A Tale of Prophecy
The sky was filled with crimson as the long boats put ashore. Einmar, warlord to the king of Saxony, listened to his men whisper amongst themselves that this was surely an omen that a great deal of Norman blood would be spilled on the morrow. This made Einmar smile, for he was not only glad to see his men exhibiting such confidence and bravado, but knew full well from which well that bucket of confidence was drawn: naked fear.
Good, a little fear before the fray was a welcome sight. It meant that his men had come to fight in earnest and believed in their cause.
He was proud of his men, the strongest and nimblest swordsmen that Saxony had to offer. All the fiefs that owed allegiance to King Agar had banded together and sent not only their own warlords, but their favored sons and best fighters as well, for Agar had convinced them that an attack from Normandy was in the wind and only by uniting could they hope to repel the siege to come. Of course, as Agar's own warlord, Einmar was privy to certain secrets and ulterior motives, that, if the other lords were to hear, would surely cause them to cancel their support of this noble gambit. . . For you see, there was a certain young maiden, of Saxon blood, who Agar had seen last year at the festival of the Great Sun Spirit. She was travelling with Mordre the Norman king and Agar was taken by her beauty.
Now Agar's years were beginning to weigh upon him, and although still the most powerful lord of the land, there were rumblings from the outer provinces that some of the other, lesser lords, were coveting Agar's position and were beginning to look for signs that the older lord was tiring and may lose his grip on the reigns.
At this point Agar had no heir, his ex-wife deeming it her only form of retort to deliver him solely girls. . . Ah, but this Saxon maid, Gonoriel, that Agar was so taken with; she was the one to bear him a strong son and heir. The signs were there, even to the point where, when Agar asked his seer, Nerlim, if such a lady would bare him sons, a young boy of four burst out of the crowd and running on little stubby legs came upon Gonoriel and hugged her around her legs. Looking down at the child, Gonoriel smiled sweetly, gathered the boy into her arms, and plucking a daisy from her braided hair, handed it to the child, as she kissed his forehead affectionately and returned him to the ground. The boy looked upon her beauty in awe, then gazed at the daisy, giggled and fled into the crowd from whence he came. Nerlim, the wise, chuckled and said, “Does m'lord need me interpret the sign?”
Of course Agar hadn't deemed it necessary . . . this was the woman for him! He felt a swelling in his loin, as if it were in full agreement with him. The only maggot in the meat was the unfortunate bit of news that Agar learned upon inquiring about the maiden. It seemed that, by some quirk of fate, Mordre was owed a debt by Gonoriel's father. And to square the debt, in a fortnight, Gonoriel would become Mordre's queen.
All was not lost however, for due to Gonoriel's age, Saxon law required that the marriage not be consummated for almost a year. Einmar laughed at the thought the Norman king was bound and had to mind his manners for a whole year because of a law that Agar had created. It was ironic in that it also gave Agar and Einmar time to amass a small army and come up with a plan to steal Gonoriel away. . . .Of course that had been the easy part. Carrying out the plan; now that was going to be far more difficult.
Still, the gods had favored them with good weather and a strong tail wind in their journey across the channel, so maybe this majestic sunset was a symbol that the gods were indeed watching and supporting their amorous cause. Einmar could only hope, for the task that he and his men were to perform was not an easy one. Beaching their long boats on this small non-descript beach, they had a two day journey ahead; following the often curving river until they came upon the moors and their destination on the west side of the bogs: the Norman castle Fontenbleu.
The castle, a very old and well-fortified structure. Totally utilitarian in design, was built with no frills or ornamentation or thought of beauty, for that was the Norman way. Gods! What miserable wretches, thought Einmar, shaking his head at the thought of it, his long golden hair brushing his wide shoulders. Disgusting race, he thought, with no eye for beauty whatsoever. At least his people, while notoriously underhanded and ruthless, found time to appreciate art and the symmetry of nature.
Einmar pondered: if Agar's stories of Gonoriel's great beauty were true, then what a waste that beauty must be on the blind eyes of a Norman. He was sure that Mordre's sole interest in marrying the girl was his joy in knowing how it must have pained her father to give her hand to a Norman husband . . . ah, to waste such beauty on a mere exhibition of power . . . Well, we shall see, thought Einmar, he who has the last laugh, usually laughs best.
Einmar then looked at his men and his heart swelled with pride: ninety of his country's best warriors, each totally dedicated to him to the point where each would gladly lay down their life for Einmar . . . and, with a hint of sadness, Einmar realized that many among them would be doing just that in the battle to come. Ah, but the smell of battle was what most of them lived for, and if the thirsty gods of war needed sacrifice, then so be it.
So Einmar and his men trudged up river, each keeping to his thoughts, failing to give much notice to a snow white falcon that followed them from above, circumventing the group in wide circles for the better part of a day before losing interest and winging off to the north.
Inside a large room, laced with overhead white curtains throughout, Gonoriel sat in her canopied bed. Good. She thought, they come at last, just as the prophecy promised. The wheels were set in motion now, and she would have her revenge on those powerful ones who would buy and sell her and move her about like a worthless piece on a gameboard. Aye, but even a pawn could trap a king. Her destiny had been foretold, and she was wise enough to know better than to resist it. She would suffer insults to her pride and be ridiculed, but she would have her measure of revenge. She held that part of the prophecy to her breast like a new borne child. She popped a honeyed fruit into her salivating maw and chuckled, the bed creaking under her. She swallowed greedily, tasting the sweetness of it and then reached her hand into the large almost empty bowl and sampled another. Yes, the time was nigh. She would get her way, and to hell with the rest of them!
As the pale sun was setting across the dreary moor, Einmar and his band crossed the river and entered the forest just to the right of the bogs, for they would spend the night here and make their move shortly before daybreak. From the trees Einmar would be able to see the castle while remaining hidden from those on the watch.
Gods, the castle was an eyesore! Built of dull stone, it was a pimple on the face of nature. At least the bogs had a kind of wild, untamed quality that, while not pleasing to the eye, at least was harmonious with its surroundings. But this castle! This abomination stuck out like a wart on a witch's nose. Einmar would love nothing more than to lay siege and level it to the ground . . . but he knew that that was not in the plan. They were to attack the far side, scale the walls, seek out and kidnap the new queen, murder Mordre, and be gone. An assignment requiring stealth, not strength.
Einmar sighed; maybe on another day.
He turned and gave the hand signal to spread out into the forest and set up camp and then watched as, silently, his men obeyed his order and made fast for the night. He moved among them, slapping a shoulder here, or patting a back there, assuring all that tomorrow everything would go just a planned and they would be in and out with a minimum of bloodshed. Most shook their heads in solemn agreement, feeling a sense of camaraderie, but some boasted that yes, they would be victorious, and if any blood was to be spilled, then it would be they doing the spilling!
“May luck be with us then,” saluted Einmar as he moved away from the band and rested against a large pine. Yes, let luck be with us . . . as he drew his cloak around him and settled in for a few hours of what promised to be a not very refreshing sleep.
He dreamed of a girl with long, raven black hair and a wide smile beneath a small pixynose. She was tall and lithe, dressed all in white, and seemed to shimmer with an iridescence as she held her arms outstretched towards him. He did not know the girl, but thought he might like to, and it was with a degree of sadness that he watched her vanish when he was awakened by the sentry who tapped him on the shoulder.
“It is time, m'lord.”
Einmar held the man's shoulder and nodded. As he rose he shook his head, trying to vanquish the last vestiges of sleep, as he would brush aside the cobwebs from his mind. He motioned to the sentry to awaken the rest of his men, and when they were all assembled, he divided them into three groups and sent the first, led by his oldest and ablest friend, Boltar, into the bogs and towards the castle. Stealthily, they made their way, invisible under a cloak of darkness, their only beacon a firebrand, dimly flickering atop the castle walls.
When he had judged that sufficient time had passed, he sent the second group and then led his own out into the bogs, sloshing knee deep through the cold, fetid water, for what seemed an eternity, until they finally reached the solid ground at the foot of the castle. Fools! And just like the Normans to rely on nature to provide a deterrent so they could be lax in their fortifications. Well, maybe this would teach them to take more care!
He noted with satisfaction that the agile Boltar had already scaled the castle wall and had secured the rope lines. Ah Boltar, such a priceless ally! Many a time Einmar had been helped out of tight situations by his faithful right hand . . .and vice versa. Aye, they'd been through a lot together, and Einmar offered a silent prayer that they would both come out of this adventure unscathed.
Then, in the silent, sleepy, pre-dawn morning, as night tired of it's struggle against the oncoming day, Einmar grabbed a rope with a gauntleted hand, smiled warmly at Boltar, who had followed his lead, jerked his head upwards, as if inviting him on a race to the top, and began climbing, strong arms and sturdy legs working in harmony with biceps bulging under his light maile jerkin.
Cresting the wall, he silently dropped to the rampart and crawling low against the cool stone wall, signaled Boltar to move to the right, while he and those following him up the lefthand ropes would venture left.
After the first few of his men dropped to the rampart, Einmar moved out, heading towards the fire brand about fifty yards away. Stalking like a big cat, he moved silently and closed ground on a guard who was obviously thinking more of the warm bed awaiting him than the need for keeping the watch. Before the guard could register his surprise, a strong forearm wrapped itself around his throat and squeezed tightly like a boa constrictor. A gauntleted hand grabbed the guards helmet and jerked back mightily, resulting in a sickening, dull snap; after which Einmar let the man slowly slump to the floor like a marionette who's strings had been cut.
So far so good!
Just past the smoking brand, Einmar could detect the dark hulk of another guard standing just past the stairway leading down to the castle courtyard. Einmar signaled for his men to follow, and moved towards the shape. He was just getting ready to spring when a muffled shout echoed from the ramparts on the other side of the courtyard. Blast! Boltar must have been seen!
The guard he was stalking, obviously surprised by the sound, jumped and then was further surprised as he turned to see Einmar raising from his crouch. He had just enough time to put a hand to the hilt of his broadsword, foolishly hoping for time to brandish the weapon, when he was run through by Einmar's blade. As his sword sucked the life out of its victim, Einmar heard the sound of heavy boots running across the cobbled courtyard and up the stairs on the far side, followed by the sounds of metal against metal. Curse the gods, we've been discovered and now the battle is joined!
Thinking quickly, Einmar grabbed the two of his men nearest him and then signaled silently for the rest of his group to rush down the stairway and cross the courtyard to aid Boltar and his crew. He then rushed back to where the climbing ropes were left and quickly pulled one up and over the castle wall and then threw it over the side of the catwalk and down to the courtyard below. He knew that Boltar and his men would be far outnumbered by the castle guard, but hoped they would be able to hold the guard at bay so that in the ensuing ruckus and confusion he and his two men could sneak into the castle's interior rooms and kidnap the queen. After that he dared not hope.
Perhaps the queen's life could be bartered in exchange for their escape from the castle, but that would mean failure at their mission and good men's blood would have been spilled for no appreciable gain. However, escaping with some of his band still alive was a provisional defeat far more welcome than a total one.
Well, he would explore that dark passage when and if he came to it. First there was the matter at hand, and no easy task that: finding and kidnapping the queen and, darest he hope, find the cowardly Mordre in his rooms and not out fighting alongside his guards as Agar would have done.
Einmar cleared his head of such thoughts as he descended the rope and crept along the shadows of the inner wall. As he came to the rectory door, his two men at his heels, Einmar took the luxury of looking across the courtyard into the fray. By the gods! It appeared that Boltar and his men were evenly paired in number to the castle guard. Surely there were more warriors stationed on the castle grounds, but where were they?
Wary of some kind of trap, Einmar slipped through the rectory door and proceeded into the castle innards. Unaware that most of Mordre's warriors were in the next valley on training maneuvers with Celt mercenaries, Einmar was disturbed by the quiet pervading the place. He sensed some kind of profound trick was at play, but there was nothing for it but to proceed.
Quickly crossing the grand dining hall, he chose one of three long corridors that led to stairways to what must be the castle's sleeping quarters. Creeping slowly down the hallway and up the stairs, he paused on the landing. A long hallway stretched in both directions and then turned around corners on either end. Mentally, he flipped a coin and led the way down the right hand hallway. Pausing at the end, he peeked around the corner; at the end of a short hall, buttressing an elaborate carved oak door, were two gargantuan guards.
Ah, Einmar sighed, so Mordre was prepared for such a ploy after all. But which rooms were they guarding? The queen's or Mordre's own?
If it was Mordre's room, then perhaps the queen was down the opposite corridor and unguarded. Choosing the path of least resistance, he gestured his men back the way they had come and duplicated his efforts down the left hallway. The results were the same - two armed guards standing like gargoyles on either side of a heavy oak door.
It seemed that his options were somewhat limited. Stealth was out and if he wanted to kidnap the queen it certainly seemed that a direct confrontation was in order. Drawing his sword he gestured his men to attack the guards while he would protect their rear from the two guards down the other corridor, who, he was sure, would come to investigate upon hearing the clanging cacophony of swordplay.
The two young warriors, Cletis and Cetus, who were twin brothers, drew their swords and yelling their family battle cry, bore down on the surprised guards. The guards barely had time to draw their blades and attempt a defensive position before the two brothers were upon them. Metal struck metal and the battle was joined. Einmar watched as Cetus feigned left and then slashed across the large guard's shoulder, drawing blood from his sword arm. Good, though Einmar, the first blow bodes well.
Then his attention was distracted as he heard heavy boots resounding down the hallway. He turned and prepared himself as the two guards rushed towards him. Fools, he thought, for they rushed him with no sense of forethought. The smaller of the two (and obviously the quicker) in the lead with the larger a step or two behind. If they would have attacked him jointly, side by side, he knew that he would have been hard pressed to defend himself. However, while thanking the gods for the opportunity given him, he still had to take advantage of the guard's mistake.
Blocking the lead guard's thrust with his broadsword he deftly slid to his left and hitting the wall, sent a blow towards the lead guard's head with his short sword. The guard, sensing the blow, ducked adroitly out of harms way, which sent the blow squarely into the second guard's breastplate, cutting through the leather jerkin and creating an angled would across the well muscled breast.
Still sliding along the wall, Einmar moved in back of the wounded guard, which effectively shielded him from the first, and then kicking the wounded guard from behind, sent him sprawling into the arms of the other guard. With his opponent thus encumbered, Einmar seized the opportunity. Using his broadsword, he swung from his mighty right arm and sent a blow into the second guard's midsection, nearly clefting him in twain and knocking him to the floor. As the victim fell, Einmar withdrew his blade and sensing his opening, sent a thrust towards the remaining guard which skewered him just below the rib cage. The guard's eyes drew wide as he stumbled backwards, trying to escape the cruel fate that awaited him. He managed to weakly block the fist blow from Einmar's broadsword, but the second knocked his sword from his grasp and the third dropped him to the floor where death was awaiting him with open arms.
With adrenaline flowing through his veins, Einmar stared at his vanquished foes and hoped that the battle went as well in the next corridor. Hearing a voice cry out in agony, he rushed around the corner and into a blade that sent a deep gash into his left arm. Feeling the sting and seeing red with the pain, he dropped his shortsword and rolled across the floor, temporarily getting him out of harms way, where he could survey the scene. Cletus was down, as was one of the guards, and Cetus was leaning against the far wall, severely cut in several places, trying gamely to regain his feet. Also against the wall stood his assailant, bleeding from a wound in his right arm and holding his broadsword in both hands, breast heaving as his lungs gasped for breath.
Einmar got to his feet and struck a similar pose, both hands upon his broadsword, as the two combatants eyed each other warily. They were of equal size, both tall and well muscled and while Einmar wore a light, chain maile shirt, which could deflect a glancing blow, the guard wore an all leather uniform, which, while looking somewhat menacing, did little in the way of protection. His only advantage was his metal helm, which protected his head and neck.
They gazed into each other's eyes, both hard, gray steel, and then holding their blades upright, brought them to their foreheads in a gesture of mutual respect, and then engaged each other, blades clanging like church bells. They fought, moving backwards, each thrusting and counter thrusting, looking for that one opening which would five him the advantage needed. They moved back and forth, battling slowly towards the foyer in the center of the great hallway. Both warriors were beginning to tire, and were perspiring heavily, when Einmar's subconscious began to take over. He thrust to his left, intentionally giving his adversary a small opening, and when his foe took advantage, aiming a chopping blow across his right side, Einmar brought his blade back. While he could have blocked the blow completely by turning his blade and thrusting to the side, he had an offensive move in mind, so he let the blow glance off his blade, just enough to keep the blow from embedding itself in his flesh. When the blow glanced off his hip, he thrust forward and up, catching the guard in the ribs and then pushing upwards into the heart cavity. The guard gave a great shudder and gasping, collapsed down the stairs, landing with a thud on the bottom, head askew in a grotesque manner.
Einmar fell back against the wall, gasping for breath, totally exhausted, bleeding still lightly from his left arm and somewhat heavily from his right thigh. He limped towards a side door and opening it, was relieved to find a bedding closet. He ripped a sheet into a strip, made a tourniquet for his leg as best he could, and sighing, gathered up his resolve, for his mission was far from being completed. He grieved a moment for the two twins, promising himself that if he returned to Saxony he would tell a great tale of their bravery and battle skill. He sighed, feeling a heaviness within him and then told himself that he would, indeed complete his mission, or die in the attempt, for those that had died in attempting this mission were deserving of that.
He was abruptly shaken from his inner reverie by the sound of a door closing and a clanking from the left end of the hallway. He turned and there was nothing there. Curious, he proceeded to the end of the hall and turned right, where, in front of the carved door, standing over the two fallen twins, stood a short figure burnishing a long, finely honed blade. Wearing full body armor of polished silver, with a face plate and plumed helm, the figure stood with legs apart, looking somewhat menacing despite its diminutive stature. Einmar guessed that this was a mere boy of twelve or thirteen and though he was injured and badly spent, doubted that the boy could cause him much grief.
Though his mission came first and foremost, he did not wish to spill blood unnecessarily, especially that of a youth, so, lowering his sword he spoke to the clad figure. “Step aside, young one, I have no wish to harm thee. Return to the room from whence you came and I shall complete my task and be gone.”
The figure shook its head to the contrary and raised its sword in a salute, inviting Einmar to join in battle.
“So be it,” Einmar sighed, “a credit to your bravery, if not your good sense.”
With that, he brought sword to bear in a sweeping arc, which the clad figure deftly blocked and countered with a quick stroke that Einmar was just able to deflect. Aye, the lad is quick, even in his armor, Einmar thought, and he seems to be well skilled . . . 'Tis a pity that his strength, of yet, is no match for my own.
They fought on for several minutes, until, by brute strength alone, Einmar was able to knock the figure off balance, and then, with the butt of his sword send him sprawling to the floor. Einmar kicked his sword away and placed a heavy boot upon his chest.
“Yield, my young friend, and I shall spare thee. You have fought well and admirably, and it is no disgrace for one of your years to yield so that you may fight again on another day.”
A high pitched voice came softly from within the helm: “I yield, good sir, though I like not the taste of surrender. However, your advice is well taken and I yield to you. Now please, allow me to remove my helm.”
Einmar watched as the armored figure reached up and unfastened its helm, removed it and shook out a mane of long, shining raven black hair.
“By the gods, it's the queen!” Einmar murmured in surprise.
“No, m'lord, only her sister, Gwen, foolishly trying to protect her kin.”
“Then her ladyship lies within?” Einmar gestured to the carved door. He was a bit dumbfounded by the recent turn of events, as well as struck by her beauty. By the gods, he thought. If this vision of beauty be her sister, I can well see why my liege was so taken by the queen.
“Have you come to harm her?” asked Gwen. “I would do anything if you wouldst spare her.” Then, turning her eyes away from Einmar whispered, “Even give myself to you m'lord.”
Taking her chin in the cusp of his hand, Einmar spoke gently; “A fair and handsome offer m'lady, for you are of exquisite beauty, but I come merely to return your sister to my liege lord, Agar of Saxony. I do not have the stomach for murdering women, and if you wouldst aid me, I'll see that no harm come to her.”
“Aye my lord, upon my honor, you have my oath that I will do nothing but assist you in your task. Now, let us hasten, for I fear that time weighs heavily against us.”
With that, Einmar helped her to her feet and the two stepped through the carved doorway and into a room filled with lace. A voice, sweet and smooth as honey came from the canopied bed; “My sweet sister, and have you with you one of Saxon blood?”
Amazed, Gwen spoke, “Yes m'lady. A warrior from Saxony, yet with a goodness and kindness in him. He says . . . “
“He says,” the queen interrupted, “that he wishes to take me to Saxony.” Oh sweet prophecy you have not abandoned me. “Let him come forward, so I may see him and know him to be the one.”
Einmar shrugged and moved towards the bed and with a gauntleted hand moved the lace curtain aside, and gazed upon the queen. It was all he could do to conceal his amazement and confusion, for lying propped atop mountains of downe pillow, wearing a white lace dressing gown, was the fifteen stone of fleshy blubber that was the queen. She eyed him through small slits and as she spoke, her jowls quivered. “Yes, it is the one prophesied. M'lord, treat me with respect and I shall accompany you back to Saxony. Oh, how I've dreamed and waited, hoping for this moment. Just yearning for an escape from this prison Mordre's locked me in. Lead me away from here and you will have my eternal thanks, noble warrior.”
Dumbfounded, Einmar shook his head as if trying to clear it. “Then it is your wish to be returned to your native Saxony, though you be a queen here?”
“A queen is but a title, m'lord, and yes, it is my wish to see my native soil once again. Mordre is a disgusting, vile creature and it is not prudent nor ladylike to say more.”
The truth of the matter, and a truth that not even Gwen, her sister, who had arrived only a month's hence, was aware, was that shortly after Gonoriel had come to Castle Fontenbleu, Mordre broke Saxon law and had his way with her, which sadly was disappointing affair for them both. A week later he tried again, and was so frustrated at his poor performance that he had beaten her badly. After that, Mordre lost interest in her completely, keeping her more as a souvenir of his conquest of her father than anything else, though it seemed that Gonoriel intended to keep it that way by keeping to her rooms and stuffing herself with food in an attempt to make herself as unattractive as possible in case the disgusting king's desires looked her way.
Then, nine months later, and just two months before he could legally make her his bride, the king had tried yet again, climbing atop the mountain of loose flab, and pushing her belly aside, entered her with his miniscule member. Gonoriel lay still, her immense body absorbing his weight. It was over in a matter of seconds, after which the king rose and called Gonoriel a worthless cow as he slammed the door behind him in a rage and returned to his own rooms. Still, it was enough, and Gonoriel was with child. A very special child, as the prophecy foretold.
Einmar looked again at the rotund queen and wondered what King Agar would have to say upon their return. He decided that the worry was not his, for it was his job to simply follow orders and return home. He realized that too much time had already been spent. “M'lady, we must make haste, can you ride?”
“I believe I am perfectly capable of such a feat, m'lord,” the queen said sarcastically as she rose from her pillows, heavy flab riddled breasts jiggling. “If you wouldst allow me a few moments to attire myself properly, my sister will then lead the way to the stables. Mayhap you may yet catch Mordre in his rooms; the coward is, in all probability, too frightened to venture out.”
“Aye m'lady, for although his guards be vanquished, I've heard no sound of escape of alarm. Lady Gwen, will you assist your sister and be watchful? I shall return forthwith.”
Einmar then left the queen's chambers, stalked down the short hallway and turned the corner to the long corridor, where he was met by a warrior with sword drawn. Taken by surprise, Einmar gasped and raised his blade and then laughed heartily. “Boltar, you scurvy dog! What took you so long?”
“Well, my friend, after cleaning up the nasty business you left me, I had a little problem finding you. You must have forgotten to leave a trail of breadcrumbs; though why I should have expected any such consideration from a lout such as you I'll never know. But you know what plagues me? I find it far strange that we did not encounter far more resistance. Have you noticed that the number of warriors we've come across seems less than one hundred? Somewhat odd for a castle of this size, I'd say!”
“Yes my friend, I've noticed, and I thank the gods that it is so. Perhaps the queen or her sister have an answer, but for the moment we've a more pressing engagement, for Mordre may yet be trapped within his rooms.”
“Lead the way then, my friend. I'm intrigued and my blade thirsts for the blood of that damned Norman.”
With that, Einmar slapped a hand upon his friend's shoulder, glad to have him at his side once more, and led the way to the other carved door. Cautiously trying the latch, Einmar found it locked. He shrugged at Boltar, who shook his head in agreement and then the two huge men stepped back and rushed the door in unison, thick shoulders slamming and breaking the latch with a loud crash as they fell, off balance into the king's chamber.
Drawing his sword, Einmar looked around cautiously. There was no sign of the king, but since the door was latched from the inside, he must be somewhere in the rooms. He and Boltar spread out, Boltar going into the antechamber and Einmar into the king's dressing room. After a moment Boltar called out, “Blast! The rat has slipped through our grasp! Einmar, my friend, come and look at this.”
Einmar entered the ante-chamber and looked at Boltar pointed with disgust to the hinged section of the inner wall that opened onto a narrow stairway leading, one would suppose, down through the castle depths and away from the confines of the castle wall.
“Escaped,” said Einmar. “I fear this bodes ill for us, my friend. We must make haste back to the queen and escort her away from here with all possible speed. How many men survived the skirmish in the courtyard?”
“Better than expected. Five and forty all told, however, nine are too injured to ride and another five can ride but will be of little use in a battle. The rest, like myself, have a few nicks, but are none the worse for it,” answered Boltar.
“Excellent, my friend the gods have truly been with us this day. Let us hope that we continue to garner their favor as we've yet a long journey ahead of us.”
The two men then exited the king's quarters and retraced their steps down the long hallway, where they were joined by the queen and her sister; the queen wearing a long, forest green, velvet skirt, a white brocade shirt and a green cape, drawn by a gold broach about her throat. Finishing the ensemble were long brown leather riding boots and a large leather pouch. In spite of her immense bulk, she looked almost beautiful, and Einmar noticed that, indeed, she once must have been as lovely as her sister. More's the pity that she was now buried in fat.
“M'lady, the king has escaped down a concealed passageway and I fear we must make haste. However, first you might have an answer for something that has been troubling me. We estimate having encountered a mere hundred warriors within the castle walls and his strikes us as odd.”
“Ah, of course m'lord, you would be unaware that the best of the Norman troop is in the next valley with Celt mercenaries, preparing to lay siege on Burgundy.”
“Then doubtless, Mordre had fled in that direction,” Boltar postulated. “Einmar, I fear your desire to make haste was not unfounded. We are certainly no match for a siege army and I'm sure Mordre will come after us, bent on revenge.”
“Aye, let us take flight,” said the armored Gwen. “I daresay we've but a four hour grace before they'll be after us.”
“Yes,” said her sister the queen, “and yet we stand her wagging our tongues. Come, let us make haste to the stables.”
Whereupon, the queen leading the way. Waddling from side to side, the four did indeed make haste for the stables and a meeting with the remainder of Einmar's men. Upon reaching the stables Einmar asked for five volunteers of the able bodied to shepherd those unable to ride. They would travel on an easterly route, that would take them, by cart, safely out of harms way. After this was agreed upon, they said their farewells and wishing each band good fortune, saddled up and rode southwest, away from the early morning light.
They rode long and hard, pausing only long enough to spell the horses. Einmar noted, with some relief, that the queen, though taken to her bed for the last year, was managing to keep up, and for her part, complained not. Aye, she and her sister were, in truth, amazing and obviously of fine Saxon stock. He noted also that the Fair Gwen, while remaining by her sister, did afford several glances his direction and on two occasions gave him a smile warm enough to melt an ice flow in the dead of winter.
On the second day, as they rode on, coming ever nearer the beach, their craft, and safety, Einmar began to weaken seriously from the compound effects of the amount of blood he had lost and the lack of food and sleep. His thigh throbbed with a constant rhythm and he began to drift in and out of an almost dreamlike state. In on such state, he re-dreamed the vision he'd had two nights prior in the forest. The young maiden again came to him, arm outstretched, an aura surrounding her like she was made of pure gold. By the gods, she was beautiful! In his semi-conscious state he wanted nothing more than to come into those arms and be comforted as he slept a long, restful sleep. In his fever he gazed upon her radiance and she began to speak to him: “M'lord. M'lord, arst thou all right? M'lord? Canst thou hear me?”
Slowly the vision vanished and Einmar realized that is was not the vision that was addressing him, but the lady Gwen, who had left her sister's side and was now riding beside him.
“Forgive me m'lord, but you were beginning to sway atop your steed, and I worried about your health.”
“You need not concern yourself,” Einmar croaked, “I've been through far rougher times than this.”
Yet Einmar felt comforted by the lady's concern and turning to address her almost fell from his mount as his vision was now riding beside him. He shook his head, trying to send the vision back to the spectral world, but then it slowly dawned on him that, indeed, it was no vision riding beside him, but the real, flesh and blood Gwen. Only it was she who was the vision come to life!
“M'lord,” she shrieked, “methinks you are far more seriously injured than you believe. You look to be in great pain.”
”No my lady, I'm in little pain, although I must be suffering from the effects of a fever, for I believe I was just visited by a hallucination. I thank you for your concern, m'lady, it is heartfelt, but, as we've not much further to travel, I believe I can ride the rest of the way.”
“As you wish, good sir, however, it is my request that I may ride with you the rest of the way if it pleases m'lord.”
“If it pleases you m'lady,” Einmar grunted, “if your sister does not have need of your company.”
They rode in silence for the remaining two hours, Einmar too weak to concentrate on naught but staying atop his mount. If he'd had more strength then he surely would have wondered at the vision come to life and what portents lied in it's meaning.
The queen, tiring, slumping over her rotund belly, managed a look back at the pair and inwardly smiled at the love she saw growing between man and lady. Star crossed to be sure, but all must suffer in this tale in which they were called upon to play. She shifted in her saddle, her heavy bosom swaying to the horses canter and gently rubbed her swollen tummy. Gods, she was so hungry. "Hold on a while longer, greedy one," she told it. “Soon I will give you all you need.”
They made the beach and ungrounded two of the three longboats, leaving the third in the even that Morde's men had not been able to track them and the caravan of injured warriors would find it still intact upon returning from their roundabout trek. It was a hope, but it was all that could be done for them, and as they put to sea and safety, Einmar collapsed with fatigue.
As he slept and convalesced, the vision came to him, gently touching his face, wiping his sweaty brow with damp cloth, re-dressing his wounds and feeding him a little broth. The vision sat beside his bed, holding his hand, and, on several occasions, kissed his forehead gently, looking at him with eyes filled with admiration and love.
On the third day, just a day away from the Saxon shores, Einmar awoke, feeling much renewed, though still weak. As he lay on his bed in the hold of the longboat, he tried to piece together all that had transpired. What would king Agar do when presented with a corpulent queen? He had been taken by her beauty when she was thin, but now she was twice the woman, all round and flabby, and although Einmar had seen her inner strength and knew her to be a fine, strong hearted woman, he doubted that the king has use for such values in such an unattractive package. He wondered if Agar would have her banished from his sight as an embarrassment, or would keep her within the castle wall to spite Mordre.
Either way, the queen had no say, and both roads were difficult. Maybe Agar would show mercy and merely return her to her father's care. Einmar hoped that Agar would treat her gently, for he surmised that the queen had been through enough trials in her short lifetime.
He then thought of her sister Gwen, the embodiment of his vision. He realized he was taken by her loveliness, and though they had scarce even talked to one another, and in fact, their closest contact had been in battle, he knew that she had touched him in a way he had been touched by no other. He was bewitched by her smile, and could think of no finer heaven than to lie beside her and stroke her luxurious, long raven hair.
He felt tired, and had, at that moment, no desire for the heat of battle. Perhaps he could settle down with this woman, commission the king for a plot of farmland that he was sure the king would not begrudge him for all his loyal service. Aye, it would be a fine thing to be with this strong, graceful woman always, and to die in her arms with their children beside him; instead of alone in the mud of some foreign battlefield.
He rose slowly and carefully made his way to the ship's deck, the sun hurting his eyes while the smell of the sea filled his nostrils. He breathed deeply and moved slowly to the stern where Boltar was standing. Upon seeing his friend Boltar grinned his wide, open smile and called out, “Einmar, you lazy dog! I'd have thought you were going to sleep our whole journey away.”
“Ah, my friend, it's a good thing I have you to keep me from a swelled head. But pray tell me, how close to home are we?”
“A mere day's journey. I should think we'll be seeing our beloved shores shortly after day break,” replied Boltar with relish.
Einmar put a hand on Boltar's shoulder. “Good, then it seems that we two have concluded another mission successfully.”
“It would seem so, my friend.”
Einmar grunted in agreement. He wanted to say so much more, for he was feeling sentimental. He wanted to thank Boltar for always being there, helping him out of more jams than he could think of. Always a strong right arm to fall back on. But he knew that if he voiced his feelings it would make Boltar uncomfortable, for, to him, their friendship and comradeship were to be taken as due course and not to be pontificated over. So he smiled instead, clapped Boltar on the shoulder and moved to the bow of the boat, each secure in the knowledge that they had each other's trust. And what more could a man ask of his fellow man than that?
He was thinking these thoughts as he moved to the bow, unaware that Gwen was standing on the prow, long hair flying in the sea breeze, looking out to sea. She felt his presence, turned, and questioned, “m'lord, are'st thou strong enough to be out in the elements?”
Blushing, for Einmar hadn't realized that he had moved into proximity to the woman of his dreams, he then moved closer still. “I feel much renewed m'lady, though as yet a little weak. I find it far strange to have been laid so low. I've been wounded much worse in other battles.”
Now it was Gwen's turn to blush, for she knew of a great many wounds, having seen his scars while giving him a sponge bath and trying to relieve his fever. She ham marveled at his body, thinking him to be a god come down from the heavens. “But m'lord,” she soothed, “I would believe that the interior guard dip their blades in a poison. A lesser man would have succumbed to such a wound, I'm sure.”
Einmar cast his eyes away, unused to such a compliment, especially when coming from one so dear. “And doubtless I would have succumbed had it not been for your able nursing.”
Einmar then took her hand and kissed it gently, saying, “You have my gratitude.”
They spent the next hour in an awkward silence, staring out to sea, feeling uncomfortable and yet unable to move away from the other's side; each thinking the same thoughts, but too shy to voice such strong feelings. Finally, with a sigh and a shudder, Gwen drew her cloak tightly around her and withdrew to the boat's hold, leaving Einmar alone on the prow in his reverie.
That evening, as a full moon caste an eerie light over the two longboats, Gwen came to Einmar, wearing naught but a long shirt that came to mid thigh. She knelt beside him, shirt inching up her small, firm thigh, towards her well rounded buttocks, and kissed him gently, like a warm spring breeze. Einmar gazed into her brown eyes, saw the love there, his and hers, and reaching out, drew her to him. Their lips joined again, this time passionately, and soon the gentle rocking of the longboat matched the rhythm of their lovemaking.
Meanwhile, in the other boat, a lonely queen waited patiently; her strong suit, for what else could she do? She knew the prophecy, and the hand she'd been dealt, and knew even better that the trump card she held was a long time in the playing. Still, she wished that her lot could have been different. If she had been the younger daughter, then it might be she spending a romantic evening with the handsome Saxon. She gnawed on a piece of hard bread, for her unruly belly required something, and gazed at her plump face reflected in a polished breastplate. She felt resigned. Resigned to getting her pleasure only by the dream of revenge and the taste of sweet things on her tongue. She let a chubby hand drift down the front of her bodice, feeling the fullness of her breasts as her nipples hardened at her touch. She cupped the firm, abundant flesh and closed her eyes. As she kneaded the ponderous tissue, her other hand moved down her absorbent, soft belly, feeling the folds and rolls as she began rubbing and flexing her girth. Not so bad, she thought dreamily, as her hand drifted lower, searching for her moist center below the sagging tummy. Her fleshy face reddened as she found the right spot, and she licked her thick lips hungrily as her finger's pace increased and she dreamed of being taken by a strong warrior with a lust for her abundance. Her heavy thighs parted and began to quiver, her gelatinous lard sloshing like water in a gourd as she gave herself to her pleasure, moaning and then finally falling back into her pallet, her huge expanse of belly rising and falling with each heavy breath.
She sighed, sated, knowing in her heart that this release was but a poor substitute for a man's love, yet, sadly, knew also that this was her lot, and she should enjoy the small satisfaction it provided her. Such was the nature of the prophecy, and she would be a fool to wish otherwise.
The day was eerily calm and quiet as the two longboats put ashore at a small sheltered cove at the foot of the majestic white cliffs. A small fishing village lied nestled in a wooded valley where the cliffs had parted and Einmar sent a herald there, requesting food and shelter in the name of the king, for he and his train. The herald was then to make speed for Avalon to bring king Agar news of their safe and victorious return.
Einmar had his men make fast the boat's mooring and then calmly sat beside Gwen and waited for the townspeople to traverse the roughly two miles between their quaint village and the beachhead. He took her hand in his and smiled his crooked smile. He couldn't believe the depth of emotion he was feeling. No feeling of thrill of battle, victory or pride of accomplishment could compare to the warm glow and deep passion he felt for this woman.
Aye, so this is the love that he'd heard talked about. He'd never thought it would come for him, but oh, what a wondrous thing it was! And what a fair and beautiful catch was his lady, as he felt her slim, firm form snuggle closer towards him.
Indeed, I'm a lucky gent, he thought. A victory and a prize unmatched by all the gold and gemstone trinkets he'd acquired in all his vast adventures. As he basked in the gentle heat of the autumn midday sun, he was sure that the gods must be holding him in high esteem for all they'd bestowed upon him.
Gwen pointed with a long, slim finger to the head of the ravine. “Look yonder, m'lord. They come.”
Indeed, they were coming. All of the townspeople who were not at sea seemed to have gathered out of honor or curiosity and were bearing down upon them, led by two young boys bearing the town's colors: a yellow blowfish encircled by a blazing sun on a deep, blood red background. The mayor, a short, portly gentleman with long, wavy gray hair and a ruddy complexion, stepped forward and hailed the group as great heroes and true Saxons. He then inquired as to the whereabouts of a young Persius, who hailed from their humble village.
Einmar rose, identified himself to the mayor as the king's trusted warlord, and informed him that the Persius he was seeking was a brave and noble lad, and had been one of the volunteers escorting the badly wounded away from the castle. He told the townspeople to fear not, for any search party would have followed the tracks of the main force and not have been searching for two small bands leading oxen drawn carts. Besides, he assured them, Persius was clever far beyond his years, and he was sure that he would have no trouble outsmarting the Normans and bringing the injured home to safe harbor.
The crowd cheered and the mayor pumped Einmar's hand enthusiastically while grinning a wide grin from ear to ear. “Well said, noble sar. It does an old man's heart a good turn to hear one of your importance talk in such glowin' terms about a young man so close to all of our hearts. Now please, if you'll allow me, I'd like to graciously request that you and your men accompany me back to our humble village where, to the best of our modest means, we shall attempt to satisfy you with food, drink, and merriment in your honor.”
“You do us an honor, my good sir, and we gratefully accept your gracious hospitality. You have my word that our good lord, king Agar, will her favorably of your conduct today,” spoke Einmar. “Now, did you bring the liter for m'lady, as we've requested?”
“Aye sar,” spoke the mayor, “for we wouldn't dream of havin' her noble personage walk the two miles back to our village.”
With that the mayor clapped his hands and the liter was brought forward. Einmar called to the queen and shortly thereafter she came forward from the cabin where she had been resting. The mayor was somewhat taken aback by the girth of the young queen, and attempted to mask his temporary awe by remarking to Einmar that he thought her quite beautiful and very regal in her bearing.
Einmar smile and said 'aye', for he had seen her take the hard ride stoically and knew that there was even more substance to her than met the eye. The queen then eased her bulk onto the liter and four of Einmar's men drew it upward and the gathering made off for the village.
Upon their arrival, Einmar's men were shown to the village inn and Einmar and the two women were escorted to the mayor's home, as befitted honored guests. While the town made ready their preparations, seamstresses were brought in and the queen and her sister were promptly fitted and shown a modest array of the township's finest bolts of cloth; the queen choosing a jet black and Gwen a finely made white material to be trimmed with lace, hoping it would make her all the more appealing to her beloved Einmar. The seamstresses worked like women possessed and shortly after nightfall, just in time for the feast and celebration, the two dresses were completed and upon donning them, the two sisters made their way from their rooms to the mayor's study where Einmar was awaiting their arrival. He then escorted the two to the meeting hall, which was festooned with gay colored banners and brightly dyed cloth. The hall was rapidly filling with townspeople, anxiously awaiting their arrival so the feast could begin.
Einmar gave a sly look to Boltar, who looked ready to take on a side of mutton and a barrel of ale, and then led the queen to the head table where she was seated next to the mayor, who rose and bowed as they approached. Einmar then guided Gwen to a seat at the top of the T-shaped table and sat down beside her. The mayor turned to the queen and speaking quietly said, “I hope m'lady has found our poor efforts to provide her with new attire to her liking?”
“Aye good sir, and I thank thee. The cut and the color suit me well.” In truth, she was fond of the apparel, but all the more so as now she could finally be rid of her confining riding clothes.
Einmar, for his part, thought the queen looked especially radiant, despite her bulk, but her regal bearing and confident beauty faded to nothing when he looked at Gwen and his heart was captured all over again.
He spent the evening amidst the many speeches and tales of adventure offered by his men, talking and laughing with Gwen, telling little secrets as those in love are so wont to do. He managed to tear himself away long enough to take a good natured ribbing from Boltar, and then joined him in a toast and a bawdy song which amused the mayor, the queen and especially Gwen, to no end.
But, through all the merriment, Einmar couldn't help but notice, and think it far peculiar, the way in which the queen relished her meal. Far after most had had their fill, she was still continuing to fill her plate, eating with an almost savage gusto that belied her bearing and her station. There was something haunting and not quite right in the way she attacked her meal with what seemed almost like a grim determination. No enjoyment, just the continual process of hand to mouth. But then Gwen took his hand and he looked into her deep, brown pools, and quickly forgot about all else.
They stayed in the village for two days, awaiting word from the king's emissary, which gave Einmar and Gwen ample time to walk the simple gardens, or ride along the white cliffs; falling, if it were possible, even more deeply in love with one another. They were like two siblings who could not bear to be parted, always talking and holding hands, and kissing like young adolescents kissing for the first time. So much in love that, on the second day, as they picnicked by the white cliffs, holding each other close, lying in the long grass, that they failed to acknowledge that a steady rain had begun to fall.
They returned to the village soaked to the bone and laughing like children. Boltar, upon seeing them so, just shook his head, but as he walked away a broad smile split his face.
Late that afternoon, as the sky put on its coat of many colors, all shades of orange, purple and blue and green, the king's emissary arrived leading a coach-n-six that would bare the queen to Avalon, where she, the mayor, Einmar and his men would all be received by the king.
So, as the dark of night enveloped them and the horned owl hooted it's lonely question, the town slept: Einmar and Gwen deeply and quite in love; the mayor lightly, filled with joy over being summoned to the king's court; and the queen not at all, eating wheat cakes and honey far into the night, preparing for the morrow when she would meet her destiny face to face.
It was a cool, damp morning as the entourage came out of the dense forest and the castle of Avalon came into view. The sun rising over the turrets like a halo, glistening on the dewdrops in the fields and on the leaves of the pine trees like facets of beautiful, perfectly cut crystal. Gwen commented thusly to Einmar as she pulled her hood back off her head and shook out her long, raven black hair.
“Aye, 'tis a wondrous sight, and a far welcome one, to be home at last,” agreed Einmar. “My bones tire of the constant travel, so methinks I'd like to stay here awhile this time.”
“Whatever pleases my lord, for I live for your happiness.”
Einmar smiled and she returned his smile, and he thought his poor heart would burst as it was overcome with joy. He sighed and wished the moment linger forever.
They rode slowly, leading the queen's garish carriage, and halfway through the valley were met by armed escorts sent by the king. The escort, upon greeting Einmar and Gwen, informed them that his duty was to lead them to the walled city and then to their rooms where they would be attended to and made ready for a ceremonial audience with the king. Einmar nodded his approval and the entourage made their way up the king's road, flanked on either side by waving fields of wheat that seemed to stretch out like a vast ocean.
When finally they passed through the gate of the walled city, Einmar's heart swelled with pride. Now here, here was a city to be proud of; built with an obvious symmetry and planned with graceful spires and angles that caught the eye. The result of what could be done by people coming together and functioning with a plan.
Einmar peered around him and thought he had never seen his city look better. Banners of multi-color had been placed strategically and the guild shops that lined the central square all had their colors out, for the king had told his people of a great victory, and the people had responded by putting out their finest to honor the heroes.
As they climbed the castle steps, Gwen stopped and looked about her in awe and reverence, having ne'er seen the likes of such a great and wondrous city. Einmar saw his love's astonished face and told her that the good or bad of a ruler is reflected in his city and its people.
“Then King Agar must be a just, compassionate, and intelligent ruler, who does love his people greatly, for they do so honor him.”
“Aye, and though he is my liege lord, I must also confess that I love him dearly and consider him friend as well,” spoke Einmar with a touch of emotion in his voice. “For many have been the times we have ridden, hunted, and laughed together. And it is he who promotes the sense that his rank is of no consequence when we're together. Aye, it will be good to see him again.”
And then he chuckled, “I can see the look on his face now when I introduce you to him and tell him that we are betrothed. It should warm his heart almost as much as the thought warms my own. Of course there'll be a sadness too, for he will have to replace his trusted warlord; though I feel that Boltar has his confidence and should fill the role nicely, and . . . “
“And m'lord plots a course through waters uncharted,” Gwen interrupted. “I see why you've served your lordship well! With your constant planning you surely leave no stone unturned.”
Gwen smiled, for she was mischievously chiding him and Einmar, for his part, took up the role shouting, “Such insolence! I see you must be taught to mind your place! Now get thee to your rooms and when you have made ready have one of your handmaidens call on me and I shall escort you and your sister to the throne room. Now obey my bidding and get thee hence!”
Gwen curtsied, giggled, and was led with her sister to their rooms. Einmar watched them go, the pixyish Gwen and her rotund sister who waddled as if carrying a ball and chain. He shook his head at the thought that they be sisters and only separated by two years. He then turned away and strode towards his own rooms where a warm bath awaited him as he prepared for the formal audience with his king.
He dressed in formal black britches and a ruffled white shirt. Upon his feet were boots of polished leather, pointed and coming to just below the knee. He then chose a red velvet jacket, trimmed in gold and over that he place his gold mesh shoulder harness that symbolized his station. He completed the ensemble by fastening his sword belt and scabbarding his ceremonial sword with its jewel studded, mother of pearl handle.
Shortly thereafter, he received Gwen's handmaiden and made his way to their rooms. He stood in the antechamber while he was announced and then the queen entered. She was radiant! She had looked good at the banquet back at the fishing village, but this gown was obviously the height of expression of the seamstress craft and suitable for presentation to the king. It was a long, green silk, flowing and full skirted and cut in such a way, along with the help of a wide leather belt, that it ably masked most of the queen's rolls and bulges. Her hips were wide, but the cut accentuated them and then cut tight into her midriff, making her look luscious and curvy instead of thick and dowdy. The bodice and bustier fit tightly and pushed her breasts high and forward, accenting even further her ample cleavage.
Her black as midnight hair was pulled back on top with two curled ringlets allowed to cascade down either side. Her face was lightly made up, giving her hidden cheekbones some definition and drawing attention to her sparkling jade eyes.
She eyed Einmar in his finery and quipped, “At last I can see what my sister sees in you.”
Einmar smiled and bowed deeply. “I am glad it pleased my queen, however I must confess to feeling damnedly out of sorts in it. Sadly, as a warrior, I am used to much less formal garb. . . But enough! I must tell you true that you are a vision of radiance, and can understand why the king was taken by you. I daresay that any man would proud to have such a woman by his side.”
The queen chuckled, her bosom jiggling, “As yes, but that was long ago and far away m'lord, although I thank you for your kind words. However, methinks that my light is like the dead of night to you when compared to the light my sister shines your way.”
“Aye, I do confess to being so smitten, may the gods save me. And now, my queen, where is my heart of hearts?”
“Spending extra minutes making herself beautiful,” answered the queen. And then laughing, added, “I daresay that she is preparing herself for you m'lord, and that being presented to the king places a very distant second in her thoughts. However, perhaps I shouldn't make you privy to such knowledge, for you may get a swelled head and start laying plans to usurp the throne.”
Now it was Einmar's turn to laugh. “My queen, your wit is every bit as sharp as your sister's. With you as my sister in law, I may well be waling into a hornet's nest. My only hope is that this insanity persists so I'll scarce feel the sting.”
With that the door opened and Gwen stood in the doorway. “Fear not, m'lord, the wasp's sting, for I am naught but a honeybee, laboring to bring sweetness to your life.”
Einmar blushed and as Gwen and the queen broke out laughing, he thought to himself 'pity me, the poor warrior, unused to such courtesan ways. Ah well, just smile and enjoy the sights, for such pleasures they are'. Gwen was bedecked in a simple white gown which clung lovingly to her coltish form, her hair held away from her face by a single gold braid, giving her high regal cheekbones full visage. Her brown eyes, flecked with gold, sparkled as much as her sister's, and as Einmar looked into those eyes felt the heat of her unbridled love shining through at him.
“M'ladies,” he recovered. “I am charged to escort you to the throne room, for the king awaits your company.”
He then took a woman on each arm and, thusly flanked, led the two across the castle and to the huge double door to the throne room. They were announced and then let into the opulent oak carved, high ceilinged room, Einmar in the lead, as was his right, and the two sisters behind him, walking side by side. They moved towards the throne, passing the many colorful tapestries that covered the walls, depicting the history of the Saxon race and the glory of the Dorman clan, of which King Agar was the current head. When Einmar reached the dais, he knelt before the king; a tall, thin, regal form dressed in long purple robes with his graying hair and close-cropped beard peppered with gray.
“My liege,” Einmar began. “I, and your brave and loyal warriors have returned successfully from the mission you have commissioned. And now, it is my honor to present to your highness, the queen errant of Normandy, and her sister Gwen.”
With that, Einmar rose and stepped to the side as the two sisters stepped forward and curtsied deeply. The king rose from his throne, bowed to the two women and then spoke thusly to Einmar and the assembled nobles: “Einmar, noble warrior and good friend, I and my people are once again in your debt. We welcome you and thank the gods for the safe return of you and your men, the milk of the Saxon bosom. We are grateful that two such lovely specimens of our ilk have been returned to our fair country and rejoice that they are now freed from the shackles illegally placed upon them by the Norman host. Now, as my heart has awaited this moment, let the lady Gonoriel come forward and be seated beside me, as I'd like to see her closer and get to know more of her.”
The corpulent Gonoriel then moved forward and knelt to kiss the kings rings, showing him fealty, and said, “My lord, it is indeed an honor and I thank thee greatly for your consideration, for I like the damp Norman country not at all and the disgusting king even less.”
The king drew back his hand and bellowed, “What trickery is this! This is not the lady Gonoriel! I don't appreciate this deception, whatever the reason.”
He then stepped off the dais and approached Gwen. “This!” he pointed, “this is the one. This is Gonoriel!”
The assembled nobles started mumbling and Einmar couldn't believe what he was seeing. In shock, he finally spoke out, “Please excuse me, m'lord, but you are mistaken. This is Gwen, her sister, and . . . “
“Mistaken!” the king roared. “No, my friend, I think not. This is indeed the fair Gonoriel, and this,” he turned and pointed a shaking finger at the green clad queen, “this cow must be her sister. An elaborate plot hatched between the two I'm sure, not knowing you to be friend or foe, and I applaud the ruse. But now the game is ended and I will proclaim my love to the fair Gonoriel and that it be my wish that she sit beside me and rule as my queen.”
Einmar glanced at Gwen and saw the terror in her eyes and was forced to speak again. “But your highness, there is no deception here. These two have been open with me and even assisted greatly in our escaping the Norman shores. I assure you that . . .”
“Silence!” the king boomed. “Einmar, my good friend, you have been in my service a long while and are a trusted friend whose judgement in battle is held in high regard. But this is a domestic affair and I know my heart and it tells me that his fair maiden is the one my heart went out to when first I saw her! Now, do you continue to defy me on this?”
Einmar's mind was racing. What was he to do? He had seen the king in this frame of mind and knew that he was not to be crossed. He had decreed his love for Gwen, who he mistook for Gonoriel, even though he didn't even know the girl. The king had spoken, and his word was law. To refute him further would be a foolhardiness that even his years of faithful service couldn't protect him from.
But still, his love . . . his love. He had never felt the warm sunshine nor smelled the sweet scented flowers until he met her. It was as if the whole world had opened up to him and he had known a happiness unbounded and a contentment to the core of his being. So few achieve that, he though. And better if he hadn't, for though he had been content to be a warrior before, to live without his love would be like living with no purpose. Any victory would be hollow and the laughter of friendship would ring false for in his soul he would be constantly in pain over the void of his empty heart.
But what were his needs compared to the will of the king, and the good of the country he served? What was there for him to do? To proclaim his love for Gwen, or even hint that they had touched would mean the end of them both. He felt trapped. Was there no justice? No mercy in the heavens? Was this just a cosmic joke being played at his expense?
He looked at Gwen and it was all he could do to prevent himself from reaching out to her. Her eyes were wide and scared as a frightened fawn as she sensed the horror that was taking place before her. She closed her eyes, realizing their predicament and as her body trembled, her shoulders fell and she accepted her fate.
Einmar's arm started to raise and reach out towards her, but her stopped himself. Oh the agony! It felt as if he were being pulled in two by a team of horses. His heart was on fire and his body ached to hold her and make this bad dream go away. He glanced at Gonoriel, hoping upon hope that she might have hatched a plan to save them, but she stood silently upon the step of the dais, back turned to the drama, with slumped shoulders and head bowed. Einmar felt a moment's sadness for her as well, for her shame and embarrassment must be immense. As he gazed at Gwen a tear fell, plotting a course down her lovely cheek, and he realized that all was lost and indeed, their plight was hopeless.
He cleared his throat and in a quiet, hollow voice spoke to the king, “My apologies, your highness. Indeed it seems that I was deceived and I thank you sire for showing me my error and preventing me from further embarrassment. I was taken with fever from poisoned blade and it must have clouded my judgement.”
He glanced at Gwen and as their eyes met they communicated silently, and each understood what fate had done to them and that they must play a false role evermore for both their sakes.
The king, now in a much more jovial mood, placed a hand on Einmar's shoulder. “Do not feel any shame, my friend, for your wound and subsequent clouded vision came in my service, and you shall be richly rewarded for it. In fact, I decree a feast in your honor tomorrow eve, and what a celebration it shall be as I will take the opportunity then to announce my betrothal to this lovely creature.”
The king then beckoned for Gwen to take his arm and, when, after a moments hesitation, she silently obeyed, eyes downcast, he led her up the dais to be seated next to him.
All the while the ex-queen of Normandy, now a virtual non-person in both realms, was standing, slump shouldered, on the dais steps. As the king and her sister passed, she seemed to come alive and slowly backed down the steps and then turning, ran from the throne room, moving as fast as her pudgy legs would carry her. Einmar looked up as she passed and was amazed to see the glazed, almost crazy look in her eyes and what seemed to be a wide smile upon her fleshy face.
Back at her rooms, an out of breath Gonoriel closed the door behind her and breasts heaving against the meager confines of her dress, shrieked and let out a haunting cackle, as if gone quite mad. Her belly jiggled and she felt as if her sides would burst as she laughed and laughed. The drama had been played out, the wheels of the prophecy spinning in their relentless path. She knew the pages of future history that had been set in motion, and knew too that the fate of all the players in this little theatre were indelibly stamped.
Gonoriel, as befit the sister of the new queen, was given room in the west wing of the castle; the wing reserved for visiting dignitaries opposite that of the crown. She was given a small retainer and serving staff and all but forgotten. She continued her acts of gluttony and grew ever bigger, entirely masking the fact that she was pregnant with the offspring of the king of Normandy.
She schemed, using what little power her station gave her, and put to good use those servants that could be trusted.
Einmar visited her on occasion, looking wan and lost, often just barely holding back the tears as he tried to lessen Gonoriel's pain while enduring his own. Gonoriel offered him some of the sweet meats she was constantly devouring, but Einmar had no appetite - for anything. As she stuffed her maw she felt compassion for this innocent pawn in the game of kings. Would that times were different, Gonoriel confessed to herself, she might do well to bed such an honest, caring man. But his heart was shattered, and she in no shape to offer him any kind of womanly solace. Poor soul, his fate was an end far worse than her own. She patted her swollen belly and shoved another bite into her mouth as she watched the shrunken, defeated hero shuffle back to his lonely room, shaking her head, jowls flapping, at the sight.
Then, late in her ninth month, on a dark, moonless night, she crept away from Avalon to meet with a midwife whom she had sworn to secrecy. In a small thatched hut she delivered a healthy child who was then taken to be raised by a poor noble of the Northern Provinces.
Gonoriel later returned to the castle unmissed, and no one noticed that she was a few pounds lighter. Ah, the joke was to be on them. In the meantime she waited patiently, enjoying the sweetmeats she stuffed herself with for their own account now, not for any dream of future destiny. Relishing every morsel, and feeling that that too was a revenge, for her gluttony was a tax on the king's cupboards, she waited in obscurity, enjoying the taste of a greater revenge to come.
She was bedridden at about twenty five stone when her sister, the crowned queen of Saxony, died along with the child she was attempting to bear, which left the aging king greatly saddened and the country without heir. Poor, sweet Gwen, another pawn in their game. She had seen the look of terror in her eyes as her love was ripped from her, and how, until she died, she still carried a piece of cloth from Einmar's closet.
Poor sad, forlorn Einmar, was fighting in far off Flanders when he heard the news of the death of his beloved. He remained in his tent for several days as the gloom consumed his soul. He supposed that he should feel some sense of relief, for the charade was over, but his heart was too heavy and he doubted that he could ever call the king “friend” with any conviction.
Still, he had his duty, and that had always been the cornerstone of his makeup, and would be so always. But now his heart needed time to mend, so he stayed in his tent and mourned.
Sadly, while he remained inactive, the siege went badly and many men lost their lives. It seemed as if they needed Einmar's leadership to aid their skill in battle. Even Boltar, the ablest of all the Saxons, had been badly wounded, which, when news was brought to Einmar, finally broke him from his fugue. He returned to the battlefield in a rage and single handedly turned the tide in the skirmish, as if he was striking out, not at any foe, but at cruel fate, which had dealt him the severest of blows.
Einmar cursed those fates, not knowing that, indeed, the fates were wholly responsible. But Goneriel knew; knew all too well that fate had taken responsibility for them all.
She chuckled, setting in motion her rippling mounds of flesh, as news reached her years later, that a mere lad of fifteen had bravely led a group of mercenaries and overrun castle fontenblue after first proclaiming to be the rightful heir to the Norman throne.
Gonoriel smiled and bit into another honeyed fruit, her arms barely long enough to cover the great expanse of her body and make it to her salivating mouth. Her drool was lost amongst her several folds of chin, yet she continued to fill herself full. She knew that the play was about to run out, for soon her son would cross the channel with his mercenaries and Norman soldiers and soundly thrash the Saxon and their aging warlord, thus becoming the ruler of two countries and bringing the prophecy to a close. Gonoriel knew that she would die in the sacking of Avalon, unable to move from her pillows, but revenge would ultimately be hers against the rulers who would buy and sell her, and would taste indeed as sweet as the honey dripping onto her tongue.