The castle loomed up through the mist, a pile of stone so tall that the top was lost in the clouds. Turret clambered on top of turret and appeared only to be prevented from collapsing by the supporting arms of buttresses pressed against each wall. Narrow slit windows in the ivy-clad towers provided vantage points for archers but obstructed the arrows of attackers. There was only one gate in the outer perimeter wall, and that was defended by a drawbridge over the moat, wider than a catapult’s-length shot and deeper than a horse and rider together. But at the moment the drawbridge was down and the gate to the central keep open, for in King Arthur’s realm of Britain there was peace, and the gaily colored pennants flew from every tower and belfry roof of the great palace of Camelot.
Trumpets sounded a sennet, and in the Great Hall of the donjon a feast was in progress, for today was Christmas Eve. Gonfalons were strung between the pillars, their colored streamers giving a festive air to the already riotous proceedings. Young scullions from the kitchens, the prettiest only of course, brought in huge silver salvers containing ox and sheep steaks and roasted fowls. They were wearing only the shortest of tunics and there were tantalizing glimpses of bottoms toasted pink by the fires of the kitchen, and sometimes even the tip of a youthful dangling penis. It would be inconceivable of course for a Knight to even think of rogering a cook’s boy, though it was quite acceptable to pat a rounded bottom or fondle a hanging prick as it passed, and the Knights took full opportunity so that the poor lads returned to their kitchens with raging erections, to the great amusement of the cooks.
Arthurus Rex Quondam et Rex Futuri. Arthur, the Once and Future King, sitting on his throne under a baldachin woven with his coat of arms, surveyed his Court and was pleased. A fine bunch of fellows, he thought, some of whom he quite fancied. Sir Gareth over there, for instance, with his hand up a seductive scullion’s bum—not his eating hand thank goodness—with his blond good looks and ready smile, virile young body and a cock which, so rumor had it, could pleasure an arse five or six times in a night. But Arthur had never approached any of his Knights, for to make a move on one rather than on another would lay him open to the charge of favoritism, and that would never do. The alternative would be to have all of them, and at the thought he smiled to himself and instantly his pleasant, wholesome face with its healthy complexion became attractive and charming.
Then he sighed. It was in some ways a hard, lonely life being a King and some time he would have to get himself a companion—but whom to choose? To elevate one of the Company above his peers would invite all sorts of discord, and that he neither wished nor could afford. Sir Morion, for instance, although King’s Champion and sitting on the King’s left hand, was always quick to take offense at any slight, imagined or not. Arthur saw that even now Morion had his dark, deep-set eyes fixed on him, making sure that he, the King, was not doing anything that might be to his detriment.
The musicians on the raised dais at the end of the hall played a merry dance tune on pipes, tabors, rebec, and shawm, and soon, Arthur knew, there would be dancing and singing. He beckoned to a page standing near him to fill his drinking cup with wine. The youth did so and then stood near to him to see if there were yet further wishes from his sovereign that he could satisfy. He was a well set-up lad with long legs and a provoking bulge in his hose which Arthur, under different circumstances, would have liked to explore, but he held himself back. There was State work to be done later that evening—the visit of the French Knight Sir Lancelot du Lac, with messages of Peace from the King of France. News had come that Lancelot had already landed some few miles down the coast and they awaited his arrival at any moment.
Arthur wondered what he would be like. The French were a curious people. Most seemed attracted to women and they ate too much garlic, in his opinion. But it was too easy to condemn a whole nation on the strength of meeting just a few individuals, and Arthur would wait and see.
Ah, as he thought, someone had already started to sing a roundelay and others were joining in. Trays of sweet cakes and bottles of mead, the heady drink made from honey, were now being passed around by the long-suffering scullions, who secretly enjoyed the mistreatment they had to undergo and would fight amongst themselves for the privilege of serving particularly handsome Knights.
A Knight was dancing with his Esquire. Others got up to join in and soon the space in the center of the hall was filled with young men whirling and jumping in time to the music, disturbing the dogs which were arguing over the meat bones flung to them. Assignations were probably being made, thought the King, and most, if not all of his vassals would have company tonight—though he was destined for yet another solitary bed. Merlyn, his advisor and Court Wizard, sensed his melancholy and came to his side.
“My Lord, the decision will be made soon—or perhaps has already been made.” He looked confused for a moment, rubbing his fingers through his wispy grey beard. “It is so difficult when you are living backward through time.”
Arthur sighed. Merlyn was wise and had great knowledge of alchemical lore, but his obsession with the fact that he felt he was growing younger day by day often confused them both.
A sennet sounded, interrupting the tune, and both the rebec’s melody, played with a bow on three strings, and the shawm’s reedy wail faded into silence. The doors at the end of the Hall were thrust open and all the dancers paused in their activity, turning to face the entrance. A tall young man entered. He was dressed fashionably in the French style, in green hose with a quilted cote-hardie of blue velvet slashed so that the gold lining showed through. A darker gold hood against the weather was folded back onto his shoulders, exposing his dark hair on which droplets of rain glittered in the candlelight. Over his left shoulder he wore a baldric from which a sword was hung. His features were regular and his eyebrows dark, shading the deep brown of his eyes. His shoulders were broad and his hips slim and his hose outlined a tantalizing shape in the hollow of his groin. All this Arthur saw, and then realized how attracted he was to this young visitor.
“Sir Lancelot du Lac,” he announced himself and shook his head like a dog, making the drops fly in an aureole of rainbow colors, before approaching the King’s throne and kneeling before him. “Majesty, I bring you warmest greetings from the King of France.”
Arthur extended his right hand and the young man kissed it, holding it for a moment in his warm palm. Arthur could feel the soft brush of his lips and a shiver of excitement went through his whole body.
“And you are warmly welcome, Sir Lancelot,” said the King, and motioned him to sit in the empty seat at his right hand always left vacant for guests of importance. With his own hands, he poured wine into a silver goblet and waited for him to drink, unable to take his eyes off the handsome stranger. Even so, he was acutely aware that Sir Morion would be casting disapproving, possibly even jealous looks from his place on the other side.
“Let us leave affairs of State to one side for the present,” Arthur suggested. “You are just in time for the entertainment.” And he made a sign to Sir Peveril, the Master of Ceremonies, who had been waiting in a damp state of apprehension all evening for this moment to arrive. Now he clapped his hands praying that all would go well, the acrobats not trip over each other, and the clowns would! Immediately the jugglers, sword-swallowers and magicians ran on to perform their respective skills. Sir Peveril need not have worried for none of his entertainers disgraced him, only Merlyn showing disgust at the conjurers as he considered them little more than cheats and mountebanks.
When they had run off, the King announced, “Now we will make our own entertainment and pit our own strengths and talents against any comers. By custom, it is the King who begins, and I claim the right to challenge our visitor from France at a bout. Will you indulge in friendly combat?”
“Willingly,” said Sir Lancelot. “But what is the skill to be tested?”
“Let us ask the company,” said Arthur, and as if from one throat came the reply, “Wrestling,” for they knew the King’s love of the sport and his talent for it.
Then Sir Morion spoke. “Sire,” he said, “as King’s Champion, I should take the King’s part and place in any contest. I will fight against… this Frenchman,” and he made the words sound like an insult.
“No, Morion,” said Arthur, “this is a friendly contest and I will fight my own battle tonight.” And with that Sir Morion had to be content, though he showed no pleasure in it and returned to his seat with a black look on his face.
Then the King and Lancelot stripped off their doublets, tunics and linen undershirts, leaving them in just their hose, and the company made remarks about their personal equipment, which created great merriment all round.