One brisk morning in mid-March, King Arthur stood on one of the balconies of Camelot and listened to his younger son loudly discontinue the courtship of his current lady.
The king sighed and shook his head as the heated argument reached his ears. “You can say whatever you want about the bl—the kitchen maid—what about you and Sir Ulrich? If you can fool around—why can’t I?”
“It was a kitchen maid! And besides—a young maiden has to keep an eye on her prospects! She can’t dally with one young man while her father would rather marry her off to another!”
“Your father? Your father is off in some wooden hut in Wales—”
“THOMAS PENDRAGON, that is an INSULT!”
Sir Lancelot, the king’s best knight and, moreover, his best friend, also came out onto the balcony. He winced and hissed. “Ouch.”
“I know,” the king groaned.
Lancelot was silent for a moment. More insults floated up to the balcony. “Were we ever quite that young and stupid?” he asked his king, curiously.
“Young—yes. Stupid—I’m not sure.”
Lancelot looked over the side, at the arguing couple. The young lady – tall, with hair in a dark golden brown – tossed her head imperiously. “You’d best return my tokens, Thomas—I can’t have the rest of the court thinking me a flagrant woman who would—”
“You want your tokens? You can HAVE your bloody tokens! I don’t WANT them!”
The king groaned again.
A third knight walked onto the balcony – Sir Gawaine, the king’s nephew. He glanced over the side with a wry chuckle. “Seems Ah lost that bet …”
“Bet?” Lancelot asked.
“Aye—me an’ your younger brother had a wee wager on this one—Ah said ‘twould be at least a fortnight before the lad and the lass parted ways—Ector said they wouldna last a week.”
The king turned to Gawaine with a raised eyebrow. “You’re taking bets on my son’s love life?”
“There hasna been a tournament since New Year’s, sire. There’s nothin’ else ta bet on.”
“Is that a hint?” Arthur asked blandly. “There’s already one planned for Pentecost.”
“And don’t forget the one in July,” Lancelot pointed out.
Arthur glanced down at the courtyard again. The girl was calling out, “I should tell my brothers that you—that you—”
“If you’ve found yourself deflowered, it wasn’t me who did the plucking!”
A fourth knight, huffing and wheezing, stomped onto the balcony. “Your Majesty, you should—”
“Bors,” Arthur warned, turning to look at the dark-eyed, black-haired, short and stocky knight, “if you say one word about me needing to control my son, I’ll have you in the stocks for a week.”
The knight snorted and looked down into the courtyard.
“He has a point, Arthur,” Lancelot pointed out. “If Tom isn’t careful, her brothers are going to come after him.”
Arthur shook his head. “And that experience will be a much better teacher than anything I tell him. Lord knows experience taught me well …”
There was a moment of grim silence. Another figure – this one small, no knight, female and flaxen-haired – hung in the shadows of the doorway to the balcony, but none of the other knights noticed her.
“Eh, Ah’m on the lad’s side,” Gawaine finally pronounced. “Let the young ‘uns have their fun—come on now, Bors, didna ye ever make a mistake or twa with the young maids? Or maid,” he finished sarcastically.
Bors snorted. “That was a mistake in and of itself.”
The figure in the back stiffened, while Arthur said harshly, “Bors! How can you say something like that?”
“It’s true—if I’d managed to keep my virginity—”
“It’s not your virginity I’m talking about, you great idiot, it’s your daughter—”
Whatever Bors would have said on the subject of his daughter, the fifth figure never knew, for, trying to hold back tears, she turned and quickly walked down the hall.
“Bloody females!” called out Thomas Pendragon, younger son of King Arthur, as he stomped his way through one of the corridors. The only other occupant of the said corridor, a scullery maid, hastily ducked into one of the rooms to the side. Tommy, not even noticing, took a small ball from his pocket and angrily threw it at a shield hanging on the wall.
It bounced off, around the corner—Tommy cursed mentally, great, now he would have to go chasing after it, just what he needed—and was followed by a stifled, teary, “Ouch!”
Tommy froze, then—Bloody hell!—he ran off, skidding around the corner. “Look—I’m sorry—I didn’t know anyone was coming around—” He stopped, taking in the person who he had accidentally hit. “Oh. Ly—Lady Gwendolyn.”
She was holding his ball in her hand—she held it up to him. “Is this—yours, my lord?”
Tommy was almost ready to say yes, take the ball back, and leave it at that—then he got a closer look at the young maid in front of him. She was small; and, even though he had known her since before she developed her curves, his eyes still took them in with a very appreciative glance. Her hair was flaxen, thick and fluffy and properly lying flat on her back, as befit a maiden. She was pretty, very pretty, especially when she smiled – though she was not smiling now – and her eyes—Tommy’s steely gray ones narrowed. Her eyes were always big, dark and lustrous, like a startled doe’s, but now they were red around the edges and shining with something that looked like tears. He asked, concerned, “Did it hurt you?”
She shook her head, then added, “Not—not really, my lord. Just—hit my hand and startled me.”
“You sure?” He continued, “And none of this ‘my lord’ stuff—your father isn’t breathing down your neck now—it’s Tom.”
She gave a shaky smile, though he thought blinked more rapidly, as if having to hold back tears, at the mention of her father. “Yes—I’m sure—Tom—Tommy.”
Well, Tommy works too. She and his twin sister, he realized, were about the only people who still called him that. Jessie was Jessie, he knew, and she had been calling him Tommy since they were both old enough to spit the word out. And it had been Tommy for Lynn since they had met—seven years ago, come Pentecost.
Then again, he was one to talk—even though he was careful to call her “Lady Gwendolyn” now; when thought of her, it was always as Lynn. That Pentecost, seven years ago, her father—Sir Bors—had come riding up with a small maid, only eight years old, on a pony behind him. She had not changed very much since then—well, Tommy adjusted, glancing over her figure once again, in some ways she has—that startled-doe glance that she gave him still remained the same, from the moment her father had finally remembered to lift her off her horse, then left her standing in the courtyard, having forgotten about her as he reunited with all his old friends from the Round Table.
Tommy had walked up to her then, an eight-year-old boy with bright red hair, piercing gray eyes and a band of freckles just starting to form across his nose. “So who are you?” he had asked with childish forthrightness.
She had started, blinked, looked around as if to make sure he was really talking to her. “Me?” she had squeaked. “My—my name is Gwendolyn de Ganis. Sir Bors’s daughter.”
“Gwendolyn de Ganis? Do you actually call yourself that?” he had asked, making a face. “It’s too long!”
She had blushed—looked at the ground. “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault,” he had answered easily. “We’ll think of something else—let’s see—Gwendolyn—we’ve already got a Gwen—hmm—I guess it’ll have to be Lynn.”
“Lynn?” she had questioned, hesitatingly. “Isn’t that not—proper?”
“Says who?” he had replied. “My name’s Thomas Pendragon—but no one ever calls me that—except my father, and that’s only when he’s angry—everyone always calls me Tommy.”
“Tommy,” she had said quietly.
“Tommy?” That quiet voice recalled him to the present. He shook his head, copper-red strands flickering in the torchlight.
“I’m listening—oh.” She was still holding out his ball to him. “That.” He took it with a grin that was charming from long practice—and Lynn smiled back. “So if I didn’t hit you—what’s the matter?”
Her eyes, holding his so steadily for those few moments, dropped. “Nothing.”
“Aw, come on, you can’t fool me with that, Lynn—Lady Gwe—Lynn.” The nickname made her look up, meet his eyes for a moment—then she looked down and shook her head.
“It’s nothing—Tommy. Really. I … should be used to it by now.”
“Be used to what?”
“Oh, just—knowing—that—” She stopped, shaking her head. “I don’t want to talk about it.”
“You can trust me, you know.”
“It’s not—” She looked over her shoulder. “I should go, before my father …”
“Gets angry because you’re actually talking to someone?” Tommy’s voice came out more bitter than he had wanted it to—but he could hardly help it—he had disliked Bors ever since the elder knight had come back from the Grail quest, and Lynn, between not seeing him for four years and also operating for four years under Arthur’s somewhat less restrictive child-rearing skills, had run up to him, all smiles—
And the knight had scolded her for not being “lady-like”.
“The Devil has use for idle hands,” she murmured automatically.
“So do the angels,” Tommy muttered under his breath—before stepping aside. “Sorry again—Lynn.”
“It was no problem.” She gave him a brief flash of a smile—then brushed past him and hurried down the hall, at least, hurried as much as a lady could.
For some reason—he turned and watched as she left—and Mairwen entered his mind. There could not be a greater contrast between two young maids than between Lynn and Mairwen – Mairwen with her flashing eyes and sultry gazes, her unspoken promises and alluring smile … and Lynn, who could even now hardly look into his eyes for any period of time, who tried to hide from the world and thought that even having the ability to make such an unspoken promise was a sin … yet somehow … the more he thought of Lynn …
Tommy shook his head and started down the hall again. You must be—what did Jessie call it—on the rebound or something, Tom, because you’re really starting to lose it.
“So when are you actually going to give her back her tokens, Tom?” asked a squire, about the same age as Tommy, average-sized with light ash brown hair, as he pulled back on his bowstring.
“When can I bear to look at her ugly face again?” Tommy asked by way of reply.
The first squire put down his bow—nudged a blonde boy, short and slender, next to him. “Whew—he actually called her ugly!”
“Is he feeling all right?” the blonde boy murmured.
“Perfectly fine,” Tommy answered. He lifted his own bow, nocked an arrow, and took careful aim. “Just being,” he pulled the string back, “a little bit,” he let it go, “vindictive.” He grinned as the arrow hit the target—dead center.
“But yesterday you were claiming that parting ways was all your idea,” the brown-haired boy said devilishly.
“Oh, it was, Dai—I just wouldn’t have had to do if she hadn’t been such a shrew.” He sighed and shook his head. “We had such a beautiful relationship … and then she had to go and screw it up by being …” Tommy paused. “Herself.”
“All the lovely Mairwen’s fault—of course,” Dai said sagely. He shook his head. “You know—I can’t let such an insult to my fellow countrywoman pass unanswered …”
Tommy playfully pointed the bow at Dai. “You think?”
“Don’t be an idiot, Tom,” said a tall, black-haired young man—quiet until that point.
“Oh, shut it, Will—don’t you ever have any fun?”
Will just squinted as he carefully took aim at the target. “Sometimes.”
“Oh, yes—like when he’s with his mystery girl,” Dai teased.
Will stiffened—just as he was letting go—the arrow veered wildly off target. “Damn.”
“Why, I think you hit a nerve there, Dai!” Tommy said jocosely.
“You know what—I think I did, Tom!”
“Knock it off,” Will said – though his tone held out very little hope.
“If you were to tell us who it was,” Dai suggested helpfully, “we’d stop the mystery girl routine.”
“Right—you’d just add in her name where you say ‘mystery girl’—no thanks.”
“Oh, how chivalrous—Will doesn’t want his chosen lady’s name dragged through the mud,” Tommy teased.
“He knows he doesn’t have to worry about that,” Dai answered. “All he has to do is own up to his never-dying passion for Bennett’s sister—and we’d leave him alone when Ben was around.” Will shuddered as Dai clapped the blonde boy on the back. “Because we wouldn’t want to have to make poor Ben defend his sister’s honor.”
“Half-sister,” Bennett muttered his breath. “You want to be separated from Elaine at least by half—ask Tom, he’ll know what I mean, don’t you, Tom?”
“Your sister …” Tommy murmured, frowning, deep in thought. “I wonder … is she still friends with Mairwen?”
Ben blinked. “Of course.”
“What if I were to give you she-who-must-not-be-named’s tokens—and you give them to Elaine—and she could give them to the shrew?”
“Wouldn’t work,” Ben said easily.
“Because—knowing Elaine—she would stick them in the pocket of one dress, and they would stay there for a month, and she would only remember that she had them after Mairwen’s brothers spread you out like rushes over the courtyard.”
Tommy made a face. “They aren’t that bad …”
“Yes, they are—they just left last Christmas, Tom, don’t tell me you’ve forgotten how big and ugly they are already,” Dai replied.
“Ugly? The maids don’t think Andras is that ugly,” Ben put in.
“Well, no, not when they’re hanging onto his arms and ooohing over his muscles—and Einion isn’t that bad, either, or at any rate he wouldn’t be if he didn’t live up to his name so well,” Dai said.
“It means anvil.”
“Oh.” The name really did seem to suit the middle of Mairwen’s brothers.
“Still,” Tommy said after a few moments, “even when you throw Padrig into the mix …”
“Weakling,” Ben muttered under his breath.
“But he does the sarcastic commentary to the thrashing really well!” Dai argued.
“Shut it, you two—even when you do throw Padrig into it, they aren’t that bad.”
Will set his bow down. “They’re all huge—all knights—all protective of Mairwen—and they don’t care to fight with any sort of honor, not where Mairwen’s honor is concerned—you’re lucky they weren’t here when you started courting her. And you’d best give her her tokens before they get back from Wales.”
“Daddy’s hut,” Tommy said with a laugh.
“Hey! We do not live in huts!” Dai snarled.
Tommy just shook his head. “You know … they should just get off Mairwen’s back … God knows she can take care of her bloody self—you’re not that overprotective of Elaine, are you now, Ben?”
Ben raised one eyebrow. “Considering that the only knight she’s lusting over wants nothing to do with her … I don’t have to be. But come on, Tom—you have a sister, if someone were to … you know, with her, wouldn’t you …?”
None of the boys noticed, but Will, who had been preparing to take another shot, lowered his bow and stared at Tommy intently.
“Would I?” Tommy wondered. Then he shook his head. “No—I don’t think I would.”
Two sets of wide eyes, two dropped jaws met that statement—Will just held his breath and gripped his bow tightly.
“Well, you see—if any knight were to—ravish Jessie—I wouldn’t have to go after him—because, well …” Dai and Ben both winced. “Exactly,” Tommy replied. “It’s not knightly to defile a dead body. And … if whatever he did with her was with Jessie’s permission … well, I still wouldn’t go after him.”
Ben blinked. “But Tom—if something happened to your sister’s honor—”
“Mine would be stained, yes—but really—even if I did manage to kick the other knight’s arse …” He grinned. “Jessie would just come and kick mine.”
It took a minute—but finally Dai and Ben broke into laughter, while Will just smiled and took aim once again.