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And now, Chapter Three:
After the sudden arrival of the Green Gryphon Knight and Iwein in the castle courtyard, the inhabitants of the castle moved quickly to clear up the aftermath and learn for themselves what had transpired. Their champion had arrived dying in his saddle, and his nemesis, Iwein, had stood to face them only after putting his own mortally wounded steed to a merciful death in front of the assembled crowd. Iwein had then found himself surrounded by startled and hostile men-at-arms, regular soldiers, and angry-looking yeoman. He had prompty and with a minimum of ceremony surrendered his shield and sword to the Captain of the Castle guard. He was then led to a small and quite austere guest chamber. Two guards were assigned to stand watch outside the door there, in spite of Iwein’s earnest assurance on his honor that he would not attempt to leave the premises until summoned. Before the man could leave the room, Iwein asked the Captain to show the remains of his mount the courtesy of burning them, and not let the dogs have poor Sable.
“I’ll see to it, sir knight. Your arrival here has been inauspicious, but that is no grounds for discourtesy,” the dark-eyed, sand-haired Captain replied.
“You have my thanks. What says one here? Diolch?”, Iwein tried one of the few words of the Cymraeg tongue he had learned.
“Mae hwn’an gwyhir, diolch. You sound Breton, though. Diolch yn fawr is more polite. Say that in the future.” The Captain honored the knight with a curt bow, turned, and left the now-captive Knight of the Round Table to consider his new and not entirely comfortable circumstances.
The Captain was as good as his word and soon set a small group of stable hands and work men to remove and bury, not burn, the equine cadaver that had been Iwein’s Sable. The corpse of Iwein’s vanquished opponent was taken by novice clergymen to a room set aside for preparations for burials. It was a small, sparsely furnished room located to the left and behind the narvix of the castle’s modest chapel. When I say, modest, I mean it was about the size of an average medieval country church anywhere in Europe, from Central Italy, to Bavaria to Wales, the last of these being the land where this particular chapel was found. The chapel would, if all those present remained standing, have had just enough room for about a hundred people and that would have included the all of the ministrants, attendants and left barely the space needed for the performance of a high mass.
And in this small chapel, some two hours after Iwein had arrived, chasing the mortally wounded Knight of the Green Gryphon, the Lady of the Castle, Laudine by name, stood with the Castle Priest, Father Bertand, and the Captain of the castle guard, whose name was Geoffrey ap Brion. It was Laudine who had ordered them to meet so that she might take their counsel and then determine both the burial preparations for the fallen knight and implications of his death. The Knight of the Green Gryphon, Daffydd by name, had been the guardian of that Stone Table which Iwein had found in the forest. His death brought with it complications.
“What did your men find in the forest?”, Laudine asked, her eyes lifting from Daffydd’s still-armored corpse to meet those of her Captain.
“Nothing that contradicts the foreign knight’s account,” Geoffrey replied. “All the marks in the grass and on the ground pointed to a mounted battle and a flight. Certainly nothing in the wounds Daffydd suffered points to any unchivalrous action by either combatant. All his wounds are on the chest, arm or side. Nothing on the back. No head blows either. They fought as best we can see as the intruder told it and as best chivalry would have it. Daffydd could have surrendered.”
“But he did not,” Laudine said the words without regret, without much emotion at all. “That shows some considerable courage, to wager his life in combat, as a knight ought. In that at least he proved admirable in the end.”
Father Bertram coughed. “Madame, all due deference, but in this moment and all others after, scorn for the man is not appropriate. Prayer for the repose of his soul is.”
“All time he spends in purgatory will be well earned,” she retorted coolly. “He did his duty as defender of the Stone Table, nothing more, and fell far short in all other aspects of his chivalry. I will not mourn him nor say a single word of prayer for his repose, father. And at this time, all due deference, my thought is turned to his successor.”
“Yes, his successor,” said Father Bertram, cutting off his own admonitory remarks about loving even the imperfect, hoping he would remember to make them when Duchess Laudine was in a better temper. “Do we even know who he is and does he know that he is the successor to his vanquished foe?”
At this question, Geoffrey knodded, then spoke. “His name is Iwein, and he says he a knight of noble rank in loyal service of England’s king.”
“If true, then he serves Arthur Pendragon. My remote kinsman,” said Laudine. “That means we cannot lawfully hold him prisoner here except by his sufferance, unless we wish to bring on us the king’s wrath.”
“But the pact of the Stone Table, madam…”, Father Bertram began, some tension rising in his voice.
“That will be spoken of in time,” Laudine cut him off. “I have sent my nurse to him to ascertain his character. If there is falsehood in him, she will have it out. And quickly. I will act in accord with what she tells me of him. We three here, well, we must see to the burial. You say, father Bertram, I should mourn Daffydd, and I will, as I would any stranger who were to die here. But it is not without relief that I look on the prospect of not accepting him as my husband.”
While the three in the chapel continued their discussion, addressing the burial preparations for the deceased knight of the Green Gryphon, Iwein spent one hour, then two, then more time, pacing in a small, sparsely appointed room that was, for its relative comfort and light, still as much a prison cell as any dark and malodourous dungeon could have been. There was a wooden chair with a solid back, a very simple bed, a rude table and basin for sanitary needs, a brass candle holder with four wax candles beside it on a small shelf on the wall facing him but no wall hangings, rugs or other decorative comforts. He sat, then rose from the chair and paced, sat again after a spell, then rose and paced again. All the while he held in his hand a small leather copy of De Consolatio Philosophia given to him at his request by one of the guards the Captain had posted outside the room to at least hinder any attempt at escape. He tried to divert himself with the familiar text, but again and again came no further than the abundant autumns of prolific years. In sum Iwein was finding the book everything but consoling. Another hour passed and he grew increasingly restive.
“Perhaps surrender was a foolish idea,” he muttered to himself. But he knew better. The courtyard had been filled with armed men, far too many for him to attack in anything but a suicide attempt. And his horse….putting an end to Sable’s suffering had been wrenching, the pain of it was still keen. Iwein’s captors had to this point followed the rules of war and chivalry scrupulously, almost extravagantly. The small room was spartan in its furnishings but it was clean, dry and even had a window looking out onto the courtyard below. They had given him bread and ale, even. No meat and no butter, but, Iwein did not believe they had been planning for guests, exactly. What were they planning, now?
The door opened, stirring him from his reverie, and a small, pale dark-haired woman entered the room. She was attired in a dark green dress with a collar that left her shoulders free and dark blue trim on the neckline and sleeves. Her face was impassive, though there was a certain searching look in her green eyes. He stood straight as he could, as a man facing an unknown fate that might include trial by combat or even plain execution. He wanted, whatever awaited him, to present as dignified a bearing as possible. He closed his book as she addressed him.
“Good day, young sir. We trust you find your accommodations sufficient and that you have no needs left unattended. Is this so?”
“Yes, it is,” her dry, officious tone took him off guard. He had been prepared for either hostility or deference to his station, but this greeting expressed neither. “Whom do I have the honor of addressing? You are not the lady of the castle. Her sister perhaps?”
She almost smiled, restrained herself in time. “No, I am her nurse. You may address me simply as Lunete.”
“Lunete,” he repeated. “You certainly do no look old enough to be the nurse of that woman I saw in the courtyard.”
In spite of herself, she did smile this time before replied. “And you, sir, are not quite glib enough to advance as far as you might wish with such flattery.”
“Flattery it is not. It is a mere courtly pleasantry, but one grounded in truth. You have come, I suspect, either with questions for me or to inform me how you wish to dispose of me. Are you planning to set a ransom? I can tell you where your messengers would have to take such a demand. If you mean to send such a demand to my family, the you’ll need to send your letters as far as Brittany, south, across the channel.”
“No, no. We are not sending to ask a ransom,” the small woman’s words were bright yet flat.
„Then it’s to be execution?“, Iwein dropped a hint of asperity to pepper his voice.
“No, not that either,“ . Your tale of the duel was correct in all facts, as well as we can tell. We did send riders to the Stone Table and what they reported confirms your recounting of events. And that is where we have a quandary, or, rather that you have a quandary.”
“What do you mean? What kind of a quandary?”, the puzzlement in Iwein’s voice was entirely genuine.
“Did your foeman not tell you of the geas of the Stone Table?”, Lunete herself allowed a hint of bafflement to permeate her question in response.
“The what?”, this question from Iwein was larded with challenge.
“The geas, as sort of a magical compulsion, like a curse or in some cases a blessing I suppose, but…”
Iwein raised his hand. “I know what the word means, ma’am,” he said, giving way to a tone of honest if troubled inquiry, “but he only challenged me for daring to use his table. Of how I was using it or why I should not he said nothing. I only poured water out on it, like the giant told me to do. Then strange things began to happen.”
“Ah, the giant. Of course. ” she said, and bit her lower lip. Lunete looked- and was- pensive for a moment before continuing. “What should I tell you that my mistress should not instead tell you. All perhaps. Certainly, it is enough for you to know the gravity of your circumstance.” She registered the look of surprise on his face and gestured toward the chair, inviting him to sit before she continued. He did and he put his codex down on the table.
“The Stone Table came here to Wales along with the family of my mistress, ages ago. This great castle,” and she gestured around her with sweeping hand, “they built from stone drawn out of the earth or out of Roman houses long abandoned, but the Stone Table they brought with them from their home afar. It bears some enchanted virtue. The Duchess, that’s the lady you saw in the courtyard, will tell you all about it.”
“Madam, can you tell me anything about it? Anything at all?”
“You have to remain here for a year after you pour water on it. Part of the enchantment.“
“The giant could have mentioned that!” Iwein said, his voice now tinged with anger. “What happens if I leave before that?”
“Oh, if you leave before a year, then you die.”
“Do you mean to say that your people will kill me?”
“No, I mean you will die. Another virtue of the Table. It wants a steward, some man to use it, and it wants to serve this house, that is, the family of my mistress. And if you merely ride away, you will sicken and die. It’s happened before. I’ve seen it more than once in my life. Daffydd, the knight you killed, he nearly lasted the whole year, but he was the first. Three proceeded him and all died either defending the Table or trying to flee its onus. All that has been in the nigh-on-five years since the death of my mistress’s father. He was the last of his unbroken male line to guard it.”
Iwein stood and paced again, to the window and back, then stopped and asked, “So, am I to understand then that, if I guard the Stone Table for a whole year, one turn of seasons, then I would be free of the curse that would take my life? I could leave? Forever?”
“No, you could not. Not and live long, I believe. I mean, I think. On that point I honestly do not know. Ask the Lady of the the castle, when she deigns to grace you with her presence. I can tell you this: Others who acted as steward before you, my mistress’s ancestors, have gone on long journeys, I have heard, but I cannot answer your question. I know that you would then be the master of the Stone Table. It would accept you, so to speak, and grant you mastery of its full virtues, and they are far greater than you have seen. The Table only passes from one defender to the next through inheritance by death or by conquest, by killing the previous steward. That, sir, is why we are now here. You are the steward in waiting, so to speak.”
Iwein had just enough time for the implications of the word “inheritance” to begin to dawn in his mind when the door opened. A soldier clad in plain leather leggings and coat with mail and a domed, skull-cap of a helmet spoke briefly to Lunete in more Welsh than Iwein could follow. She nodded and beckoned to Iwein. “Accompany me,” she said.
To be continued… (of course).
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