The Black Knight and the Night of the Ancestors: Part 1
Steward Osric stood on the edge of the orchard, looking up at the threatening sky with an experienced eye. There was a freeze on the way, he could feel it, and still over a third of the orchard had to be plucked from the branches.
“Hurry, my friends, hurry! We do not want to press frozen apples!” he called out, taking up a bushel basket and returning to his work. While he labored in the orchard to put away the abundant harvest, Glenda worked in the kitchen making preserves from it, while other hands cut, cored, sliced and laid out the fruit on long nets hung in the shed to dry. Even if the weather was cool, as long as it was relatively dry, the fruit would cure properly. The older woman looked up at the sky with speculation, and a shudder passed over her. It was definitely getting colder as the day progressed, and tonight there would be frost for certain. She glanced at the orchard, where the crew was furiously picking perfect ripe fruit, and she wondered if they would finish in time. The thought had no sooner crossed her mind when she heard a commotion in the courtyard, and she walked quickly to see it was a patrol from Camelot, and the Lord of the Villa was home.
“Hello, My Lord!” she called out happily, glad to see him.
“Hello Glenda!” he called back, stepping down from his weary steed as the ostlers ran to take the horses in hand. “I see the harvest is still in progress, perhaps my brothers and I can be of assistance! What say ye, brothers, will ye help fetch in the rest of the Goddess’ bounty?” he called out.
“Are we bein’ fed?” he heard Gawaine’s laughing response. “An’ as I recall, th’ apple ale o’ Aaronnsdale Villa is sum o’ th’ best t’ be had in Britain! Would Lord Aaronn be so kind as t’ share sum wi’ us after th’ work is doon?”
“I believe we could find a barrel somewhere about for our brother, aye Glenda?” Aaronn turned to his Kitchen Mistress to ask.
“I think so, My Lord. I believe I saw the Steward set one on ice earlier today,” Glenda answered through her chuckles. “And I have a nice side of beef roasting right now as well, if the Knights of Camelot could break from their busy schedules to assist our poor house.”
The entire patrol laughed aloud as they picked up their bags and walked over the wide veranda into the spacious, rustically elegant house. Aaronn had gone to considerable expense and trouble to completely remove any traces of the former owner of the villa, for the man had been a traitor in every way. He had also had terrible taste in decorating; Aaronn remembered with a grimace that the beautiful villa house had been strewn with ugly and even grotesque sculptures, most of which were obscene. Fortunately, his lifelong friend and ally Sir Olran had arranged for their disposition, making Aaronn several bags of gold in the process. Now, the house was decorated in a much more understated and classic manner, bringing a sense of harmony to everyone who walked through the doors. The staff came to take the knight’s bags to the guest rooms and Glenda laid out a short snack for the hard-working, hungry men who kept Britain’s borders safe from marauders of all kinds. Within a short time, the plates stood empty and the knights walked outside, ready to work.
“Gawaine, I think ye should work here with Osric at the press,” Aaronn quickly delegated. “He looks tired.”
“He certainly doos,” Gawaine agreed with a chuckle. “Here now, le’ me ha’ a turn a’ it, me good man.”
“As ye wish, My Lord,” Osric agreed easily, stepping aside to allow the huge man into his place. “Thank ye.”
“Ye are mos’ welcoom, boot perha’s ye’d send a coop of somthin’ cold from time t’ time, joost t’ make th’ work go quicker?”
“Of course,” Osric agreed, grinning.
Meanwhile Aaronn had already moved on to the orchard with the rest of the knights, seeing the section the staff was working on was still heavy with fruit.
“Ye can all see what needs doing. Pay no attention to the fruit on the ground, we will deal with that later. We need to get the fruit off the trees, some of it to the press, the rest into the root cellars. The temperature is dropping, gentlemen, I suggest we get to it.”
So saying, he stripped off his heavy tunic down to his shirt and clambered up into the nearest unpicked tree as far up into the top branches as he could and began to pick the delicious ripe fruit rapidly. Those relieved from picking duty turned to carrying filled and empty baskets to and fro from the orchard to either the pressing station or the root cellars until night fell several hours later. Aaronn could feel the frost fall as he finished the last tree, and as he wearily climbed down, he heard a hail from the surrounding forest.
“Olran!” he called back with a grin, not having seen his ally for a few weeks.
“Good of ye to come home from patrol just before Samhain, brother!” Olran called back, adjusting the game bag on his shoulder.
“What have ye in the bag?” Aaronn asked, offering his friend a pipe filled with sweet Herb.
“Glenda’s favorite, goose,” Olran responded after exhaling gratefully. “I found three of them savaged, eviscerated and bloodless, and one was floating with a broken wing in the water. It does not look like the work of a natural predator to me,” he added the last part quietly.
“What are ye thinking?” Aaronn asked him mentally.
“Ye have heard the rumors of Modred being seen in Londinium of late?”
“I have, and it has been very worrying for me,” Aaronn replied. “Perhaps I should go scouting about tonight, after the knights have settled into their beds.”
“If ye are going on a mission before Samhain, ye are taking me with ye,” Olran declared into his mind. “And ye can try to elude me all ye wish, ye know ‘twill be no use.”
“So I have come to know, my friend,” Aaronn acknowledged ruefully. “Now, come and help me make our brothers welcome.”
“After I bathe, and change into clean clothing, I shall. Right now, I smell like hunting, and that cannot be all that pleasant a smell, considering what I must do sometimes to have just the right angle on a bowshot,” Olran laughed aloud, accepting a swig from Aaronn’s hip flask. They entered the house and the other knights greeted their newly arrived brother before they all retired to the beautifully decorated Roman-style bath in the house. Aaronn had recently renovated the thing, along with the rest of the house, hiring skilled craftsmen to subtly alter the elaborate mosaics along the walls. The former owner had spent vast sums creating a lovely scene, dominated by a very obscene picture on one wall. The artisans had labored for weeks to redesign it, producing Ceridwen at work with Her Cauldron, instead of the erotic Aphrodite laying naked on her clamshell. The scene was much more conducive to relaxation, Aaronn had found.
As they relaxed, the staff continued to work bringing in the harvest, until everything had been properly stored away. As they worked, the talk turned to the bonfire planned to celebrate the Night of the Ancestors, Samhain. Osric listened carefully as they talked, knowing that Aaronn valued his staff greatly and was always looking for ways to make his gratitude for their service known to them.
“We are so fortunate to have a good man such as Lord Aaronn looking after us, especially after someone as corrupt as Merin!” he overheard one woman say to another.
“Ye are right about that, and I am so happy that she-wolf from Orkney no longer comes to visit,” her companion said in a near whisper. Osric suppressed a grin; old habits did indeed die hard when one was in service to the nobles. The staff had always communicated in whispers when Merin owned the villa; the man had been notoriously bad-tempered, and he never wanted to hear criticisms about himself. He had always punished such things very harshly, and several of the older women still on the staff bore scars that testified to Merin’s cruelty. Since Aaronn’s arrival and takeover of the villa, however, the situation had been vastly improved. It was the difference between someone who cared for others, and someone who only cared for himself. Personally, Osric thought Merin’s death at the hands of the Black Knight had been perfectly executed and completely just. The staff smiled and laughed again as they worked at their tasks; it was wonderful for the Steward to hear the sound of their joy. He finished what he was doing, stood and stretched, then departed the cellar making certain to pass by the woman who was whispering.
“Ye need not fear speaking aloud anymore, Andraste,” he said quietly. “Lord Aaronn is a Knight of Camelot, he is not overly concerned with his own ego. If ye have constructive criticism to offer, however, ye know ye can always come to me. I know our new Lord is more than passing concerned with the health and well-being of his staff.”
“I like that he calls us staff, instead of servants!” Andraste answered vigorously. “I am very happy he is in charge now.”
“As we all are,” Osric smiled, patting her shoulder as he continued on. Indeed, Osric continued thinking as he walked towards the kitchen, all of us are very happy that he is here. Walking into the kitchen to meet the woman of his dreams, Glenda the Kitchen Mistress of Aaronnsdale Villa, Osric stopped and put the small cask of ale he was carrying aside so as to sniff and taste something on the stove. It was delicious, as was all of her cooking, he noted with a grin as he put the used spoon into the sink, replacing it with a clean one. “Hello my dear, how are things proceeding for the children’s celebration?”
“All is going very well!” Glenda told him, kissing his cheek. “The other mothers have all decided what they are cooking, the men have started decorating the feast hall and gathering wood for the bonfire, and even the children are carving their turnips already. I must say, the faces they are carving this year look much less like Merin, and they are certainly happier faces as well.”
“I think the children’s celebration will be quite merry this year,” Osric speculated. “And I can hardly wait for the bonfire later, and the dancing.”
“I hope I have enough strength to get to the dance floor,” Glenda laughed a bit. “The harvest is heavy this year, for the first time in many!”
“So ‘tis,” Osric noted. “I think ‘tis no coincidence either, the first heavy harvest off the villa lands since Merin’s death and the arrival of our new lord, who is blessed of Ceridwen.”
“Clearly so,” Glenda smiled, passing him a cookie fresh out of the oven. Osric took it with a bow and a kiss, making a great show of tasting it and chewing it slowly, schooling his face into an expression of consideration. Finally, he swallowed and accepted the cup of cold milk Glenda handed him to clear his mouth before speaking.
“Ye have made spice cookies, one of my very favorite this time of year. And did I taste minced apples in the mix?”
“Ye know ye did; I am taking every opportunity to include them in everything. Tomorrow, I am cooking them with warm spices and ground hot peppers to blend into a basting sauce for pork. I think we should do an entire pig; people will be hungry and I think the celebrating might begin a bit early.”
“I think ye might be right, but ‘tis chilly out there for certain. ‘Twill be hoarfrost on the puddles in the morning!”
His weather sense proved accurate for indeed the next morning the frost hung heavily in the air. The staff working the barns heated water in large pots, pouring it over the grain being fed to all of the stock, as well as providing a tepid drink for them. Before they went out, however, Glenda had apple doughnuts for them, as well as caffe and hot tea. The treat and hot beverage was welcomed with grateful thanks by all as they headed out into the chill air to tend the animals. Aaronn woke with a bit of a start, his warning sense tingling a bit in his mind. He sent out his thoughts to his ally in the underground barracks, summoning him to a morning meeting. Such things were not unusual for the two of them, considering the nature of their real work. While wearing the cloaks of Outer Circle Knights of Camelot during the day, their evening hours were often consumed with their secret work for the Goddess. Seeking out and eliminating the covert enemies of Arthur and Ceridwen, the Black Knight of Avalon and his ally the Black Hunter were constantly busy, for Arthur’s enemies were many.
The traitorous group of old nobles, constantly at war with each other since the departure of the Romans, wanted Arthur off the throne before he could father an heir. They did not want to treat people nicely, pay their staff fairly and conduct their business lawfully; they wanted everything to remain as it was. First Aurelius had assumed the throne, then Uther, and now Arthur in his turn worked to establish peace and see to the needs of the common folk, trying to improve their lives. It was that the other nobles resented most, for improving the lives of common folk was the last thing they wanted to do. It was much easier for them to live off the labors of others, while claiming noble blood and the generational right of rule. The Black Knight had been busy for many years since first feeling the mantle fall upon him, and it did not seem as though he would be able to retire for many years, Aaronn thought with dark humor.
“Brother, I need yer counsel,” he sent out with his thoughts.
“I am on my way; I have had the most startling dream.”
“I also,” Aaronn chuckled at their accord. Within moments, Olran’s signature knock sounded on the door and it opened, admitting the wiry, grey-eyed man. “Good morning,” Aaronn greeted.
“Good morning,” Olran returned. “What, no pastries?” he asked with dismay. Seconds later, another knock sounded and Osric’s voice called through.
“Good morning, My Lord. May I enter?”
“Of course,” Aaronn called back, grinning wide at Osric’s sense of timing. The Steward entered with a cart set with service for two and now Olran laughed aloud a bit, recognizing Osric’s foresight.
“Ye are a treasure, Steward,” he commented, taking his cup of hot caffe and a still warm apple doughnut.
“Thank ye, Sir Olran,” Osric answered easily. He could have used the more formal title, recognizing Olran’s status as a prince of a minor house, but he knew that Olran eschewed all association with his family at Westerland Keep. He knew why the young man had severed ties with his family; they were all traitors who worked both sides of the conflict in Britain, profiting on misery and suffering. There were other reasons too, but Olran would never discuss them and Osric would never ask, reckoning it was the young man’s right to his privacy.
“Osric, is all being prepared for Samhain?” Aaronn asked quietly.
“Aye, My Lord,” Osric asserted, taking a cup of caffe himself and pulling up a chair as had become his custom. “Glenda has an entire pig to use, and we have the beef left from last night for the traditional stew as well. I heard talk of roasted vegetables and steamed grains as well. Of course, the sideboards will groan with food; ye know that Glenda always over-prepares.”
“She knows that people are hungry,” Aaronn nodded. “Let us be certain to make room for those who may join us without invitation too. The smell of food cooking will certainly bring them out of the underbrush.”
Aaronn was well aware that many families had been preyed upon by Merin in his lust to expand the villa’s acreage; several of them had already appeared in the courtyard, begging for food and work. Aaronn could not turn them down, of course, and so their children now learned in the villa school while the parents labored to reclaim their farms, with Aaronn’s financial help. The Knight of Camelot had gone to Arthur soon after acquiring the villa and explained the situation, asking for their land grants to be returned to them. Arthur’s response had been to just give the grants to Aaronn and tell him to deal with it, the king being overly occupied with his rocky relationship with Gwenhyfar. The Black Knight’s reaction to the news that the queen was being her usual surly self was swift; a new handmaid appeared in the queen’s quarters within a week of that meeting and Ceridwen’s man quickly became apprised of the quarrel between the two. That information had been quickly filed away for later use, and the young woman’s occasional reports arrived weekly, constantly updating his knowledge.
“Aye, My Lord,” Osric nodded, knowing it would become common practice at the villa’s celebrations now to host the poor. “Some of the staff were wondering if they could gather the fallen apples and use the press to make cider for their future celebrations. I told them I would ask.”
“Of course, and any of those remaining in the trees as well,” Aaronn agreed. “The same is true for any and all of the fruit still useable. There should be no waste at Aaronnsdale Villa!”
“Thank you My Lord,” Osric smiled at his generosity. “Merin would have just let it rot.”
“I am constantly pointing out that I am not Merin,” Aaronn observed with a sigh. “I have held the villa now for a year; ye would think that the staff would let those memories fade.”
“They are, slowly, My Lord,” Osric told him. “Such things take time, and that ye are constantly being compared in a good way to him is a compliment, if ye would take it as such.”
“He is right, brother,” Olran put in. “That they would feel that way about ye is a good thing indeed.”
Aaronn thought for a moment, realizing what they were saying was true. “I shall take it as a compliment then. We will be down shortly, Steward.”
“Aye, My Lord,” Osric answered, realizing he was dismissed. Once he was gone, Olran turned back to the current problem, the recent sightings of Modred in and about Londinium. It seemed that both he and Aaronn had experienced some touch of foresight, for their dreams had been eerily similar. Both had concerned Modred performing some awful piece of kidnap and sacrifice, and in his, Olran had seen the Morrigan. After they had each shared what they had seen, they returned to discussing the sightings of Modred in and about Londinium.
“I was going to just dismiss them as rumors,” Olran told his ally. “At least ‘till I found those ravaged geese. Some of them looked as if they had been eaten while they were still living. ‘Twas most upsetting.”
Aaronn frowned. Olran was not one normally to express such emotions. The scene must have been horrific, he thought privately. “It could have been a mad wolf, or even a bear,” he proposed.
“Really, brother? How long have I been a hunter?” Olran responded patiently. “I know what Modred’s handiwork looks like, I have seen it often enough this last year,” he growled a bit.
“Sorry brother, I know ye have seen more of it directly than I have,” Aaronn said at once, acknowledging that the Black Hunter had been much more active than the Black Knight for most of that year. “Perhaps I should take a look about tonight?”
“If ye are, I am coming along and ye will not object!” Olran insisted. “I shall come along in any case, so ye might as well agree.”
“I want ye there,” Aaronn told him. “Ye have more experience at the moment than I do.”
“At least ye are being smart about that,” Olran grumbled. Aaronn reached for both pipe and Herb to offer his ally a short smoke before they went downstairs and Olran accepted it without a word as he struggled for supremacy over his emotions. Something was not right about the death of those geese, he thought as he smoked the fragrant dosage. He was tired, exhausted really, from taking the lion’s share of the missions for months now. At least Aaronn was showing some interest in this one, he thought gratefully. “I think we should go out tonight, and see what can be seen. If Modred is that hungry, he will need to eat again soon. Goddess help us, I think he has attracted a demon, and is trying for something bigger.”
“It certainly sounds like something he would do,” Aaronn agreed. “If we could put an end to him, I would, gladly.”
“Arthur is just being stupid about him, like he is about everyone he considers family,” Olran observed, his voice now calm and cool. Privately he thought Arthur wasted too much time worrying over those he called family, and not enough about the good of the realm. “If we can catch him in the act however, he will have no choice but to do something about Modred.”
“Catching him at his evil has been a challenging matter, brother,” Aaronn acknowledged, rising from his chair and stretching. “Goddess willing, someday we will.”
“Aye, before he ensnares a Knight of Camelot with his sorcery,” Olran added. They left the room then, carrying their filled cups of caffe, finding the visiting Knights were awake and upstairs, indulging in a rare bit of morning ease.
“Good morning brothers,” Aaronn greeted.
“Good morning!” he heard their collected response.
“I hope ye all slept well?” Aaronn inquired with a grin.
“As always when we are here, even when we arrive late,” Bedwyr’s voice entered the conversation. “Good morning brother, I have come to take command of yer patrol, now that ye are home. I hope ye do not mind if we spend Samhain here; the Queen has refused to honor the Night of the Ancestors and I cannot abide being around her. I think that some of our other brothers feel the same. Ye should expect more guests.”
“Steward, prepare the guest quarters at once! I have a feeling we will be hosting the King this Samhain.”
Bedwyr chuckled as he took the proffered doughnut and caffe, thanking the steward gratefully, for he had departed Camelot very early that morning in the midst of the argument brewing between Arthur and Gwenhyfar. It was good to visit here; he enjoyed it a great deal. Aaronnsdale was comfortable, roomy and quiet; he had never heard an argument or harsh words since his brother knight took over ownership of the beautiful villa.
“I can almost guarantee that the King will be here,” he told Aaronn as he accepted the pipe handed to him and partook. “He was looking very henpecked when I left.”
Olran rolled his eyes expressively at the very thought of Gwenhyfar, who he thought of as waspish, vain and greedy, like most of the rest of the noble women in the realm. He had opposed Arthur’s marriage to her from the very beginning, knowing her father and mother quite well. Leodegrance and Justine, the king and queen of Lyonesse, had bargained, maneuvered and persuaded until Arthur had finally given in and married the chit. Now they were stuck with her, much to most of the knights’ displeasure, as they watched her make Arthur’s life miserable so as to get exactly what she wanted. Personally, Olran thought that the king should just put the chit over his knee and give her the spanking the spoiled brat deserved, but that was Arthur’s province. She certainly would not be acting like that if he stood in Arthur’s shoes, Olran finished his considerations.
Aaronn watched his friends’ face carefully, knowing his feelings about the situation between Arthur and Gwenhyfar. He could see none of the inner dialog written there, nonetheless, he knew it was going on. He and Olran had been friends for such a long time, he could almost hear his thoughts, even without their special abilities.
“I am certain the King could use some time away from his pressing responsibilities,” he said aloud. “We at Aaronnsdale are more than happy to host Arthur Pendragon.”
He watched as his staff quietly began the extra preparations necessary to accommodate a royal visit, even while tending to the group of Camelot’s knights currently staying. He had been blessed with remarkable people at this villa, and it was they who made it so very pleasant and gracious. He felt as though he could not do enough for them, as they made his job as a host so very easy. It was not long before Arthur, Lancelot and Tristan rode into the courtyard on lathered horses, handing them over to the skilled ostlers, who needed no instruction on how to care for overworked horses. Arthur Pendragon brushed off the dust and stamped his booted feet to make sure they were clear of dirt before he crossed the wide veranda of Aaronnsdale Villa to knock on the door. The portal opened before he could even raise a hand, and Aaronn offered him a steaming cup of mulled wine to welcome him.
“Greetings, My Lord Pendragon. Welcome to my home, enter in peace!” he said with a smile.
“A blessed Samhain to ye and yer house, My Lord Aaronn,” Arthur answered, taking the cup and spilling a bit over the rail onto the ground to honor the Goddess. “I enter in peace, and in peace I shall abide, as will all of my party.”
“Be thee welcome then. Come out of the cold; ‘tis past midday and I do not think ‘twill get much warmer now,” Aaronn invited them in, passing each man a silver cup of the warmed, spiced wine.
“By the Lady, Aaronn, yer house is well decorated for Samhain!” Arthur noted the garlands of woven leaves and ribbons, the vases filled with dried flower arrangements standing on every table and mantelpiece. Already, carved turnips were being used for candle holders and beeswax candles scented with the smells of the harvest burned brightly. On a side table, a small image of the Lady with Her cauldron stood, surrounded by beautiful apples, pears, small cups with all manner of nuts, some dried meat and a cup of wine, all offered in thanks for the generous harvest. When Arthur went to make his offering upon it as well, laying a whole gold sovereign into the cauldron and asking for the villa to be prosperous for his secret brother, he noted the tiny cups filled with honey and cream, as well as small cookies for the house brownies. When he was finished, he turned to Aaronn with a smile. “Is breakfast ready? I am starving!” he announced.
“Aye, My Lord,” Osric responded before anyone else could. “Breakfast is being served even now; come and get yer plate.”
Eagerly, Arthur complied, receiving his stack of griddlecakes, a few fat sausages and two fried eggs. Taking it with him to the table he sat next to Aaronn, discussing the situation at Camelot.
“I am sorry to have arrived without warning,” he began.
“Brother Bedwyr was kind enough to acquaint me with the situation, My Lord,” Aaronn replied quietly. “Ye are welcome to stay as long as ye like.”
“Thank ye brother,” Arthur answered gratefully. “I do not wish to talk to her for a few days.”
Aaronn smiled, thinking to himself he would not want to talk to Gwenhyfar for any reason. “Of course, ‘tis why ye are here.”
Chuckling, Arthur dug into the meal, enjoying every bite thoroughly, along with several cups of the delicious bitter brew. “What have ye got planned for Samhain night?”
“We are planning a feast for the Night of the Ancestors, My Lord,” Aaronn answered. “The staff is putting up a table for them, and of course ‘twill be dancing around the bonfire later that night. I believe that Vivaine is coming too, so as to properly bless the villa.”
“Delightful!” Arthur exclaimed. “Is there anything we Knights can do to assist?”
“Ye could help set up the tables and prepare the firepit for the pig we are roasting,” Glenda’s voice put in before Aaronn could answer.
“Pig?” Arthur asked. “Ye are roasting a pig?”
“A big one,” Aaronn confirmed, knowing that Arthur, like all of the knights, loved spit-roasted pig. “I reckon ‘twas about forty stone before slaughter.”
“Mmmm…” Arthur replied with a grin. “And who is cooking this pig?”
“We are setting the spit up outside, so that everyone who wishes to may take a turn at it,” Aaronn told him.
“What a delightful prospect, except if it rains.”
“We will ask the Lady for a dry day, My Lord,” Aaronn smiled wide as he answered.
“I am sure since She seems to love ye a great deal, my brother knight, we will indeed have a dry day,” Arthur laughed. “Now, I should like to find my room, and the comfortable bed that waits there. I have not slept much for several days.”
Aaronn took him to the room the King used while he was there and made certain the man was comfortable before leaving him to his nap. When he returned to the common room, he found that the other knights had also retired for short naps, leaving him and Olran to continue their discussion quietly in a corner. They decided to go out that night to find Modred, and see what he might be up to so close to Londinium.
By Sunbow Pendragon