“I came seeking service,” I told him. “I wish to serve as a knight for the king.”
The man laughed but not unkindly. “Not to mean offense, lad, but you have neither device nor spurs on your boots; are you indeed a knight?”
“I would like to be one,” I said, trying to sound hopeful, half torn between playing a charade, and hating the thought of lying to good, just men.
He grinned again. “Well, then, I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to try your luck. The king is always looking for young gallants to build up his knightly circle when his current ones fall or become too old to wield a sword. I’m Gawain,” he added, reaching out a hand.
“My name is Mordred,” I told him and clasped his forearm, feeling the iron muscles hidden under his tabard.
“Well, then, Mordred, you had best come with me. Owen!” He called the groom over again and the man took care of his mount as Sir Gawain led me inside the castle. “I don’t think His Majesty is up to much right now—probably wants a break from signing useless documents, so he should be happy to see you right away.”
I was half shocked at his easy, and nearly disrespectful speech toward the king and the kingdom’s affairs, as if he were speaking more of a brother. I figured he must be a very good comrade of Arthur’s to be able to speak so and loudly enough for all to hear, and that both heartened and saddened me.
The palace was the most beautiful place I had ever seen. I would have thought it the halls of Faery if I didn’t know better. I truly felt the naive boy as I stepped through the stone halls, warmed by colorful tapestries and populated by servants bustling to and fro. Sir Gawain led me up a flight of stairs and down a hall to a room I would later learn was called a solar, where King Arthur was apparently seeing to his business.
The knight did no more than knock on the door before opening it, poking his head in casually.
“Arthur, there’s a lad here who wishes to speak with you about terms of service.”
“Send him in, please, Gawain, I’m nearly done here.”
Sir Gawain took my shoulder and pushed me through the door before closing it behind me. I glanced back, feeling a bit deserted, and uncomfortable to be left alone, but then remembered where I was and who I was in the company of, and I turned respectfully to the man sitting at the desk and fell to one knee, bowing my head before I had seen him properly.
“No need for all the groveling, lad. Come, tell me your name and where you hail from.” I looked up finally to see the famed King Arthur and as his soft blue eyes met mine, I knew in my heart that I could never kill this man or be in any way responsible for his death.
He just sat there at his desk, no crown, no royal robes, dressed simply in a loose shirt rolled up to his elbows and ink on his fingers. There was nothing in his overall appearance that looked kingly, but his face and bearing held a majesty that told of an instinctive dignity; one that came from character, and not status although he was one of the few men who blessed with both.
“Speak up, boy,” another voice said, and made me realize with a guilty start that I was staring. My attention was instantly turned to a man lounging in a window seat behind the king with a small smile on his lips. He was tall and thin, with dark brown hair and odd eyes that somehow managed to look both sad, deep, and mischievous at the same time. He looked how I had always pictured elven princes, and I never did find out whether the great sorcerer Merlin shared Fae blood—no one ever knew for sure where he came from, and he would never tell—but I would come to know him to be both a good, loyal man, and one never to be crossed.