(OPENING CHAPTERS START PAGES BELOW HERE)
By sundown they caught up with his family and retainers, camped with some hide-covered wagons and half-a-dozen horses.
Layla had given up arguing and berating him, for the moment. Her back was sore from banging into his armor for hours. She was more frustrated than nervous. She blamed her husband, naturally, but only to a point; after all, this idiot had been poured from the same mold of selfish, jackass men. She saw the campfire about the same time she smelled the roasted meat.
“Well,” she asked her ex-lover, “and what will your mother think of this?”
“My mother,” he said. “Ha, ha. That’s good.”
“Did her husband keep two wives?”
“My father? Ha, ha.”
“Flawless dolt,” she said, “Will you tell her you’re so mad with love for me that you stole me away?”
She longed to smack his bearded face but that was impractical at the moment. They were among the tents now. She thought what a charming outing this was going to be.
“Mad for love?” he wondered. “I want your husband to come fetch you. He has insulted me and thinks himself safe. He thinks.”
“Something you spare yourself as much as possible, Gaf,” she said. “Listen, how will Parsival divine that you’ve made away with me? He will consider I’ve run off for spite, if ever he comes home to learn I’m gone.”
A man stood up from the fire and moved towards them. He held a spear like a staff, leaning a little. His outline was just a blot against the warm flamelight as the sun went deeper red, becoming just color now and even that staring to drain away as if the horizon clouds actually sucked up the light…
“I left word,” her captor assured her. “He’ll learn. He’ll learn. He’ll be brought to heel like the hound he is.”
She twisted her head to look back into his bearded, shadowed face, the eyes unwinking glints.
“I cannot believe I let you have your way with me,” she signed. Shook her head.
“You liked it well enough,” he grunted.
“Do I like an itch because it feels pleasant to scratch it?” she asked.
“You itch? Did a bug bite you?”
“You were but the treestump the dog rubs his hind against.”
“I begin to understand your husband,” he snorted.
“Good,” she responded. “Then why not be like him and leave me at once?”
He reined up by the fire, his man-at-arms holding the horse while he half-lifted Layla down, dropping her so that she hit the earth hard enough to stumble. His wife was there
“Good even my lord,” the soldier said.
“Have any passed this way?” Sir Gaf demanded.
“None, Lord, save a mendicant monk and a charcoal burner.”
Sir Gaf dismounted, heavily, favoring the leg he’d hurt in his breakfast brawl with Parsival. It reminded him. He glowered and spit with spite.
“You never bucked me off,” quoth Gaf. “Or him, either.”
Layla liked that.
“Never bucked is right,” she said, “We hardly felt the riders.”
His wife giggled at this racy pass though her face stayed expressionless.
“Feed yourself and be still,” said Gaf.
He handed her a seared rib. She took it but didn’t bite yet.
“Your husband means to draw mine by using me as bait,” Layla told her. “That’s like setting out a pot of honey to catch a toad.”
His wife bit the rib. Wrinkled her whole face this time.
Gaf stood there. He was now spilling beer from a jug directly into his throat, head backtilted. He paused long enough to say:
“I’ll clip him close when next we meet.”
“If you don’t free me,” Layla said, “I’ll clip you while you sleep.” She turned to the wife who seemed unmoved. “You astound me,” she told her.
“You live with this man and yet…have you never tried to slay him?” Layla queried.
The lady shook her roundish head.
“I do not grasp your import,” she said. Her husband was now ignoring both of them, absorbed in his beer.
Layla’s face seemed to keep changing expressions in the uneven firelight.
“Ha,” she said. “I bring nothing from across the seas but I’ll import some advice from the Italians: Better a short life than a slow death.”
He and the woman had rolled to a stop together on one of the circular ledges about one third of the way to the bottom of the spiral pit which must have been the entrance to a mine, he concluded.
“Have you killed most of them yet?” she wanted to know as he helped her up and out.
He sighed. Whenever he’d brag at all…
“There are a few left,” he admitted.
The soldiers were riding around the spiraling roadway rather than attempting to cut across and be spilled like Parsival had been. It would take them time to circle down.
“Now what?” she asked.
“Come on,” he said, taking her arm, helping her climb to the next level.
“You want to reach them sooner,” she wondered.
“I do,” he replied.
He was timing it, so by the time they scrambled up three levels all but one horseman in the posse of seven had passed them. Now they’d have to come back uphill which would allow their quarry to run lower and evade. The rest, were on foot and, of course, were scrambling down the sides from level to level.
“I’m good at this business,” he told her. “I’ve tricked them.”
“Yet we still seem surrounded.”
The last rider had just come up, reining back and raising his scimitar, shouting incomprehensible words that clearly meant, “Stop!”
“I’m not bragging,” the knight assured her.
He stepped close and gripped the man’s calf just above the pointed boot, forcing him to slash straight down wildly whilst he yelled in agony as the terrible grip closed. Parsival leaned under the stroke, took the sword and tossed the little man down to the next level.
“There,” he said. “Come.”
Mounted her behind him on the armor less pony these Mongol-like fighters favored.
Headed up the spiral towards the next clump of opponents, foot-soldiers who came running, leaping and skidding form several directions. He brushed them aside: banging, kicking, cutting. No bowmen yet. Kept climbing.
As he came over the rim he saw Lego coming out of the trees. Reacted to his loyalty once again. The next thing he noticed were the arrows zipping and hissing out of the woods at them.
Lego got his shield up fast. A couple sparked and skidded off the steel. Then he saw his lord actually deflect two or three shafts wit the edge of his open hand. He realized the woman had been hit. Then he was trapped.
They wheeled their horses and crashed back along the forest trail to the main road. They reached it at the same time as the three knights from Arthur’s court who’d been following at a distance. Their visors were open.
“That’s enough,” commanded the lean, red-haired, long-nosed leader. “You have defied your king long enough.”
Parsival shifted the slumped woman around to the front of his saddle. She groaned. He’d been afraid she was dead. He was trying to get a look at her wound, which was the reason it was Lego who saw the sideblow swung by the burley, big-jawed knight. Lego lunged nearly out of the saddle in a hopeless effort to block the stroke that laid the flat of the blade alongside his lord’s bare skull. Even so, Parsival’s reactions were so quick he actually rolled a little with the blow as a tremendous, red/black blotting soundlessly burst in his head and seemed to push him face forward onto the rutted road.
“Ahh,” he whispered, rolling to his knees, holding both sides of his head as if to keep it intact.
The little fighters had already swarmed out of the woods and surrounded everybody. The split-nosed leader came panting up, on foot, yelling both his language and crippled English:
“You stand still! You caught! You stand still!”
The three knights didn’t: they charged instantly, in unison, swords ready, shields up. Parsival was tempted to follow them, except his legs weren’t part of him yet. The woman lay sprawled in the dust.
They reared to a sudden stop as a wedge of mounted “infidels” rose up to block them. Parsival’s head felt like a broken bell.
“Well, lord,” Lego said. “Gone but a day and I find you with a woman.”
Parsival went on his hands and knees to her and carefully ripped the fabric away from the arrow wound. A strand of blondishbrown hair unwound down his forehead and he shook his head to keep it out of his eye.
He saw the arrowhead had penetrated her ribcage and the pain and shock had knocked her out. He realized it wasn’t deep enough to cut her lungs, but there would be no way to push it through: he’d have to pull it straight back the way it had come.
Lego was watching the three knights circling their horses, looking for a weak point; there were too many warriors now. He was waiting a chance to strike down the one who’d hit his lord.
Parsival took a careful grip on the shaft, deciding to take advantage of her unconsciousness. He braced his left hand on her breastbone, held his breath and pulled with a steady wrench.
Praise our lady, he thought, because the head was small, narrow and oval with no reverse edges to stick between the bones. So it popped free, followed by a gout of blood. She groaned and thrashed for a moment.
“Get the medicine bag from your horse,” he told Lego. He’d pack the wound with a field poultice before binding it. He knew that more wounded survived who were treated by fellow soldiers than those who fell into the care of professional surgeons.
At the rim of his attention, he saw the foreign warriors had shut them in; but if they’d meant to kill they’d have already done it.
Lego came back with the bag. He was looking at the newcomers his lord hadn’t seen yet. Parsival found what he wanted and started dressing the wound, aware of the clash and jangle of horses and metal looming over them. He assumed it was Arthur’s men. The sun was low and right in his eyes where he faced southwest on the road so it was all shadow and dazzle and he didn’t understand what Lego was talking about when he said:
“These are strange knights.”
“Aye…and days, my friend.”
Parsival squinted and shielded his eyes, looking up not at Lego, but into the silvery facemask that was now close to him. The rider leaned down.
What? he thought. What?
Because it was a skull face with blood-red fangs; the distorted, furious grimace of a demon in deep black armor, darker than the shadows themselves. And he was shocked because he knew them, twenty years ago, while escaping from the madness, plague, fire and famine of those days, returning home he’d been tracked by twelve of these black armored killers, the last (he’d believed) of the dark army whose lord and leader Clinschor, the eunuch, devil, wizard and fiend, had unleashed on Britain in an effort to conquer the land and possess the Holy Grail.
Parsival, weak and weary, far north and near his home, had been caught up with on a white pebbled dry-wash that served as road in the Welsh highlands. His memory was true: the steep banks, violet highland flowers on the rocky, scrubby hills; the black knights: with their carnival facemasks charging him again and again and again. Him: striking, blocking, twisting, ducking, blacking out, the world spinning gray, bright and dark…finally the earth slapping him flat on his back and it was over, and when he returned to consciousness he found he was the only one left alive or unbroken……
He’d been a boy then. The boy who’d found the unfindable Grai Castle, by seeming chance, and then left, and lost the way back forever…….a fierce, hopeful, dreaming boy with a fighting talent that seemed to possess rather than obey him. A skill that was poetry and pain. A violence cursed with elegance.
He remembered in a bright link how he’d lain there in the white pebbly wash among the dead and dying Black Knights – sleeping, half-waking, shivering with fever from his wounds, the mist-paled Northern sun seeming to appear then flick away into moonless night. Eventually, he’d wakened and healed.
Those killers had followed him for literally hundreds of miles. They’d been sent by the tyrant Clinschor to take the Grail from him. This mistaken belief had become his life’s chief curse. The Grail, he’d said, was like tin can tied to a cat’s tail that drew all the dogs to him.
Absorbed in the memories, he touched his head where the flat of the sword had just hit. Winced. There was blood and a bump. When he stood up to face the Black Knight who was regarding him from horseback, reeled and staggered forward, groping to hold himself up on his horse that suddenly wasn’t there…falling…bracing himself to hit the ground that wasn’t there either…nothing under him but nothing…darkness…
The wide road tilted steeply down and ran straight into the valley where the shadows were gathering, filling the rills and clefts with an almost tidal rush as the sunset died into livid purple and deepening red.
Young Hal looked up, frowning, watching the crescent moon blotted out as a vast hand of cloud clenched it. The horses were uneasy, feeling the tension of the coming storm. Lightning flashes jumped, shifted and wildly shadowed the underbellies of the thunderheads.
"Now we'll be soaked, he complained.
Lohengrin cocked his head, concerned with the sudden straying of the road. The horses were bracing back to keep from skidding on the pebbly surface.
"There's bound to be a village along such a broad way,” he assured Hal.
"Yet do I doubt you," Hal responded. "Peradventure we should camp and take shelter."
"Where? Here? This is like a child's slide." Indeed, the horses couldn't help accelerating. The hooves clacked and scraped as the slope dropped away. "Who could come up this stupid road?" The two of them were tilted hard back in their oversized war saddles. "Goats?" Faster and faster down now, approaching a gallop. "Christ!" he cried as they plunged into a sudden mass of trees, the road purely theoretical now. The night had closed in and under the clouds it was as dark as a closed room except for the shudders of oncoming lightning.
The first winds ripped around in the upper branches, swirling leaves loose.
“What a place," Hal complained, in a gasp, clutching reins and saddlehorn as they crashed down far too fast.
Under the massed, creaking branches the darkness was now total. The wind puffed and strained, violently. Even huge trees groaned and crackled. Unseen dust and dirt whipped into their eyes. Lohengrin cursed in short, furious barks. The horses were terrified.
Then lightning hit a tree nearby, so close the sound was more pressure than noise and the flash shocked their eyes, the afterglow a blinding greenish-red...and the bolts in the air everywhere so that the forest flung wildly in staccato convolutions.
And then suddenly they were at the bottom trying to slow the totally spooked mounts. The flashes showed they were still on the wide, straight road. When another big bolt blasted a nearby tree to flaming splinters, both horses reared in panic. The young men barely kept their seats.
"You shithead," Lohengrin snarled, kicking the beast forward savagely.
And then the rain finally came scything down like knuckles on a fist of wind. At least it was warm. They struggled into the stinging gusts that clittered and drummed on the shields and armor strapped to the horses while the light and shadow twisted around them.
At some point the road must have turned and they didn't because they were suddenly out in the open again. The wild light showed twisting downpour empty fields around them and mist that boiled across the fields as if the clouds had been driven into the earth. In the leaping stormlight he glimpsed a metal gate in a wall of shadows. He took it for a trick of the eyes. Squinting and shielding his face with one hand he forced his mount for it, flanked by Hal, who'd fallen back somewhat. He had an impression of a long, low castle wall, strangely folding back into itself as if the wildly shifting shadows were part of the structure Hal was shouting something off to Lohengrin's left. He wasn't far but his voice was sucked away by the storm. The wind shook them in their saddles.
“Christ," Lohengrin said. “Christ."
In the leaping stormlight he glimpsed a metal gate in a wall of shadows. He took it for a trick of the eyes. Squinting and shielding his face with one hand he forced his mount for it, flanked by Hal, who'd fallen back somewhat. He had an impression of a long, low castle wall, strangely folding back into itself as if the wildly shifting shadows were part of the structure.
He was thinking they could shelter from the wind a little there. In the flashes it really seemed to be physically moving, the gate jumping forward, back...to the side. Suddenly it was right in front of him, glinting. He had an impression it was set in the inner crease of a V formation of dark stones that had once been part of a great, structure, now shattered and jumbled.
Leaning back and forth in the saddle against the blasts of mists and wind that let up skightly as he entered the open end of the V. He saw the gate was perfectly intact: a doorway, he thought, into rubble.
The broken stones on each side of him were 10 or 15 feet high. As he went deeper into the narrowing area (that must have been a courtyard) the gale puffed overhead, roared and whispered; but he could sit straight now and the horse settled down a little.
He stopped in front of the perfect arch and massive portal. Dismounted and secured the bridle to one of the arm-thick bronze bars close to the hinge. Then he gripped the double handle and braced to pull. He was surprised, staggering back, because there was no resistance: it swung open as if the pins had been oiled that day.
Hesitating, he looked back for Hal. The open triangle forming the entrance was maybe thirty feet deep. He could see no more than forty, when lightning permitted and then just billows of dense mist and downpour. Shouting would have been futile so he shrugged, gave the horse a pat and a word in its ear, and went inside, leaving the gate open behind him.
He hoped to find enough roof intact for a night's shelter. He was surprised to discover a sudden, steep tunnel cut through the stone and then dipping the way, after the arch of the mouth, the throat suddenly drops down - except, balancing himself at the brink, he discovered neat stairs cut wide enough to make descent acceptable if nerve-wracking.
Adjusting to the flickering flashes from the doorway he went down a few steps: too fast. It was hard to stop. He leaned backwards and just caught the sides of the shaft with his outstretched hands. About five feet across. He paused. The wind and thunder was a distant hollow pulsing here; and the flickers from above barely broke the darkness.
How deep is this? he wondered. Twisted his head around to look up where he'd come. About twenty feet. How did I get down this far already?
He didn't want to go back yet. There was nothing behind but the storm, finding Hal and hearing him complain. He had a vague idea there might be something valuable below - a treasure or old weapons....He didn't really believe it but his recent experiences reminded him of minstrel tales where anything was possible.
In any case, he carefully went down keeping both hands stretched out to the walls, into darkness that had become thick enough to sit on.
This is stupid. There's probably no bottomland what's down there? He had no means of making a light. This is a fool's enterprise fit for my father... I'll wait at the
Even as he twisted around to climb he realized he should have just backed up because his foot slipped immediately and skidded. Even as he cursed he was on his belly, sliding down, feet first, on his chainmail surcoat, streaking sparks and rasping like a Hie as he gathered speed over the stone steps.
"Holy Virgin!" he exclaimed.
He gave himself up for dead as he protected his face with his forearms and sickeningly accelerated. The steel was already burning hot from the friction.
What a stupid death! he thought.
And then there were no steps; nothing under him and he dropped, spinning slowly
end over end into total blackness. Then, inexplicably, he felt as if his body had dissolved and there was only a tiny point of himself left in a vast, lightless silence. He relaxed, strangely.
His mind automatically insisted it had to be a terrific uprush of air cushioning him. He couldn't tell if he was still actually falling.
And then an instant impact: crunching, grinding, powdery crumbling through what seemed unseen brittle layers of lumps and sticks or loose straw which gradually slowed him until he finally stopped, buried in a heap of scratchy fragments of what he decided, deep breathing himself back from shock, might be kindling wood.
I could have broken my neck, he pointed out to himself.
He sprawled there, several body-lengths deep. He had a sense of being at the bottom of a well. Wondered if the stairs came all the way down.
He half-climbed, half swam to the crumbly surface. Struggled, kicked his way Juok to the back wall and groped around it. It was square and wider than above. There were no stairs. He couldn't stand upright because of the brittle stuff he rested on so it was a little time before, groping higher, he found space behind what he'd assumed was the wall of the well. Apparently he'd dropped into a bigger chamber from a hole above.
This could be good or bad, he thought.
He clambered up and over and was now outside the square full of whatever had cushioned his otherwise fatal plunge, standing on solid stone flooring. He stood a moment, brushing chips
and splinters from his hair and mail surcoat
.He stared up the shaft and imagined he saw faint winks of the lightning outside. Maybe just his eyes reacting to total darkness. He shrugged. Now what?
This is my father's type of nonsense, he said to himself. I can't believe this….Still, if there's a way in there usually a way out,...
Lohengrin wasn't given to panic; but this was pretty much whistling in the dark. Then he realized something. He leaned over the lip of the square enclosure a picked up a long stick from the heap. As he felt it carefully and knew he was right: a human bone. An arm or a child's leg. A pit of bones.
Mary's sweet milk, he thought.
Tossed the bone aside and drew his sword. He felt better holding it. He groped forward, using the blade like a blind man's stick. The metal clinked on the stone flooring. The air was damp but not unpleasant.
It turned out the square charnel pit was set in the center of a square room.
Who was collecting bones? he wondered. A troll? They'd obviously been dumped from above. But they were old, dessicated....
"Alright," he murmured, after going around the chamber twice, touching the walls, "there's no door." Or it's hidden or subtly set and I missed the latch. Sheathed the sword.
He made another circut, reaching as high as he could, running his hands over the smooth, ancient stonework. By the third futile pass he was nervous and tired enough to sit with his back on the wall, facing the bone pit.
He breathed steadily to calm himself. Told himself he'd try again. Shut his eyes. He had no idea what time it was. Tiredness softly pulled at him. He felt leaden.
He went out as if he'd dropped into another well except this one had no bottom. No shattered bones—nothingness...
And the women were all beautiful. He counted eight of them. Their bodies were full and golden, trimmed with rings and thin gold chains that covered nothing. Their naked bodies were sleek, stunning lines and rills, shadows and archings; the bare feet had bright rings on each toe.
There was music and they danced. Reedy music with bright cymbal clashes. He watched as if nothing else had ever been.
As they swayed and spun closer to him he noticed each girl had at least one blemish on her body: reddish black blotches that suggested swollen birthmarks. He was attracted and nauseated at the same time.
"Who are you?" he heard himself saying. "What is this? What is happening here?"
A perfectly formed, nude girl with exquisite features, long hair the color of hot embers, came and knelt at his feet. Her eyes were amber, haunting. She put a finger to her lips.
"Shhh," she murmured. "You ask too many things. Ask nothing and you will get everything."
"No questions," he snorted, "even in my own dream."
"You have been chosen for the gift of power."
That was nice. He accepted that he was asleep or had a fever, but was enjoying himself. He became aware of the chamber suddenly: garish gold and red. If he tried to focus too long on any area it blurred into a dark hole.
Now a stooped, hooded man in red and gold robes came toward him. He hadn't noticed him before. The robes wavered like a shadow. He was holding something out in front of himself with both hands.
Lohengrin tried to see what it was but when he looked directly it dissolved into a head-sized blot that seemed a hole in the dream he assumed he was in. For an instant, through the hole, he thought he glimpsed a landscape: a vast view of ragged stones and distant, sharp-edged mountains under a sky of wild, black clouds and deep red as if the atmosphere itself were dully burning.
The scene was compelling and seemed to draw at him. He had an impression that if he somehow let go he'd be sucked through the hole into that forbidding yet fascinating world. He sensed (but didn't see) life there: strange, dark and powerful.
Then the hole became a blot again and then a face because the bent little figure in the redgold monk-like hood was suddenly standing over him. The face swam in shadows. He kept trying to focus on it—except it wasn't a face, it was a skull-shaped goblet..looked like reddishblack metal.
Silly nonsense, he thought.
He was supposed to drink. He felt that. The girl's muddygold-colored body was close to him. Her too-short fingers were intimately soothing and stroking him as the hollow-topped skull bumped under his chin.
Drink, she soothed, somehow in his mind. Drink and become the great lord.
He liked that. The great lord sounded good.
He reached for the cup. Why not - it was only fever-dreaming. Looked into the hollow. The same hole again: window into a barren, dark landscape under the bloodred smoulder of sky that seemed depthless.
It was like a well. He didn't want to fall. He could see and sense things out there where far and near seemed strange. There were human-like beings standing or floating (he couldn't be sure) on some flat, jet black clifftop and the one in the center echoed the gesture of the cowled cripple except his head wasn't a skulicup, it was swollen, all huge mouth gnashing long teeth opening wider and wider -Lohengrin felt it pulling at him.
“No, no, no!” he insisted. “What is this place?" He was suddenly shouting and the woman seemed to cry:
"Be still!" Her voice becoming an echo that repeated and overlapped itself until there was only the darkness again, the wall of the pit and himself yelling over and over:
"What!? What!? What!?"
He woke up after , surprised by what seemed a din outside the dim, comfortably cool place where he lay, naked, on his back on a blanket laid over clumps of hay. The smell told him it was a bam or stable. The noise reminded him he was in the city: voices calling, talking; shouting children; bells ringing; carts banging; music and drums in the distance....
Reached for the woman. Then sat up, looking for her. He'd left the wooden hand screwed in with the joint wrapped in a silky fabric. He was in a hayloft in a stable, as he'd thought No animals present, either he noted. But it was in use, you could smell the dung and horsereek.
He remembered being led here by her, struggling up the ladder, spilling half a jack of ale over himself and her and finding it very funny. Remembered fragments of the night: her strong, smooth, long limbs, tender breasts, her mouth all over his body...It was the best thing he'd known in so long, he'd almost forgotten reality....
Of course, she was gone now, he told himself. She woke sober and saw my face. Likely she's still in flight...
He started when he heard her sudden voice at the foot of the ladder:
"So ya finally stir yerself," she called up. "I've got hard-cooked eggs and mare's milk.” Her head and shoulders now showed in the loft as she paused there on the steps. “And yer hood be sewn."
He grinned, turning his face away so she only saw the strong-jawed profile and long dark brown hair almost untinted by gray.
"Am I in the same world I fell asleep in?" he asked. "This seems a pleasant place."
"Yu've earned some respite," she told him, kneeling up beside him, now, barefoot and naked under a loose, fresh white linen shift that probably (he later realized) was her best that she'd gone home to put on.
Though he'd lain with noblewomen in finest samite gowns, sporting fair jewels and traced with rare perfumes, he was touched by this as by Christ's parable of the widow's mite, whose gift was greatest because she was poor and gave, with her mere pennies, all she had.
"I thank you, woman."
"Me pleasure, Sir Gawain."
She laid the cowl over his lap where he sat, crosslegged, and gently touched his shoulder.
He nodded. He felt good; yet his eyes were teary - and not with self-pity.
"Yes," he said, thickly. "I do thank you. Yet, I disremember your name."
"You never asked, me lord."
"Enea," she told him.
He adjusted himself into the cowled cloak, still sitting.
"You need not cover for me, sir knight."
"I know," he said. Quaffed some milk. It was warm, musky, rich. Offered her a sip which she took. "Where is your excellent husband this morrow?"
"Somebody took away dead Tom," she said. "I don't doubt it were him sneaked back." She took a bite of egg and handed him one. "I don't doubt he's hiding and watching to see if you be gone. In fear, he'll be."
He took her by the shoulders and squeezed, tenderly.
“I -” He began and stopped Realized he wanted to take her with him. Wanted to tell her that. But where? On the road with the madman John and the rest? Why would she want to? Ice or fire, he decided, uncomfortable either way.... Yet, might I linger here?
Realized he wanted to take her with him. Wanted to tell her that. But where? On the road with the madman John and the rest? Why would she want to? Ice or fire, he decided, uncomfortable either way.... Yet, might I linger here?
Because it was that nice to make love again...in any case, he could not have borne seeing Shinqua even if she (and he believed it) she'd accept'him as he was, the horror of his wounds....
She was looking at him, faintly smiling.
"I've had no such humpin' ere this," she told him, "in all me time. You was as loved by the great ladies, I expect, as salt peas by pigeons."
He guffawed. He couldn't believe how good he felt.
"None ever made," he said, "as fair a comparison."
She laughed - something rare, as it turned out. She reached down his crotch with both hands and followed with her mouth.
He was surprised, stiffened, at once into the world's sweetest discomfort.
"Ah," he exhaled. "Ahhh...."
Her mouth worked him. Held him so that when she let it free, the cool air was a cold shock, and her absence. She knew it.
"Don't know what yer misssin' till it's gone, eh?" she whispered, cheek on his thigh.
"Why did you stop?"
He realized he wanted to take her with him; tell her that. Where? On the road with the madman John? Why would she want to?
Ice or fire, he decided, uncomfortable either way….yet, might I linger her?
Because it was nice to make love, again. In any case, he couldn’t bear the idea of seeing Sqinqua even if she’d actually accept the horror of him.
This one was smiling, faintly, just looking at him.
“Had no such humpin’ ere this,’ she told him. “You was as loved by the great ladies, I trow, as salt peas by pigeons.”
He liked that. Grinned and let himself relax into feeling good. Why not? It would soon pass.
“Savory comparison,” he reflected.
“You be a humorous sort,” she said, chuckling. “In yer own style.”
“I laugh like a priest prays: in fear and doubt.”
“Fear not ne doubt,” she murmured, reaching down his crotch with both hands and following with her mouth. He was surprised and stiffened at once into the world’s sweetest discomfort. Sighed and hummed, reflexively.
Her mouth worked him, held him so that when she broke contact the cool air was a cold shock and her absence an ache. She knew it.
“Why did you sto "So you'd see what missin' in yer life, me lord."
"So you'd see what missin' in yer life, me lord."
"As though I knew not," he said, rubbing his hand in her hair, gently trying to shift her head back where it had been.
"I want to grip ya to stay," she told him. "As I see yer a wanderin' man."
"Yes," he murmured. "I'll -" Gasped as her intense, deep, mobile mouth came back ^ cover and sooth'his need again, "...take over...your husband's business," he joked in ecstasy
And shut his eyes and lost what he meant to say. "...ahhh...Christ!...ahhh...."
She was brooding, sitting in the tent by the light of a wan oil lamp, bare feet on the rug floor. She was in her shift with a traveling cape over her shoulders for a robe.
She'd just washed her face and hands for the night and was waiting to get sick again. That was the first thing she hated about being pregnant. There were others.
She sat there, torn, because she couldn't help an^punderglow of tender warmth that diffused within as if from the seed itself. At the same time her mind kept saying:
Not again. Jesus and Mary, not again!
She barely glanced up when the tent flap parted and ^^r mother came in
and stood there, stocky, dour and unfriendly. When Layla didn't react, she said:
"Well, whore, I'd hoped we were rid of you and your delightful family."
Layla was scraping at the cuticle of her little toe, waiting to get sick. She didn't look at the woman.
"I'm not here by choice," she responded. "I wasn't missing you and that hairy sneak so much I couldn't stay away."
The Lady Gaf tilted her short neck forward and stamped her foot.
"You led my son into sin," she declared, bitterly.
"Oh, surely," said Layla, done with the toe now. "As the fly led his mate to dung." Smiled, almost looking at the stout lady.
"What is that?"
"That is this," said Layla, "flies love shit and need none to guide them to it."
"Well," said the other, "you are both fly and shit together."
Layla liked that idea.
"Like the mystery of the Trinity," she reflected, "vinegar to reason but honey to faith." She pulled her sock-like buskins over each long, pale foot. "Why don't you help me escape?"
"Would that I could," the mother muttered.
"Ah, but your son's in love with the dung."
"He's a fool."
"Not a fly?"
She thought about the seed again, the spot of life and heat that had been jammed into her most intimate recesses. She felt the strange anger and tenderness mixed again. She couldn't decide which father would be worse.
Because she'd slept with Parsival within a week or so of the other. They both f/iA/) been sodden with wine: blurry, edges softened, sleeping awake...instead of fighting that night they'd gripped together in a burst of reluctant joy, not kissing, like two shipwrecked strangers clutched together in the heaving of the sea....
Later, lying side-by-side, neither wanted to talk; afraid to talk. She'd felt him waiting for her to fall asleep so he could get up and go prowling.
The older woman stared at her.
"You bring trouble without profit," she said.
"I bring? Ha. You came to my manor with that prize son of yours. He took advantage of my drunkenness." Like my husband, she thought.
"Ah, so you say," the mother cut in. "Yet you were half-drunk each day between matins and vespers. There's no taking advantage if that's your natural state."
"I wish I were half-drunk now," Layla said. "Meanwhile, I was merely r captured and dragged here, as you must know. I have no wish to spend anothyer hour with your mulish sod of a son. Let me say-"
"You are as bad a guest," the mother snarled, " as you were a hostess."
But she was cut off: "Guest? Guest?"
She remembered lying next to Parsival that last time, realizing she didn't care where he went or what he did. She'd wanted to tell him "Go, go!" except then he probably would have stayed, just to prove something.
She sighed. Looked at Lady Gaf.
"Listen," she suggested, reasonably. "Why don't you help me leave? You are not happy I'm here."
"My son must have his reasons. He rightly seeks justice for your husband's insults."
"That's funny," Layla said, mirthlessly chuckling. She refocued her attention on her toe. "Your son is a prince of pigs. Justice for him would be to slice bacon from his flanks."
Mrs Gaf sat on a stool, her back very straight. The weak glow from the lamp filled her face with pits of shadow.
Say what you please," she commented.
Now Layla was thinking how it might be the son who'd made her pregnant What an idea. She didn't look up, saying:
"Listen, woman, if my miserable husband actually takes enough interest to come after me, your lout of a son would find himself knocked flat as a cowflop." There was little doubt of that. She shook her head. "When it comes to breaking heads he doesn't disappoint."
Madame was unimpressed. Her small, dark, cold eyes were moist-looking like stones in a stream.
"I was born Italian," she announced. "In my country we have learned one need not always stand up to fight"
Layla raised an eyebrow.
"You think us clods?" she wondered. "Think you'll poison all your enemies? I warn you, beware of Parsival." Poison his cup, she thought, and he'll spill it by chance. Put a viper in his bed and he'll fall drunk on the floor that night....V he showed up angry they'd all be in Hell before breakfast. "Fornication might get him," she allowed, "if you could find a pretty woman with the plague."
"He's not the only warrior in the world."
He'll come to get me out of duty and kill out of duty but without honor, Layla thought He'd rage if I said so but with him it's duty without honor. He'd tiptoe past the bedchamber where I'd be deceiving him, I think, and not care who knew it, yet if the same man who cuckolded him, cursed me or showed my disgrace in public he'd drag him to the lists and batter him to pulp....
She sighed. Because she believed all he wanted was his freedom to do what he pleased and his conscience demanded that she also could do what she pleased so he might think himself just
The whole point is I wanted him to force me not to do what I pleased, she thought The fool...
"Invite him here, Italian," she said. "It will be as much sport as watching hogs butchered."
Her mind wouldn't stop: I'm going to have another child...I'm going to have another child...God damn them...God damn them to the Devil's deepest shithole....
The blackness made Lohengrin feel like a speck because the only things that existed were the things he actually was touching. His hand hurt. It was stretched up over his head as if in blind Roman salute to the stone wall where he knelt. His knees hurt too.
"Fine," he whispered or thought; he wasn't sure. "Fine...."
When he tried to lower his hand he discovered it was stuck in a hole in the abrasive stone. Caught as if in some monkey trap.
He eased himself upright and gingerly moved his hand. His fingers were caught as if in rock jaws.
I must have put my hand in there and then the wall slipped...or something....
He was afraid they would clamp down further and crush his bones. In a near panic he jerked free, ripping the skin. Most of what had held him crumbled.
"The wall bit me," he murmured. The idea was, somehow, funny. Because there were actual teeth gripping his knuckles. "Christ..Christ..." Part of a jawbone. There must have been a skull entombed in the wall and he reached in while asleep. That was his best idea.
He slammed the bony fragments against the blocks and yelped when it bit him again as it shattered. He felt blood on his hand.
Madness, he thought, do I die down here?
His fingers were numb. They tingled as he rubbed them. Holding down serious fear, he
moved almost frantically around the inner perimeter again except this time, in mid-stride, he tripped over what proved to be a raised landing for a set of stairs.
How did I miss it before?
He went up one step, another...another...up...up...he felt a draught
Impossible, this wasn't here...the hole in the wall must have opened it.... He imagined the space where the skull had caught his fingers was some kind of doorlatch.
He groped and stumbled up, panting, touching the walls on either side, thinking, as if it meant something:
I've been bitten but not eaten... bitten but not eaten...they let me go...they let me go....