The Lady of Shalott: Part 1

     shal1

     The only thing I can remember about my mother is that she told me I was going to die. I must have been just entering into my third year at the time, for I can distinctly remember the pink Worts-wrights that marked the approach of my birthday blossoming in the garden on the day my mother told me about death. Odd, isn’t it? I can remember everything about the sun-dappled garden on that day, but not the sight of my mother’s face. Only her soft voice, close to my ear.

     “It died, Elin.” She spoke gently. She was referring to the shredded carcass of a bird that lay on the grey tiled walk before us. The bird’s yellow feathers, ruffled and bloodied, stuck out at odd angles all over the grotesquely twisted form.

     I suppose I must have asked her what died meant. Her response was even quieter. “Death is…something that must come to all of us, eventually.” Her lips grazed my ear as her head drew closer to mine. “It will come to your father, and it will come to me. It will come to your brothers. And someday, it will come to you.”

     I remember feeling afraid. Was I to become as the bird, crushed and bloodied, when Death came to me? My mother, likely sensing my fear, laughed a little. There was nothing mocking in her laugh; rather, it was a gentle laugh, full of love and peace. “Don’t worry, sweet” she reassured me tenderly, drawing me closer. “Death brings to heaven, you see. And heaven…well, heaven is the home of God.”

     She died a few days later.

     It was right after my birthday, or so they tell me. She’d been expecting a baby for some time, and everyone predicted that it would arrive before the first Worts-wrights faded. But somehow, the day that was supposed to mark the joyous beginning of a new life instead marked the end of two. The babe my mother had been carrying never opened his eyes, they say, and my mother, worn out after the ordeal, died soon after he did. This much I learned from our servants, all of whom seemed to revere my dead mother.

     My father refused to discuss the matter with me or, as far as I could tell, anyone. He rarely spoke my mother’s name, and never, ever, referred to her death. At first, I supposed this was due to the overwhelming grief he must have felt. But, as I grew older, I began to wonder if he didn’t also feel some guilt over my mother’s early demise. For it was his son that she carried; his son that had caused her so much pain.

        I had two older brothers, both of whom would have been old enough at my mother’s passing to remember her distinctly. However, even they rarely alluded to her. I didn’t see them very often; they had both attained the title of knight, and were now serving our king at Camelot.

       I thought of my mother often, though, and especially on the day of the tournament. I used to think that was the day that my life began. Now I wonder if it wasn’t the day that I began dying.

*** 

     It had been six years since my father had last held a tournament. He used to hold one every year, or so they said. And the tournaments that he held were legendary. Everyone from the surrounding fields and villages came to our hall to see the best of Camelot’s knights compete against each other. Even our king and queen came!

     Before it was even light, people began congregating in the strip of land bordering the forest that rose up on the eastern side of my father’s estate. Lanterns hung from cedar poles bobbed in the chilly breezes as the gloom of night gradually gave way to the grey light of dawn. The shadowy figures of servants slunk to and fro, trailing behind their solid counterparts, as the vibrant colors of the flags hung about the field gradually grew more perceptible.

     Finally, after the sun had grown bright and the day hot, the tournament officially began. Knights laden in steely armor would face each other off in jousting matches as the spectators watched, spellbound. The crowds’ excitement swelled whenever a knight knocked his opponent down, and it reached a breaking point whenever there was a show of blood. To be dismounted was a disgrace, but if one were wounded as well…well, then it became more of an honor.

     This was, of course, before my mother’s death, which seemed to have stolen from my father not only his wife, but also his love of entertaining.

     He had made an exception six years before for my brothers, whose mutual cajoling had finally worn him down to the point where he agreed to hold another tournament. “Just this one,” he’d sighed wearily. “But this will be the very last.” And he had been true to his word; at least, up until this year, when I’d asked him to arrange one for me as a late birthday gift.

     Truth be told, I had actually begged him to hold one at our hall, and to invite all the knights of Camelot. As before, he’d agreed only reluctantly. But did he suspect the real reason for my request? I blushed. No, if my father knew, he wouldn’t have agreed to host a tournament. For years, he had kept me sequestered away in our manor, hidden from the eyes of any potential suitors. Sansa said that it was because he couldn’t bear to give me up. “You’re the very image of her sainted ladyship” she had said matter-of-factly. “You’re the last real link he has with her, you and that mirror.” She’d nodded upwards, reminding me of the large rectangular mirror that sat in my parent’s bedroom, above our heads.

     But I was fifteen now, and I couldn’t bear the thought of being alone forever. A tournament would be the perfect opportunity for me to see the knights of Camelot assembled together. Or rather, to let them see me.

      My fingers, trembling with anticipation, groped for the hand mirror that lay on the table beside the chair where I was seated. I held it out before me, scrutinizing the dim version of my face that played across the murky surface of the polished glass. My complexion appeared clear, and my mouth free from any embarrassing crumbs. Indeed, my stomach had been too tight this morning for me to take more than a few stray nibbles of the bread that Sansa had brought up on a tray. But did I look pretty? Doubts taunted me from the back of my mind.

     Sansa pushed open the door and waddled into my room. “Elin!” she shrieked in her high, sharp voice. “Aren’t you ready yet? What are you doing, sitting down? You must be daft! You’ll have plenty of opportunity to rest your pretty feet later, when you’re at the tournament!”

     Taking one last, fugitive glance in the mirror, I rose shakily, and was promptly shoved out the door by Sansa, who muttered inconstantly about my tardiness. Nerves tense, I suppressed the sudden wild desire to turn around and slap her red face. Couldn’t the stupid woman ever shut up? Remorse flooded me as soon as I thought this. Increasing my pace, I obediently hurried down a flight of narrow stairs. I could feel the blank faces of the stone steps staring down the back of my heels as I hurried downwards.

        To my surprise, I found my father waiting for me by the doors that led out of the courtyard. Had he been waiting long? I curtseyed lightly before him, apologizing for my lateness. Was he irritated? I looked into his blue eyes, anxious.

        But his eyes were distant and emotionless. He shrugged, giving me a limp smile as he mounted his chestnut mare. I followed his example, and mounted the mule that a page had brought to my side. We jounced, side by side, away from the protective embrace of our stone manor and into the blinding light of the morning sun.

         Our ride was a short one, the tournament field being only two stone’s throws away from our home. As we approached the jovial red tent that covered our more distinguished guests, a trumpet sounded, arrogantly notifying the people that their host had arrived. Suddenly the eyes of all were turned towards my father and myself.

     Mortified by their fixed attention, I bowed my head, half-wishing that we could call the whole thing off and retreat back into our manor. What sorts of thoughts were crossing the minds of those gathered in the crowd? Were they judging the way that I sat aloft my mule? It was certainly true that I was no rider. Were they critiquing my frame, perhaps comparing me to my mother? My mother had been renowned for her beauty. Or were they laughing at the rose-colored dress that I’d chosen to don this morning? Perhaps it was out of style. I clutched the reins in my hands like a life-line.

        The next few moments passed away in a blur. Father boldly rode up to the smiling scarlet tent, then dismounted and bowed respectfully before King Arthur and his wife. I followed his lead, though I curtseyed in my turn. We had been through this several times before, in our occasional visits to court.

     These formalities over with, Father proceeded to greet the king and ascend the wide wooden dais, dutifully took a seat adjacent to his. The buzz of the crowd resumed, and, seemingly forgotten, I too began to mount the dais.

         “Elin!” Gaivain appeared at my side out of nowhere. A smile broke out across my face. Breaking all conventions, I tried to give him a hug; however, his heavy metal amour got in the way. We both laughed as we steeped discreetly to the side, away from the view of the royal couple.

            Suddenly, I stopped short. In my excitement, I hadn’t noticed the dark, swarthy knight beside my brother. What did he, and the other knights, think of my impulsive behavior? I recoiled, tentative. But if my Gauvain noticed my sudden reserve, he didn’t let on. Eyes bright, he turned smiling to the mysterious knight at his side. “Lancelot, this is Elin! Elin, Sir Lancelot.”

         Sir Lancelot! The tall knight bowed before me. “My lady Elin” he said, regaining his posture. I could only stare, mute, my face burning. My startled behavior seemed to amuse the knight, however, because he smiled. I stuttered out some incomprehensible reply, and his smile widened. Normally I would have been only further embarrassed by this. But the knight’s smile was neither mocking nor cruel. Rather, it was a friendly, open smile- a smile that invited, nay, commanded, its recipients to smile back. I did so, slowly at first, then all at once. The knight’s smile broke into an easy grin, and I laughed, reassured.

     Sir Lancelot! Everyone in the country knew of him! The ladies especially. Handsome, brave, charming, and unwed…even Sansa could be heard on occasion to sigh when his name was brought up. But never had I been this close to him before! I turned again to Gauvain. “I didn’t know you knew him!” I blurt out.

     Sir Lancelot was the one to laugh this time. “Gauvain, don’t you ever write this poor girl?” he said to my brother in a merry voice. But his eyes were on me. “Gauvain is too modest to tell you about our encounters with Sir Kincaid, or the time we slew the blue dragon together” he said, with a failed attempt at sobriety. I looked at my brother, not sure what to believe. That my brother knew Sir Lancelot was incredible enough, but that the two had actually shared in adventures together? However, Gauvain had grown suddenly interested in the group of knights assembling on the other side of the field. “We’d better join them” he said, starting in that direction. With a final grin aimed at me, Lancelot followed.

     Though uninvited, I hung close to them as they made their way behind the scarlet tent and headed for the tents situated along the far end of the field. The beaten grass cringed beneath our descending feet as a proud string of small flags flaunted their bright colors provocatively above our heads.

     “Wear my sister’s token, Lancelot!” Gauvain laughed good-naturedly as we tripped along, giddy, in the piercing sunlight. “If you don’t, I’ll never forgive you.” Never, for Gauvain, was always a space of moments.

     “Would you?” I called out hopefully, clinging almost desperately to the opportunity thrown my way by Gauvain. Knights were always bearing the token of some lady or another at jousts. No one had ever worn mine, though. It was a little thing, hardly worth mentioning…yet it had nagged me like an incessant fly for the past year and a half. Perhaps Lancelot, as I was beginning to think of him, would wear mine, if only for this tournament!

     Lancelot hesitated, surprised, and his pace slackened slightly. My two slippery words slid to the ground witheringly, their sick expressions reflecting the acute embarrassment they felt at my perceived forwardness. An uninvited silence sneaked in between the two of us, despite the loud gibbering of the nearby crowd. I could see it before me, trying to stifle a fit of gleeful giggles. Gauvain, his mind already occupied with something else, strode onwards, oblivious, leaving the two of us to grapple our way out of the uncomfortable situation his words had birthed.

     Terror clutched my belly. Had I been too forward? The line of garish flags tittered at my innocence from above. But how were ladies supposed to ask knights to wear their tokens? I called up to them desperately. I watched Lancelot’s earth -colored eyes drift from me to the veiled woman who was sitting placidly at the king’s side. Queen Guinevere. The most celebrated woman at court. Why would she mind if Lancelot wore my token? My mind went blank as I tried to fashion an answer. 

     Lancelot’s mysterious reverie was broken when he nearly stumbled into one of the ropes that upheld the tent we were passing. “Er, If my lady permits me to wear her token, I should be honored” he said with a smile, his words cloaked in a patronizing tone. “But I shall have to…um, disguise myself.”

     “Disguise yourself?” I asked, bewildered. “But why?” The pride that had begun to surge within my breast was replaced by a wounded humility. Did Lancelot deem me too ugly or unseemly to be so honored by him before so many spectators? Gauvain, twenty paces ahead, called out something over his shoulder. I ignored him.

     Lancelot’s over bright smile shuddered at my confused expression. “It would, um, dishonor the queen if her husband’s chief knight hailed another woman as…I mean, wore her colors…” The knight grappled with unspoken words, trying to line them up in a convincing fashion. He failed, and the traitorous words fled. His over bright smile returned.

     Did he mean that Queen Guinevere would feel slighted if he wore my token? Any indignation I felt towards him evaporated, and was replaced by a cold and disloyal fury towards the queen. How could she be so selfish as to expect Lancelot to honor only her at tournaments? She was already married to the king; was she to have a claim on another man as well?

     Aware of Lancelot’s nervous gaze, I reluctantly forced my anger aside. “I understand” I lied. The relief on his face was unmistakable. My white hands fumbled with the scarlet handkerchief at my side. Unloosing it, I held it out. It watched me, disbelieving, as his weathered hand took it. A smile crept onto my lips. No doubt my handkerchief had, like me, been anticipating this moment for months.

     His confidence returned, Lancelot gave an elegant bow, smiled, and hurried to join my brother by the horses. Feeling dazed, I sailed back over the sea of trampled grass to the grinning scarlet tent. It watched me steadily as I made my way back; if the Church didn’t forbid it, I would have sworn that the tent was laughing at some private joke. A foreboding chill seized me as a series of trumpet blasts sounded behind my back. The tournament had begun.

 To Be Continued…

By Meredith Joy

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