The Knights with No Lords
Chapter 24 – A Single Ounce of It
By Rock Kitaro
Crows cawed from the terrace. Gray clouds painted the sky. It was as if a curse was cast upon Tintagel, for all was silent as a crypt. There was no laugher. No chatter. The bakers, the carpenters, the blacksmiths, and fishermen all performed their duties but no one was smiling.
A sullen Elaine and her ladies-in-waiting all wore white with thick wool cloaks to keep warm. The knights and guards didn’t bow or smile at them as they normally would. Gloom prevailed.
Queen Morgaus laid the sleeping baby Gareth in his crib while three nurses prepared to watch over him. King Lot approached his wife from behind and kissed her tenderly. His hands slid around her waist as he whispered an affirmation that she couldn’t quite hear but assumed was sweet.
Gaheris and Agravain were fixing the final touches of their green and silver Lothian garbs. Gawain was already gone. He didn’t tell them where he was going, but they were used to that by now. Gaheris said nothing as he straightened out Agravain’s cloak. Agravain said nothing as he pulled Gaheris away from a mirror.
Before they left, Agravain made sure to strap on his two Roman broadswords. He didn’t care if it was inappropriate. Seeing as how Gawain’s katana was also missing only emboldened his decision. Likewise, Gaheris grabbed his bow and a quiver of arrows. He planned to stash them close by. Just in case.
Workers maintained the cleanliness and upkeep in the Hall of Roses, the Peridot Oasis, the throne room, the citadel, and the monasteries. Soldiers on patrol kept their visors down as their horses neighed in restless suspense. The captain of the guards wasn’t barking orders as per usual. Every man and woman knew their tasks, their stations. They did what was expected and nothing more, nothing less.
In the tower, Queen Iseult had to sleep in a separate room due to Isolde’s ceaseless keening. For two days, she cried in her pillows, tormented by the isolation, tortured by the condemnation of her true love.
Her anguish, her screams for mercy and help echoed down the halls and could be heard from adjacent balconies. Even when she collapsed from exhaustion, the guards could still hear her whimpering. They prayed for her, secretly hoping she’d plummet to her death and end it all for everyone’s sake.
Tristan’s execution was to be held in Angel’s Square outside of Tintagel’s largest church, St. Gabriel’s Abbey. It was located in the Southern Ward where the community of monks, friars, and nunneries were managed by Archbishop Mellitus II. The clergy initially opposed a public execution on hallowed grounds, but King Mark insisted.
Angel’s Square was large enough to seat over 1,000. It was a beautiful garden with a soft bed of grass and five flourishing maple trees. Each tree had a picturesque crown of golden leaves that never fell and maintained its rich color year round. The best time to view them was in the morning, when moisture accumulated in beads that shimmered in dawn’s first light.
Surrounding Angel’s Square was Romanesque architecture, the abbey and its three tiers of intricate perimeter cloisters. On top of the abbey’s dome stood a golden statue of archangel Gabriel holding a crucifix up to the sky. It cost a fortune to build but was paid for by none other than King Mark himself. The attraction brought in thousands of pilgrims each month, so the least Mellitus could do was grant him this one favor. Tintagel was about to lose her favorite son.
Construction of the scaffold began two days earlier and was now complete with a stage, stairs, and the four-foot stretch of wood that would serve as the chopping block. The scaffold itself was centered in front of the five maple trees. Sir Ekner was already at the site inspecting the arrangements as workers hurried to finish clearing leaves from the spectator’s pews that they set out the night before.
Constantine was with him, dressed in full ceremonial honors to serve as Sir Ekner’s second on the scaffold. He presented himself as a hardened sixteen-year-old ready to fulfill his duties. But when his girlfriend Debra approached to check on his disposition, he wrapped his arms around the kitchen maid’s daughter and gave way to weeping like a child.
Sir Ekner witnessed it. He thought King Mark was doing the boy a favor by letting him avenge the fallen Sir Cador, but Ekner knew Constantine wasn’t like Gawain or the rest of the lads. Constantine was tender and forgiving. Ekner thought about having Constantine forfeit the role, but figured that’d be adding insult to injury.
In the dungeons, Tristan festered in his damp and dark prison cell. Normally prisoners were chained underneath some leaking spot on the wall, but Tristan was different. He was given a warm blanket. The dungeon master made sure to feed him anything he wanted and even offered to play the rebec for him. Tristan declined, opting to spend his last moments in reflection.
Gawain entered the dungeon that morning, silently and without company. He spotted King Mark, Bruno and two others talking to Tristan and instinctively flattened against the walls to hide. He didn’t know why he was hiding. He just didn’t want to be found. So he hid and waited.
Poor King Mark. Gawain could tell his heart was broken. The king’s outstretched hands extended to Tristan as if he wanted to touch him one last time but Tristan didn’t budge. He didn’t have the strength to look the king in the eye. From Gawain’s position it appeared Tristan wasn’t even answering the king’s questions.
After five minutes, Gawain watched as the king wiped a tear and replaced his sadness with regal resolve. With a scary coldness washing over the king, Gawain’s brows spiked in suspense. King Mark, Bruno, and the two knights began walking his way. Wedging his right shoulder between a groove, Gawain closed his eyes and became as still as the wall itself. He felt the heat from their torches as they walked by and the cold draft that followed when they left.
Gawain peered around the corner. The gigantic dungeon master was watching Tristan only for a moment. Then he turned and walked on, exiting from a large wooden door and closing it behind him.
Finally, Gawain approached. One hand was resting on the hilt of his katana. The other was raised, letting his fingers graze the cold wet bars as he walked to stand front and center.
Tristan’s blond hair was wet, stringy, and stinking. The wool blanket was wrapped around his torso and tucked between the wall and his shoulders. His legs were sprawled out from the wooden bench he sat on and his steel blue eyes…those blue eyes from whence such ferocity, such authority once exuded, it was as if his soul had already passed on.
Then, without blinking, his sights elevated to settle on his visitor. Gawain smiled. Then he pouted, overwhelmed with hopelessness as his forehead and sweaty bangs pressed against the bars.
“Christ, not you too,” Tristan groaned.
With a shaky voice, Gawain said, “You’re the closest thing I ever had to a big brother. I suppose that’s a stupid thing to say, considering I’m the one who got you into this mess.”
“Gawain, stop. It’s annoying to see you so hard on yourself. I need you to be strong. Now that I’m gone, you’ll need to defend Tintagel. Lothian can wait. King Lot’s not going anywhere. I need you to promise to protect Dumnonia from her enemies.”
Gawain nodded, closing his eyes as the tears began to trail down his cheeks.
“Gawain. You have to know. You’re so much stronger than me in so many ways.”
“Don’t,” Gawain whimpered. “Everyone talks about how strong and honorable I am. They have no idea. If I was so strong, so virtuous, why does it hurt so much? Why is it so difficult to simply be alive and bear it?”
“You rather it’d be you on the chopping block?” Tristan asked.
Gawain chuckled before biting down on his lower lip with a defeated sulk.
“Gawain…Just love her. Take her and embrace her with all your heart. If she means so much to you, your brothers will understand. Morgaus, Elaine, the duchess, they will all understand. Who cares what everyone else thinks? Your character shines through. Truly, it does. Besides. What warlord’s gonna be crazy enough to wag his tongue at you with that mad dog Agravain chomping at the bit,” Tristan said, drawing another chuckle from the disheartened Gawain.
“Tristan, during your hearing you couldn’t answer any of the queen’s questions about the princess. You claim to be in love with her but you don’t know anything about her. She likes bumblebees. They’re fuzzy. For hours almost every day last summer, she tried to collect them like marbles. She made me help. I must have gotten stung like twenty times. It was extremely irritating.”
“Bumblebees, huh. I had no idea,” Tristan snickered.
“That’s my point. How can you be in love with someone you barely know, and more importantly, all the sudden? Tristan, I’m trying my best to come up with some other explanation but the obvious truth is staring me right in the face. I can’t ignore it.”
“You think Morgan cast a spell on me,” Tristan nodded.
“It’s the only thing that makes sense.”
Tristan leaned his head back against the wall and stared up at the blotchy gray ceiling. A soft chuckle expelled from his nose before he said something that left Gawain speechless.
“So what if she did?”
“What?” Gawain whispered.
“Say, Morgan did cast some magical aphrodisiac on me. If she did, I confess, I probably need to thank her,” Tristan smiled.
“Tristan, no! You’re about to die and you’d thank her for it? You’ve gone mad. That’s the magic talking.”
“It isn’t,” Tristan said. “Listen to me. All my life I’ve heard the choirboys, the squires and knights talk about love and romance, that beautiful someone. I’ve seen ladies from hundreds of castles and I’ve never felt anything for any of them. When I see people, I see them as animals in which I’ve always felt like an entirely different species. They all have the same features. Everyone has a head, a pair of eyes, hair, nose, and lips. I never saw any of that and said to myself, this is attractive. Until a few days ago.
“Gawain, these past seven days have been the best days of my life. Contrary to how it seems, I’ve never been happier. Even when I pulled you from the black sea, fully aware you’ve come acting as marshal. I came back to Tintagel accepting my fate. It was worth it. It was worth it just to feel, just to feel an ounce of it. That thing they call true love. If giving my life means she can go on…it’s worth it. I know you don’t understand now. To be honest, I hope you never have to find out.”
Gawain gripped at the cell bars with that emphatic rage he tried so hard to suppress. Grinding his teeth, Gawain uttered, “How am I supposed to love a woman who starts wars, creates monsters, and sets about the destruction of so many innocent people?”
“Gawain, I know that sounds horrible? Truly. But do everyone a favor and shut up about it.”
Gawain shook his head in confusion.
“Now that I know what love is, I know what jealousy is. You might be the only man on earth who has a woman who’s willing and capable of starting wars, creating monsters, and devising destruction if it means keeping you all to herself. You’re like the male version of Helen. And Morgan is both the Greek and the Trojans. It’s kind of amazing, actually.”
“I can’t condone that!” Gawain barked.
“Yes you can, you idiot. Because you love her. You say can’t condone it now, but if ever you’re put in the position where you have a split second to choose between her or your own brothers, I guarantee you’ll choose her.”
“Then I guess you are right. I am stronger than you,” Gawain said with a fierce gaze.
“Don’t be salty. I meant no offense. Besides. Just because you’d choose her, doesn’t mean you’d actually defeat your brothers,” Tristan mused.
Spit flew from Gawain’s lips as he laughed helplessly. “You really think my brothers will be the death of me, don’t you.”
“Between them and Morgan, God knows,” Tristan smirked. “You could always join me on the chop block.”
The two laughed even more when Gawain imitated banging his head against the bars. The boys chuckled in their mild amusement before silence entered and made itself at home. Gawain would stay with his sullen head pressed against the bars for a full hour. Then the Dungeon Master entered.
It was time.