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Iwein strode down the long, dimly-lit corridor of the west hall, measuring his paces to stay behind the lady Lunete of the court of Duchess Laudine. She was a full head shorter than he, and the captured knight struggled not to walk ahead of his guide. The two passed up two flights of narrow stone stairs into a passage that admitted more daylight, causing Iwein to shield his eyes against the unexpected brightness, and then down into more indoor twilight as they traversed another long corridor into the main hall. Once past the huge oak doors, and past four green-and-white liveried guardsmen armed with spears in their hands and short daggers at their belts, Iwein and Lunete entered that hall itself.
There, at the far end of the narrow hall, smaller even than the lesser feasting hall at his own father’s lesser castle, Iwein saw Duchess Laudine, really saw, not merely in passing, for the first time. She was sitting on what was, even for the standards of minor nobility the day, a dark, wooden, surprisingly plain, tall-backed chair, hardly deserving the name „throne“ which itself was on a raised, wooden dais. She was attired in a finely embroidered gown of darkest green, and her lustrous black hair was met at the hairline by a simple silver circlet. Her guard captain, the man to whom Iwein had surrendered his arms, stood to her right at the base of the dias as Lunete and Iwein entered the room. The captain was attired in a white surcoat with silver border and embroidered with a red lion rampant facing a green bar to the left of which was a smaller red dragon. Guards, attired in plainer surcoats with the same heraldry but lacking the silver border over chain mail and armed, like the guards outside, with spears, stood in each corner of the room. Laudine and Geoffry exchanged pleasantries with Lunete and then they greeted Iwein with all due courtesy.
“Sir knight,” she said after they had completed the ceremonial and perfunctory greetings demanded of their respective stations, “you have my apologies for the loss of your steed. I know the bond of rider and horse can be strong, and we did not wish this sorrow on you.”
“Madam, you have my thanks for the words of consolation. Allow me also to say in honest appreciation that the solicitude and kindness of your words is exceeded by the beauty of the voice that conveyed them.”
Laudine took his courteous words as they were intended and betrayed not the barest hint of the pleasant feeling they evoked in her. She simply nodded to acknowledge his courtesy. He then spoke again, “But as your prisoner I have, understandably, a need to know your disposition toward me. The nurse Lunete has told me that I am now under some compulsion to act as the defender of that stone table in the forest. That is true?”
“Sir, I trust my Lunete with my life, and I am certain that whatever she told you was fully the truth. To be sure, let me state it in my own words: you are bound to become the new defender of the stone table for one year, and if you refuse this onus, the virtue of the table will take your life.”
“One year. And after?”
“After?”, and here she let slip a hint of curiosity into her voice. What was he expecting of her? And how would he respond to the full truth about the enchantment to which he had unwittingly become subject.
“Yes. Say that I am successful. That I defend this stone table for one year, without fail. Will I be free to leave here? I am myself a knight and duke and have obligations of fealty and honor that must be discharged.”
At this, Laudine stood and met Iwein’s gaze with her own for the first time. “I, too, have my obligations, as Duchess and head of this house, and give you assurance that, should you succeed in defending the stone table for one year, and fulfill the other condition to which this geas binds you, you will have my leave and be able to attend to your duties in the court of your king. Yes, I have been told who you are Iwein Duke of Brittany,” she said in an officious tone, “and I have no wish for conflict with the ruling king of Britain or his foreign liegemen. You are Breton, we are Welsh, the king is half-Welsh. We are all kinfolk however distantly. We should live in comity and amicable relations with each other.”
“That is well and it pleases me to hear it,” Iwein responded, stiffening his own tone to match Laudine’s, “but it tells me little of hand-fast value. Will I be able to leave here forever should I wish to? What is the extent of the geas of this enchanted table?”
Laudine descended the dais and walked toward him stopping just a few feet from him. “The first question I can answer, as my father was the keeper of the stone table for many years, and he met his worldly end far from here. You would be able to leave for as long as you wished, but the geas to defend it would still remain and you would find yourself drawn back whenever it thought you were needed.”
“ ‘Whenever it thought?!’” , Iwein repeated, irritation beginning to creep into his voice. “It thinks? It’s a rock! How can it…”
Laudine raised her hand and cast him a dour glance to silence him. It worked. “It will tell you, using a means I will explain if you survive your year as steward in waiting. Your predecessor did not. What I can tell you now is that the table is first and last an enchanted thing with some sort of a mind…or spirit of its own. We know not. It came here from another kingdom, my father said, and I know of it only what I have been told by him, my mother, my grandfather and what we have written down about it, which is precious little. It requires a human guardian, it must be a man who becomes the enactor of its virtues…”,
She trailed off, searching for the right words and Iwein took advantage of the moment to interject, “About those virtues: What are they exactly? When I poured the water on the table, it gave forth light and the weather changed. Lunete told me it summons storms and winds. Is that the extent of its virtues?”
“No,” she replied with a smile. “There is another I can only show you if we go to the table itself. Which we shall, now, while there is yet daylight. There I shall also tell you of the deeper and enduring aspect of the enchantment. In this I presume, knight, that you will pledge not to flee when you ride out with us. That would be futile, since the stone’s magic would kill you for refusing your duty.”
“That warning your Lunete had already given me,“ and there nodded at the small woman, who only stiffened her mien in response. He continued. „I believe you both. On my honor I so pledge,” he responded. “Shall you then show me this rock that can think?”
„I shall,“ she answered.
Then, she stood and for the first time Iwein saw that she was a woman taller than most, her head even with the shoulders of the guard captain at her side. She turned to Geoffry and instructed him send two of his soldiers to ready three horses, one for herself, one for him and one for Iwein. Another quick exchange followed, in which Laudine instructed the guards who had been on duty before the entrance to the main hall to return to their assigned stations, the interview with the prisoner now ended. Then, she, with Geoffry and Iwein, proceeded from the main keep to the stables, arriving just in time to see the grooms bringing the requested mounts from the stalls. Once the steeds were readied, they mounted up and rode out.
The ride back to the glade with the stone table was, for Iwein, considerably more relaxed than his race with his dying foeman had been, and in spite of his sense that both Laudine and Geoffry were watching him for any sign of word-breaking. That perception was the correct one, and only as they came within sight of the stone table did his two riding companions relax their watch. Geoffry spurred his horse to speed ahead, arriving at the table first and dismounting to wait on Laudine. Iwein arrived last.
“Come here,” Laudine beckoned to him with her right hand as she approached the stone. “Take the pitcher from the recess, like you did before and pour a small amount of water, only a few drops, out over the center of the stone and say aloud some place or someone you’d like to see.”
He did as she had instructed, casting an occasional skeptical glance in her direction until he had the jar held at arm’s length directly above the table. Then, focusing on the jar, he tipped it just enough to let a few drops spill out and said, “Arthur, my king.”
For a breath of a moment, nothing happened. Then, the table began to glow as it had before and in the air above its exact middle, a pale haze appeared in the air. If Iwein had tried to check his gasp of surprise, he would have failed, and as he watched an image of ghostly figures form in the midst of the haze. The images grew in clarity, took on color and defined form, showing, in a sphere, King Arthur, or at least his face and upper torso. His eyes were flashing, his mouth moving, apparently to articulate shouts, and his hand gesticulating forcefully. He appeared to be in an argument with some unseen interlocutor in an interior room lit with candles.
“You did not jest, madam,” Iwein spoke, his voice subdued. His eyes were still fixed on the image floating in the bright ball in the air as he said, “What magic is this?”
“An ancient one. The table came from somewhere…and somewhen far away. My family has guarded it only, we have never known who crafted, when it or why. We have sworn only to keep it and let none other learn or use its virtues.”
The three of them watched the image of Arthur for a moment more when suddenly the image grew brighter and in an instant, they no longer saw Arthur’s face alone but that of an older man standing beside him. Arthur and he seemed to be engaged in a heated discussion. He had a long, lean jawline, a beard of white-and-black and grey eyes whose color came straight from the heart of a storm. The features of the man were illumined by golden candle light. Without warning, the face in the ball of light hovering over the table turned to gaze directly at Iwein, Laudine and Geoffry.
“Merlin!”, Iwein shouted. At this, a faint hint of a smile sparked on the mage’s face and was gone, along with the floating ball of light. The table grew dark again and there was no trace of the water that had been poured out on it.
“That, sir, shows the virtue of far-seeing that the table allows its master. There is no more to be learned of it here today. We will return to Rhiw Gwyrdd.” Seeing the puzzlement in Iwein’s face, she laughed and added, “The castle town. I see you haven’t yet heard its name. There you shall stay and discharge your duty to guard that table for one year. Unless you would rather die than stay here?”
“No, no I would not. I would seem I have little choice in the matter,” he spoke as they turned away from the stone and walked back toward their horses.
“None, sir, if you wish to live” she answered. The smile as she said it troubled him far more than the words themselves.
He nodded, and said, almost to himself, “‘A challenge whose point is set to the very heart of virtue,’”. Then he laughed.
“‘A challenge whose point is set to’…what? What did you say?”, Laudine asked, her voice clearly betraying her bafflement.
“That was a warning the giant told me. It seems he was right. Whatever the end of this, I pledge that I will stay and fulfil the duty you demand of me. After that, I return to my king and may my time of service here bring him honor.”
“Return? Duke and knight, only if you survive one full turn of seasons here,” she reminded him. “For the year of testing, certainly you may not. What little my father told me of it says to me that you, like he, will only be able to leave this place, these lands, when the stone wills it and for as long as the stone wills it.”
“Again, you speak as if that carved rock here,” and he gestured at it, “had a mind and could force its will upon even those who guard it.”
“It does, after a fashion, and the power it grants comes with a cost to one’s freedom.”
“Power always does.”
And from there they rode on in silence until they returned to the castle of Rhiw Gwyrdd. By the time they arrived, it was nearly dusk, and aside from the few necessary formalities and practical utterances the three of them spoke nothing to each other and little to others they encountered. In the few hours before he retired after the long day, Iwein began to realize it would be to his advantage to learn to appreciate the castle and village. He also began to wonder, how many days or week he would be need to be gone before someone at Camelot came looking for him.
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