Sunday, August 19, 2012

Forty-second excerpt from 'Twelve Towers'

After two nights on the road, the group lodged their cart, horses and belongings at the same inn they had stayed in last time and made their way through the castle gates to the office of the seneschal. Sir Kay was not there but they met with his squire who told them: “Sir Kay is in the great hall. I will ask him if you can interrupt.”
The boy returned a few minutes later and asked them to follow him. “You can leave the little ones with me.”
“Not on your life, son,” said Gwilym, much to the delight of Jac and Llawen.
On entering the great hall they saw a huge, round table dominating the room. It was so big that the sides touched two of the walls of the room. Bleddyn stifled a laugh as he saw a knight seated within this enclosed arc climb on a bench, then over the table and off again to get out.
Servants were operating within the center of this table. Gwilym had heard rumors of this round table and had assumed that the top was one big circle, not a pair of circumferences that allowed people to stand in the middle. This was convenient for serving, but he wondered how the servants reached the central area from the kitchens. Climbed over it, he suspected. Clearly this table was not made for this room.
The atmosphere of the great hall had changed from the last time he entered. Rather than a squalling cave of men and dogs, it possessed the relative calm of a church at Christmas Mass. There were no dogs and no wrestling men, those eating were doing so with forced gentility and sounds of quiet conversation were all one heard. The bare walls had been hung with tapestries and banners to brighten the space and four large candelabra hung over the table, illuminating everything.
There was no head of this round table, but the most favorable seats, closest to the fire and easiest to access, seemed to be occupied by the head party. King Arthur sat there, and next to him was seated what could only be his wife, Gwenevere: a frail beauty with golden hair and pale white skin. Next to her sat Launcelot, one of the few in the room to notice the family’s approach. Surrounding this group were many knights, some of whom Gwilym remembered from his last visit. Sir Gawain was on Arthur’s right, and next to him was Sir Kay.
“Our master mason has returned!” exclaimed Launcelot with a broad smile. “Welcome to the new Caerleon. A land smiled upon by the beauty of its queen, the lady Gwenevere.” At this he stood and bowed to the queen who blushed and then looked back at her husband, then at Gwilym.
Gwilym was shocked at this flirtation being expressed right in front of the king and wondered if Launcelot was already well into his cups this early in the day. But King Arthur gave Gwilym a blithe smile and also wished him welcome.
“And how is my master puzzle-maker, Bleddyn, this day? I must show you how fast I can build that tower you gave me on your last visit.” The king stood and shook the boy’s hand. He then looked shocked at the twins and asked Bleddyn “Who are these strong young squires by your side?”
Bleddyn struggled to speak through the stretched lips of his smile as he introduced Jac and Llawen to the king. King Arthur made them feel welcome by asking a large servant to bring them sweetmeats and showing them the great hall. “As you can see, this hall is too small for the wedding gift my wife’s father gave me. So we are building a new castle close to where you live in Huish. It will be big enough to hold this table and have room to move around it.” Gwilym was impressed with the ease at which the king could make his guests feel welcome.
When he introduced the boys to Gwenevere, Gwilym noticed something disconcerting. While the queen doted on the boys as most women did and the rest of the knights watched the tableau with indulgence, Launcelot used the opportunity to stare hungrily at the queen. A servant approached the queen and the two spoke. He looked at the family and then walked off into the back rooms.
After indulging the boys, the king turned to Gwilym and said, “Welcome back, Gwilym. I have been hearing good reports of your works. Sir Kay thinks highly of you. Is this your foreman?”
Gwilym introduced Fred who shook the king’s hand. “I couldn’t complete the works without him.” Fred blushed crimson and tried to stammer out his thanks.
Gwilym covered up his friend’s embarrassment by asking about the new castle. “Have you picked your master mason for your new castle yet?”
King Arthur laughed. “Ever the ambitious builder! I did ask Kay about using you for this job but he told me he had more important plans for you.”
Sir Kay had approached at this question. “Gwilym, I have an important watch-tower planned for you to watch for Irish marauders. I had planned to send for you this week so I thank you for saving me the time.”
The king noticed the deflation in Gwilym’s body at this news and sought to console the man. “These watchtowers are the most important buildings you can create for Britain. They protect the entire country. Why are you disappointed?”
Gwilym composed himself. “As a young lad, wandering around in the great cities of the east, seeing the majestic temples and cathedrals and palaces, I dreamed that one day I would add my creation to that list. A place that would inspire some other young boy to become a builder. No one looks in wonder at a watch-tower.”
Sir Kay placed his hand on Gwilym’s shoulder and looked him in the eye. Gwilym felt another hand on his other shoulder and one on his back. As he glanced around he saw that King Arthur and Launcelot were touching him in what seemed almost like a benediction.
Kay spoke. “The towers that you build are protecting Britain not only from the Saxons but from all future enemies. Although little boys may not be awed by them, little boys will be alive because of them and will be able to look at other buildings to inspire them.”
Gwilym felt warmth spread through him from the three hands. He felt like weeping but controlled himself. It was not from sadness but the raw emotion emanating from the three knights.

To read the entire first draft in one shot, click here:

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