Chapter 8: Cascades

Chapter 8 - Cascades - Jorge BarredaPhoto by Jorge Barreda

The Knights with No Lords
Chapter 8 – Cascades
By Rock Kitaro

Their mission was a success. Gawain was rescued and the capture of Princess Isolde was an added bonus. Tristan asserted himself as the party leader as they galloped a full day to cross south over the River Clyde. They didn’t consider themselves safe from King Drest’s reach until they were south of the river.

Daylight dwindled. They needed to find shelter soon. Tracing southbound along the river, Tristan led them to a magnificent waterfall that was once inhabited by dwarves a century earlier. A hollow cave at the base of the waterfall served as the gateway to deep boroughs hidden beneath the earth. There were still carvings of their ancient language etched in the cave wall. The symbols glowed bright orange, infused with ether and amber.

The valley at the bottom of this breathtaking waterfall was enclosed by flat slabs of marble and cream-colored limestone. Beyond the rock formations, a perimeter of flourishing green trees shrouded this oasis with a leafy canopy that stretched out over the river. Birds whistled. The cascade’s endless crash was pleasant to hear. The water was crisp and refreshing, so clear that they could see the smooth pebbles settled on the riverbed. It was perfect. They were isolated. They were safe.

Morgan and Isolde cleansed themselves under Kanish and Balto’s supervision while the rest of the men ventured out to hunt. It was an awkward situation for the ladies as Isolde distinctly remembered Morgan calling for her death. Isolde understood the animosity and was willing to forgive. Morgan, however, wasn’t too timid to hide her enmity. The malcontent was manifested by her hooded gaze and sporadic groans. It was annoying at first, but after Isolde realized that Morgan was several years her junior, the princess started to tolerate her presence.

Morgan kept her pink cotton dress on as she bathed. Isolde stripped until she was completely nude. Kanish and Balto tried their best not to peep but Isolde’s body was the very definition of exquisite. There wasn’t a single blemish, scar, or bruise on her sun-kissed body. Her breasts were full formed and smooth enough to cup steady in even the roughest of hands. Small dimples were perfectly indented above the derriere, and her toned midriff was smoother than a baby’s cheeks. As Isolde released her braids, her gorgeous hair flowed and bounced with a radiant glow. Balto glanced and was nearly floored by her beauty.

For Morgan, it only piqued her ire. Isolde reminded her of Elaine, blessed in all the ways she was not. Isolde and Elaine were both relatively tall with slim slender figures. Both had blonde hair and mesmerizing eye-smiles. Even when they were angry they projected heavenly grace. Whereas Morgan’s resting bitchface always prompted people to ask if something was wrong with her, a pastime she abhorred more than loneliness itself.

Haughty laughter in the distance signaled Pellinore’s return. Once the ladies were finished bathing, Pellinore, Tristan, Jeremy, Dantry, and Barxy swam nude. Pellinore kept trying to provoke Tristan with splashes but Tristan was too tired to strike back. Princess Isolde had confined herself to the cave hidden behind the veil of the cascade. She watched Tristan with an attentive gaze, giggling at the possibilities.

Morgan was now lounging on a smooth slab of limestone as she wrung out the fabric of her pink sunflower. She felt Gawain watching. Indeed, he was. As he prepared a deer for roasting, Gawain’s jade green eyes kept bouncing over to Morgan as if she was calling his name.

His heart thumped hard at the sight of her. For the young man, it was a dream come true. Few of her features were exactly as he remembered. Her deep alluring eyes, those mystifying long lashes. Her small mouth with kissable lips that remained so pouty and puckered. Unbeknownst to Morgan, she had developed in all the ways he found desirable. Her voluptuous figure of curves and concealed strength. The way excess water glistened off her ample thighs. The way her flawless snow-white complexion contrasted with her long, dark, brown hair.

Gawain took a mental picture of Morgan lounging on the rock with the roaring cascades casting a misty cloud under the setting sun. It was better than his dreams. This bliss…Gawain didn’t want it to end.

“It won’t take me long to make a new one. I’m not worried.”

Gawain caught the tail end of Gaheris speaking to Agravain. The younger brothers were waist-deep in water as they massaged wet stones over their shoulders.

“Not worried about what?” Gawain asked.

Agravain chuckled, “Gaheris broke the bow that he made for King Mark.”

Gawain burst with laughter. It was amazing to see how much they’ve grown. He had just finished skinning the deer when he heard the news of their baby brother, Gareth. Agravain elaborated by explaining how their mother Morgaus had married King Lot. Gawain was astounded to learn that they were now all princes of a foreign land called Lothian and Orkney.

“Of Lothian? Hack!” Pellinore interjected. “You might as well be heirs to the damn Picts the way Lot kisses up to the Romans.”

“What do you mean?” Gawain asked.

Gaheris explained, “Well, King Lot rules over Lothian and the northern islands of Orkney. We have over 10,000 men at arms but compared to Vortigern’s forces we’re merely toddlers playing at soldiers. To match manpower, Roman soldiers are loaned to us by Emperor Lucius. King Lot has to pay an annual tribute.”

Agravain added, “Gaheris and I were delivering a tribute last month when the emperor felt good enough to have us send messages along the battle lines in the war against the Franks. I swear it’s only a matter of time before he puts us in the vanguard.”

“Why you? Why send a squire on a knight’s errand?” Gawain questioned with low brows.

“They are princes, are they not? Comes with the price of eminence, boy. Best get used to it.” Pellinore scoffed as he stood up from the water and flaunted his manhood for all of nature to see.

For Gawain, it was a disquieting notion. He had just been liberated from one house and it appeared that he was about to be thrown into the conflict of another. He wondered how Morgan felt. He turned and caught her staring. As soon as they locked eyes, Morgan quickly averted. And much to Gawain’s chagrin, Morgan’s fleeing eyes settled on the naked ass of Pellinore. He was wading his way toward the cascades and the cave where Isolde was getting dressed.

“It’s not so bad. King Lot treats us alright,” Gaheris noted.

“And he’s kind to mother,” Agravain added.

“That’s great. Hey, Pellinore! Ho-How’s your son doing!?” Gawain quickly shouted in haste.

At once, all of the Black Bloods turned to Pellinore with a puzzled expression. Apparently they never knew he had a son. Taken aback by the question, Pellinore sank until the water reached the bottom of his chin and made his way closer to the brothers.

“Who told you I had a son?” Pellinore asked.

“You did. About seven years ago when we first met,” Gawain smirked.

“You have a son? You scoundrel! I thought you only had the two daughters?” Barxy asked.

“Aye, Percival’s my firstborn, a bastard from some peasant girl not far from Listenoise. Cries as much as his sisters. It drives me insane.”

“So, you have daughters too?” Gawain happily inquired as he started a campfire.

“Aye, my little angels. Dindrane and Elaine. Love em to death, I do.”

“Elaine?!” Morgan scoffed with disgust.

“Yep. Named after your lovely sister!” Pellinore taunted.

“Ugh!” Morgan groaned.

“Well, I couldn’t bloody well name her Morgana now could I?” Pellinore said under his breath.

“Yes, God forbid,” Gaheris agreed.

“Exactly!” Pellinore said before the men broke out in laughter.

Gawain cautiously turned to see if Morgan was offended. She was, but used to it. She merely shook her head at Gawain as if to say, “See what I have to put up with?”

“Bravo, Pellinore. Three children. Well done!” Kanish congratulated.

“Yes. Three children by dishonest women. Bravo indeed,” Tristan mumbled as he floated by.

“Oye! Just because we’re not wed, it doesn’t make em’ dishonest!” Pellinore protested.

“Actually, that’s precisely what it means,” Tristan noted.

“We have an arrangement if you must know. You, prick!”

“By arrangement, you mean you won’t kill them if they promise not to tell?”

“OYE!” Pellinore shouted. “Say what you will about my propensity for violence. Say what you will about my bad manners and many mistakes but I love my women. I’d never force myself on a woman the way my bark-faced father raped my mother! If I ever caught a man in the act, I tell you, I’d rip out his rotten guts!”

“Alright, my prince…” Kanish said, grimacing at the details.

“If you must know, they throw themselves at me,” Pellinore said, calming down.

“Oh? And why is that?” Morgan asked.

“Because they know I can protect them,” Pellinore boasted. “My closest wench is but three days away and no one will dare touch her cause they know to whom she belongs. Women like to feel safe, you see. They like men with grit, a little metal in their veins and thankfully that’s all my heart pumps! Eh! I tell you, there’s no safer place on God’s green earth than standing behind my blade.”

“Your sword’s double-edged,” Agravain pointed out.

Pellinore frowned at the boy.

Agravain shrugged with a smirk, “Just saying.”

“Just slaying,” Pellinore warned.

“I bet flower boy knows what I’m talking about,” Pellinore said as he flicked water Gaheris’s way.

Gaheris smirked but said nothing as he continued to scrub his tunic.

“Gaheris!? You little devil!” Gawain gushed with laughter.

“Oh! Gawain! You have no idea!” Agavain complained. “He’s the worst! Everywhere we go, maids throw themselves at his feet. They kiss his rings! He tells the most outlandish lies and they believe it like it came straight from a cleric! I can’t stand it!”

“Ah! I hate bastards like that!” Balto shouted.

“See?! Men envy him and I end up having to fend them off!” Agravain stressed.

“Ag, please. I’m more than capable of defending myself,” Gaheris said.

“Oh yeah? Well, tell me this, flower boy! What are you going to do when I come barging in to run off with one of your fare ladies?” Balto challenged.

“Well, no offense sir, but I’d probably put about three arrows to the back of your head.”

The boys erupted with laughter.

That night, everyone sat around a bonfire and filled their bellies with roasted deer meat. A constellation of flickering fireflies lit up the night sky like the stars themselves. Serenaded by the cascade, the men and women reposed in their own little paradise. Only Tristan found it increasingly difficult to relax.

Battling Gorcus took its toll. The aches and pains stiffened in his back. He lay nestled against the boulder Morgan was sitting on earlier and after ten minutes, he could barely move.

Morgan sat between Gawain and his brothers as Agravain continued to brag about how skilled he was with the dual-sword style. Of course, Pellinore would only take so much of his boasting before he challenged Agravain to a match and Gawain had to latch onto Agravain’s arm to keep him seated.

Isolde was their prisoner, but in truth, she couldn’t remember the last time she felt so at place. As she looked around the fire at the youthful smiles, their fearless audacity, and carefree confidence…Isolde smirked. Looks like she wasn’t one of a kind after all.

“They let you practice?” Agravain asked, astonished.

“It’s all I ever did. That and run. It was my job to relay commands between outposts and they wouldn’t let me have a horse,” Gawain answered as he checked on his lacerated hand.

“What was that? You mean, you weren’t locked up and gagged at all hours of the day? How did that happen?” Isolde said sarcastically from the other side of the fire.

“Yes. I can thank the princess here for a few liberties the queen granted me,” Gawain said.

Morgan glowered. As if he could sense her heart growling, Gawain put a hand on her knee to calm her down. Morgan immediately shoved the hand and snarled at him like a hissing cat that was just poked with a fork. It was scary but cute. Gawain couldn’t help but hunch over and giggle with a hint of genuine fear.

“She favored you.” Morgan asserted.

Gawain winced at the notion. “I wouldn’t go so far as to say all that. My first year was hell. I was beat mercilessly almost every day and subjected to harsh labors. In my free time, which was only an hour after dusk, I’d practice in secret with the sword your father gave me.”

“And then I took notice,” Isolde said. “He was good. I could tell he’d grow up to make a magnificent swordsmen. I convinced my mother to pull young Gawain from the quarries and enlist him as one of my personal guards.”

“Personal guards?!” Morgan griped as her contempt only worsened. She did not like this at all. Her purple eyes blazed with fury and Isolde saw it. Even Gawain started to sweat on one side of his neck even though the bonfire was simmering down.

“You said you were beat mercilessly. By whom, may I ask?” said Gaheris.

Gawain turned to examine his little brother. Both Gaheris and Agravain wore the same indignation and eagerly awaited his answer.

“Morholt and his rabble,” Gawain answered, piquing Pellinore and Tristan.

“Is their swordplay better than yours?” Agravain asked.

“Agravain, they call Morholt the destroyer for good reason. His strength is otherworldly. I once saw him lift a knight, horse and all, clear off the ground. He threw them off of a cliff and into the sea like they were little more than a door ripped from a barn,” Gawain said over the crackle of the fire.

“Then there is Algayre.” He added. “The queen’s most ruthless butcher.”

Isolde chuckled, “Yes, there’s a special place in Algayre’s heart for Gawain. I think he took a liking to him. Everywhere he went, Algayre was always watching. Who knows? Maybe he is watching us right now.”

Morgan noticed Gawain was no longer smiling.

“We’re not being watched,” Morgan quickly asserted. “No one can sneak up on me. I’d sense their presence.”

“I see. You must be the magician Gawain spoke of. He made mention of some gifted enchantress back home. Seeing you now, I must say, I’m not impressed,” Isolde taunted.

Morgan reached out her ruby jeweled hand to the fire. A spiral flame streamed to her and hovered in a ball like a floating apple over her open palm. The Black Bloods stared amazed. Gawain and Gaheris squinted from the sweltering heat, but the fire didn’t burn her.

In Morgan’s glare, Isolde saw the ill intent she wished upon her. She knew Morgan would have no qualms about setting her ablaze and claiming it was an accident.

“So primitive.” Isolde dismissed. “Algayre, now his magic is something special.”

“Algayre is a sorcerer?” Morgan asked. She lost focus and her ball of fire fizzled out.

Gawain answered, “He convinced the queen to purge the local tribes of everyone who practiced the black arts. It was genocide. Hundreds of women and children were burned at the stake with little to no evidence at all.”

“He only did it so he’d be the only sorcerer in Hibernia,” Isolde added

“Indeed,” Gawain agreed.

“Algayre. Morholt. I can’t promise I won’t try to kill these bastards when I see ‘em,” Agravain growled.

“No! Should they accompany Queen Iseult to the castle, we will obey the king’s orders and treat them accordingly.” Tristan declared.

“Just what I’d expect from this lapdog,” Pellinore scoffed.

“Stop right there!” Tristan barked as he struggled to sit up with his back against the boulder.

He continued with, “Now, it is unfortunate that Gawain was treated so poorly, but trust me when I say no one has a better reason to kill Morholt than me. It was he who massacred my parents when I was but a child. He would’ve killed me too if King Mark hadn’t shown up when he did. If King Mark says he lives, then I’ll protect Morholt with my life. If he’s to die, then I will set upon Morholt with the wrath of a titan. But until then, he isn’t to be harmed.”

“Then, tell me this, sunshine. If you’re so damn loyal why aren’t you a knight?” Pellinore grumbled.

Tristan didn’t answer. His cold eyes gazed pensively to the fire.

“Tristan was offered a knighthood. He turned the king down. Twice.” Morgan answered.

Everyone turned to Tristan with stunned expressions. Pellinore shook his head with an angry grimace. “I’ll tell you this. You better watch how you talk to me. I’ll not be scolded by some dimwitted dolt who’s too stupid to see the light of day.”

Isolde chuckled at his remarks. “That’s odd. I was under the impression you were all good friends”

Morgan scoffed, “You instigating little-”

Again, Gawain placed a hand on her knee. This time he grasped firmly, silencing her in an instant. He went on to say, “Isolde, we are all brothers here. Longtime friends. You misinterpret their feelings as animosity but in truth, the anger comes from the disappointment of everyone holding each other to such high standards. It seems we’ve all had to battle our own share of demons these past few years. We should refrain from judging too hastily.”

“Well said, Gawain.” Kanish added.

“I just hope these two don’t end up at each other throats,” Isolde continued to prod.

“The only thing ending up on their throats is ale from the next tavern we pass,” Gawain smirked.

“YAASSSS!!!” Jeremy and Dantry shouted in unison.

“Warm lager for this one,” Balto laughed, giving Pellinore a hearty pat on the back.

“Don’t touch me.” Pellinore growled.

“Uh-Oh! Bring out the honey wine!” Isolde joked.

The boys laughed out loud even though none of them particularly found Isolde’s joke to be that funny. Morgan wasn’t amused. Nor was Tristan. And even though Gawain was laughing harder than anyone, on the inside, the questions were mounting. Why did Tristan turned down a knighthood? They didn’t mention King Mark had a son or some other heir lined up. Tristan would be the most likely candidate, but he turned the king down?

As Gawain pondered these questions, he maintained his gregarious smile and continued the exhausting effort of keeping the peace. For this, Gaheris was most grateful since the task would’ve normally fallen to him.

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