his arms.
“It was disconcerting to say the least,” Constantine added.
“Which part? You having to serve as Sir Ekner’s second or not being able to behead the villain yourself?” Gaheris asked.
Constantine turned to examine his pretty friend. He wondered if he was being too lenient, seeing Gaheris so unforgiving. Constantine had lost his father, yet Gaheris seemed to take the greater offense. Gaheris’s hazel eyes turned to Gawain who was now sweating from his curly bangs.
“Still loyal, are you?” Gaheris questioned.
Gawain shook his head with agitation.
“There’s nothing wrong with loyalty,” Lot said.
“Ksk!” Gaheris snapped, shooting to a stand. “If you’re gonna be preaching that shit, I don’t want to be here!”
“Gaheris! Show respect!” Morgaus scolded.
Lot continued, “There’s nothing wrong with loyalty, so long as one’s loyalties are in the right place. Surely you don’t believe Gawain cares more for them than he does for us?”
“Let’s hear it then!” Gaheris demanded.
Gawain kept doing his pushups, snarling through the pain in his forearms, ignoring the breaking tension in his spine. Morgaus ran her fingers through the back of his head in an affectionate pat. His silence enraged Gaheris to no end.
“What I want to know is why Tristan was the only one put on trial?” Constantine asked.
“Well, perhaps it would’ve been in bad taste for King Mark to walk down the aisle and say ‘I do’ to a headless corpse,” Lot explained.
Gawain finally dropped to his chest with the weight of Morgaus knocking the wind out of him.
“Oh goodness! Gawain, are you okay? You should have told me to get off.”
Gawain stopped Morgaus from touching his face as he squinted up at King Lot and asked, “What? They’re still moving forward with a marriage?”
Lot nodded, “The pact still stands if they’re joined in matrimony. Now that you mention it, the queen was quite insistent upon it. One might even say, she presented it as an ultimatum.”
Gawain and Constantine exchanged a worrisome glance.
“Oh my gosh. That’s the saddest thing I’ve ever heard. Well, I’ve heard worse, but still,” said the Lady Elaine, finally joining in.
She continued, “This queen truly is vile to do this to her own daughter. Tristan’s a fool but he’s a fool in love. You can’t fake those tears, that anxiety. Did you see the resignation when he was sentenced to death? It wasn’t fear. It was relief. Tristan’s willing to fall on the sword if it means saving Isolde from the same fate. But for what? A lifetime of misery? A constant reminder of love lost in a castle haunted by the memories of him? What kind of life is that? Dear, god. Honestly, I can’t believe I’m actually feeling sorry for the poor thing.”
Gaheris reflected on Elaine’s words but refused to take his eyes off the fire. King Lot lowered to his knees and let Morgaus take baby Gareth from him. He tenderly caressed Morgaus’s cheek, wiping the tears from her eyes as Gawain’s jaw clenched in deep deliberation. Again, Gawain threw a worrisome glance Constantine’s way. The bearded Constantine gave Gawain a “go-ahead” nod.
“Mother. Father. There’s something you should know,” Gawain began. “What I’m about to tell you is extremely important.”
At the same time, Pellinore and his Brood of Black Bloods were in the soldier’s barracks packing up their belongings for departure. In strolled Agravain casually munching on an apple. He was too conspicuous, the way he smirked as if he was privy to a secret that he was just dying to tell. Gradually, his brazen demeanor caused everyone to stop packing and give him their undivided attention.
“What’s this? Off somewhere?” Agravain said with a mouthful.
“What’s it look like, stupid? You see these burlap sacks? We’re packin,” said an annoyed Barxy.
“You know, Barxy. I think you’re the only one I’ve yet to spar with. Maybe that’s why you speak to me as if you’ve lost your mind.”
“Anytime, you little runt,” Barxy growled.
“Not now,” Pellinore grumbled as he wrapped the red scarf around his neck. “I’m done with this place. What kind of backwards ass kingdom is this where the women have all the balls and the kings just take it?”
Agravain squinted in disgust. “What?”
Pellinore shook his head. “Never mind. We’re off!”
“Well, gee. That’s um…That’s too bad. Considering you’re gonna miss out on the best part,” Agravain chuckled.
Pellinore shoved down his burlap sack and marched over to tower over the undaunted Agravain. “That’s not funny. I know you’re a little Spartan and I respect you. But Tristan is one of us. You and me. He’s one of us! I’m not about to stick around and watch as they cut down one of the best of our generation. The only man good enough to beat me! And what are they gonna do? What? They’re gonna…They’re gonna take his head in one fell swoop all because…all because…”
Pellinore couldn’t bring himself to finish. Agravain, on the other hand, had no qualms.
“Yes, yes. All because Tristan sent twenty good men to their graves. Look. Listen. I’m not here to gloat over that. That’s tragic, don’t get me wrong, but two things. One, if I was a little bit older, I’d make Tristan look like Barxy here in combat. So, ‘best of our generation,’ my ass. And two, you’re gonna miss on the grand finale. I assumed you knew, what with you guys tearing up pubs and cavorting with scoundrels.”
“Out with it! Damn it!” Kanish barked.
Agravain raised his hands, smiling in submission as he said, “The Hibernians. They’re here. They came ashore in the middle of the night and blended in with the townsfolk. Gawain and Constantine think they’re gonna ambush us at the wedding once we’re all good and drunk. I’m telling you, it’s gonna be a wedding you don’t wanna miss. Especially if you want to avenge Tristan.”
Kanish turned to his leader. Suddenly Pellinore had a gleam in his eye, like a starving man who was just brought before a buffet.
High up in one of the sky piercing towers, a woman in black attire came marching with purpose around the torch-lit corridors. Morgan came to pay a late night visit to the Princess Isolde. She approached the four soldiers guarding the bedroom door. Algayre was with them. His black eyes widened with excitement and rage.
“Oh, you have some nerve showing your face here! Witch!” Algayre seethed.
“And you have some nerve calling me a witch. I take it your mother was one. It’s the only explanation for those cheap parlor tricks you call magic. Not to mention having a face only a mother could love. Except she didn’t, did she. They’d never accept a wretch like you in Avalon and I suspect they don’t have schools of sorcery in Hibernia. Shssh! Listen. Hear that? It’s the sound of a hundred innocent women burning at the stake. They’re screaming for vengeance. They beseech me. I hear them. And rest assured, one day I will grant them their request.”
Algayre stood stupefied. Never before in his life had he ever been so deeply insulted, and worst! Morgan was correct in assuming his mother was a witch. But was it an assumption? Or did she peer into his past? Before Algayre could regain his senses, Morgan was no longer standing in front of him.
Somehow, she slipped by the four guards and easily opened the door to the room. It wasn’t until the light from the room came pouring out into the hallway that the guards realized their perimeter had been compromised. They crossed their spears to block Morgan’s path but it was too late. Morgan was locking eyes with a resentful Isolde.
“Let her through,” Isolde commanded.
“Buy milady. Your mother gave us explicit orders…”
“For the love of God! She’s just a child!” Isolde snapped.
Isolde was alone in the bedroom with nothing but old books to keep her company. She wasn’t in chains or tethered to the wall. To escape through the window meant jumping from a sixty-foot tower to the nearest roof. It was brightly lit with the wicks of every candle burning from a hanging chandelier. Morgan entered with her hands clasped behind her back. Algayre followed, his cheeks quivering with rage.
“I’m sorry but I’m going to have to insist that you keep your dog outside,” Morgan said as her purple eyes traced the cherubim tapestry adorning the wall.
Algayre drew his rapier with a metallic chime. Morgan’s back was turned to him. It would’ve been so easy to give a flick of his wrists and sever the spine at the base of her neck but Isolde came between them.
“Algayre please. She’s harmless,” she beckoned.
“I don’t care if she’s a fucking fly on the wall. My blade hungers for her blood!”
“And it may very drink, but not now. Outside. If you please,” Isolde urged with a stern gaze.
Morgan kept her back to the pair as she approached a counter that displayed a variety of the queen’s emeralds. Their texture was exquisite. She wanted to rub her fingers across their facets but she resisted. It wasn’t until she heard the door close that she turned around and faced her nemesis.
Morgan and Isolde wore the same defiant look of mutual disdain. Both loved men who valued useless things such as loyalty and honor above their own selfish desires. In fact, the acknowledgment that they had so much in common only made them hate each other even more. “In this world, there can only be one,” was the sentiment deep in their depths of their despair.
“Why are you here?” Isolde scoffed.
“Because I want to know what exactly Gawain saw in a scrawny thing like you.”
“Gawain! UGH! If I never hear that name again, I swear! After everything I’ve done for him. I trusted him! I confided in him. He knew. He knew! Tristan was all I ever wanted and he robbed me of my prize. I told him things that I never told anyone!”
“None of your business, wench! Why don’t you go ask him?” Isolde snapped.
Morgan’s fingers coiled into a fist as her chin tucked down on that seething heat rising from her chest. “Did you have your way with him?”
“WHAT?!” Isolde shrieked with absurdity.
“I’m asking you, did you ever lay with Gawain? In the stables. Years ago at Oherth Castle.”
Isolde erupted in a fit of laughter before staring at Morgan as if she had just spilled a tray of pastries all over the front of her black dress. Isolde poured herself a drink of water. She took a sip from her tin goblet before returning to Morgan with a look of absurdity.
“Gawain is the most boring dolt I’ve ever met. He behaves as if the Holy Spirit is always just hovering over his shoulders, watching his every move. As if lightning would strike him at first sin. I’ve disrobed before him many times and not once has he ever allowed himself to feast his eyes on this. He’s a eunuch for all I know. Good luck trying to bed him. You’ll be a bleeding skeleton before he’s good and ready.”
As Isolde’s bold rant filled the room, Morgan crawled back into her shell. Morgan’s teeth began to rattle and with bated breath. Then a cringe flashed over her face, a cringe of anger and resentment as she recalled the vision of Gawain and Isolde. Her heart started to tremble and before she knew it, Morgan was biting her thumb.
“Oh my gosh. You don’t know, do you?” Isolde smirked. “You think there’s something going on between Gawain and I. You ask what Gawain could possibly see in me. Ha! I stand wondering what he could possibly see in a plump little gnome like you. Hahaha! What kind of girl distrusts the most honest man on earth?”
“Careful…” Morgan warned.
“Or what? Hmm?” Isolde dared as she stood over the shorter Morgan. “You’ll glower me to death? I should call you Medusa.”
“You should call me Morgan Le Fay,” Morgan grinned. “I thank you for your honesty. Here’s some back. You’re a fool if you ever believed Tristan loved you of his own volition. If it weren’t for a blend of truffle and Xice, he’d barely know you exist. And rest assured, after his head is mounted on a spike, no one else will know you exist either. They’ll write songs about the nameless woman trapped forever in the tower, whose beauty faded under a layer of dust and mold, only to be seen by the moths and rats, watching her grow old and old.”
Tears began to well in Isolde’s eyes, “My Mother…”
“Your mother will live out what’s left of her days in Oherth Castle. Morholt and that skeleton of a man Algayre will soon fall in battle. I know they think Tristan is our only lord and savior but my boys are more than enough for your lot. And even should they fall, I won’t. The fury in my heart screams, begging to be unleashed. I am wrath incarnate. And you are but dragon ash, destined to fade and wither in the wind.”
Isolde was shaking. She let the goblet slip from her fingertips before swinging for Morgan’s left cheek. Morgan ducked and punched Isolde in the stomach. A groaning Isolde staggered back and collapsed against the dresser.
Algayre came barging into the room. He drew his sword and charged at the smirking Morgan. Ever so calmly, Morgan covered herself with the hood of her black cloak. Algayre’s rapier plunged into Morgan’s chest, but Morgan was no longer there. All Algayre got was a vacant black cloak that he slung off of his sword.
He scanned the room. He knew she was still there.
“You started out so courageous!” Algayre shouted. “Where is your courage now? Come out and face me, witch! I know this is all your doing!”
“That’s right! You’ve all made the most entertaining pawns. I’ve enjoyed you immensely!” Morgan said, her voice emanating as if it came from all corners of the room.
“It’s only a matter of time before I catch you! Go ask Gawain! Ask him what I do to the—”
“—Toys that he tries to keep to himself?” Morgan finished. “Do be more original. And sadly you’re mistaken if you think I’m anyone’s plaything.”
“COME OUT!” Algayre shouted.
“I am out.”
Algayre’s eyes darted to the door. Morgan was standing in the hallway just behind the unsuspecting guards, dressed in her black gown with a smug grin.
“AAAAAAH!!!” Algayre bellowed as he charged for the door.
Just as he dashed forward in that mastered lunge he was known for, the door slammed shut. His sword drove through the wood and ended up stabbing one of his own guards. As Morgan started off down the winding corridor from whence she came, she could hear Algayre struggling to remove his sword.
Morgan’s smirk belied the heartfelt regret that she’d never allow anyone to see. With a stern gaze, Morgan’s mind blazed with stern conviction. “What’s done is done. They only have themselves to blame.”