Read Percival's Angel Online

Authors: Anne Eliot Crompton

Percival's Angel (10 page)

There before him it appears, dark on the ground.

As he has done before, Percival stops and looks down at the naked, Human man lying on the stretcher.

The Fisher.

Percival calls this big, blond man the Fisher because he lies on and under fishing nets, and holds a fishing spear in both helpless hands. He lies perfectly still on his back, looking up at Percival.

But…Angel Michael! He has the look of a King!

Studying the calm, cold face this time, Percival thinks of King Arthur. Put a robe on him, give him a crown…
he's not Arthur, but he's a King somewhere. How steadily he looks at me, out of his pain!

This silent, stiff-faced man bears a bloody wound between the thighs.

As before, Percival shudders through his whole body. And looks away.

Not my hurt.

And I'm going there.

Percival steps reachingly over and across the silent Fisher King. As each time before, he strides on through mist, over rough ground, with no backward glance.

***

Fire leaped into darkness.

At the lord's command servants threw more kindling, more logs, into the fire pit. The fire reared and roared.

Silhouetted against the flames, two figures shambled, staggered, and bear-danced, dueling with staves.

Thwack! Crack! Clonk!
Their cudgels swung, crossed, and landed body blows. “Arf!” “Huh!” “Hah!” grunted the two sturdy contestants.

Out beyond the light, laughter responded; shouts, comments, exhortations. Men rose from benches to crowd forward into half-light, grinning and betting.

In true darkness at the far ends of the hall, hounds snarled.

One cudgel cracked, broke. Half of it flew into the fire pit. Still gripping half, the young man ducked back from his attacker.

The winner swung his cudgel high and sideways like a fishing pole, then brought it
crack!
against the loser's head.

The loser dropped.

Whoops, guffaws, and moans sounded around the hall.

The winner threw down his cudgel. He swaggered up to the lord's bench and collected his reward, a small bag of coins, with an awkward bow.

Lord Gahart grinned up at him. “Go easier next time. Good men don't grow in gardens.”

“He'll fight again, Lord. His head's made of wood.” The winner stepped away into winking half-light. His friends surrounded him.

Others dragged the loser up off the floor, draped his arms over two of their shoulders, and half dragged him off into the dark.

Lord Gahart lifted the flagon by his side and drank. “That seems to be true,” he remarked to Percival, who sat beside him. “Seen that fellow whomped before. No lasting effect. Unless maybe on the brains inside.”

Robed like a lord in Gahart's own garments, Percival sat easily beside his host. Newly sophisticated, he quaffed throat-burning ale from the flagon Gahart set back down between them. A small tapestry covered their rough bench.

Never sat so soft before! Never ate so good! Even this goddamn ale's good! Here's what Human life should be!

He drank again.

“How would you like a sack of gold, Percival?”

Percival lowered the flagon, turned to Gahart.

“I'd bet on you to beat the winner. And no one else would. See?”

Hah.
“You want me to fight that cudgel fellow.”

“No, no! You are my honored guest. I
want
nothing from you. But if you felt like winning gold tonight,”…Gahart drew a second small bag from his robe. “I'll bet you can.”

Percival set down the flagon and made to rise. Gahart held up a meaty hand. “Not so fast! You can hardly move in that getup. You'll have to—”

“I can fight!” Percival snorted contempt for such a detail. “And I fight now this instant, Lord, or never.”
Let's get this done, sit down again, and finish off that ale!

Gahart scowled.

A big man, Gahart was shorter than Percival, but three times the width, and all of it muscle. Graying red curls and beard framed a lined, scarred face. The left eye drooped.

This scowl was the first he had directed at Percival, who had seen him scowl at lesser men. He would then order beating or scourging, which his servants would promptly carry out.

Why the goddamn do they obey him? No telling who'll be the next one flogged. But if they stood together, he could not command them.

(Lili knew no answer to this. When he asked her by lamplight in their chamber, she finger-talked,
Human ways. Your blood knows, not mine.
)

That day when the red charger went lame had been a deciding day for Percival. He did not know horses wore shoes, which could be lost. By himself, he might have eaten the charger and roamed like a beggar fool forever after. But Lili showed him what had happened. Lili brought them to Gahart's Hall and requested shelter and a horseshoe. The red charger, and Percival's red armor, had won them respect. They had both learned much, and quickly, ever since.

One thing Lili had finger-told him about Gahart. He thought of it now. Gahart's frequent anger was most dangerous against cowards and lowlies who failed to meet his smoldering eyes. Lili had signed,
If you have to, face up to him.

Percival met Gahart's scowl with a smile. And stood up.

“Aaaagh, very well! Fight your way.” Gahart rose as well. He called the startled victor away from his ale and ordered gloves and a new cudgel brought for Percival.

Servants dumped more kindling into the fire pit. The fire reared and roared. Percival faced the young victor of moments ago.

He had never held a cudgel before. Fey boys might wrestle for fun, almost never in anger. But never had he seen boys or men go at each other with sticks.

Lord Gahart's men had been showing him sword-play. This would be yet a different art.

The cudgel hung heavy, cold, in his hands. He shifted and balanced it.
How's that fellow hold his? Left hand here, right hand…so.

The
thwacks
and
cracks
of the previous duel still sounded in his ears.
That one's strong as a plowing ox. Got to move fast. Get in there before he sees me coming.

Percival felt a lump grow in his throat.

Then from the dark flooded a river of strength. It flowed over and around Percival and fountained within.

“Hah! Goddamn! Come on!”

Percival crouched forward; eagerly, he shook the cudgel.

The Ox grinned. Firelight gleamed in his slitted eyes and clenched teeth. He crouched, danced a few steps, raised his cudgel.

Before he sees me coming.

Percival jabbed the cudgel like a sword, under and up.

Cudgel crunched jawbone. Jaw crumbled. Teeth and blood flew.

The Ox reeled back. His cudgel crashed to the floor.

Percival sprang after him, cudgel high.

Roars from the dark.

Lord Gahart thundered, “Enough! Lay off!” Hands grabbed out of darkness and dragged Ox away.

Percival stood disappointed, swinging his blooded cudgel at air.
Never got to learn it after all.

He felt men moving away, drawing back from heat and light, and from himself.
Never learn it now. They won't give me a chance to learn. Know I'm too good for them.

Of a sudden, the magical strength that had supported him ebbed away.
Now I'm only me. Who was I, just now? Who was it fractured Ox's jaw?

Lord Gahart called out, “Come get your prize, Percival!”

He stood by the tapestried bench, waving his little bag high. Laughing.

Prize. Oh, aye. Gold coins. This time I'll know to keep 'em for myself.

Percival took the bag from Gahart. A moment he hesitated, remembering Ox's awkward bow.
Should I do that?

He sat down.

Bettors came and paid Gahart, who filled a third bag with winnings, then seated himself again by Percival. The fire wavered and sank. In gathering darkness, men wrapped themselves in cloaks and blankets and went to sleep on benches around the walls. Servants moved quietly, cleaning up. One refilled Gahart's ale flagon. Hounds roamed the floor searching out crumbs and bones.

Percival had never heard Gahart speak softly till now.

“Drink, friend. Drink.”

Nothing loath, Percival drank.

“I was right to bet on you from the start. You will be a fine Knight.”

“I am a fine Knight now, Lord.”
Put that straight.

“Nay, Percival. You are not yet knighted. But that day will come.”

Percival wiped his lips on his embroidered sleeve. “A mage at Arthur's Dun prophesied that Arthur would have no finer knight than me.”

“A mage?” Gahart took the flagon, drank, and handed it back. “Maybe he laughed when he said it?”

“She…long, dark hair…aye, she laughed. You think she joked?”

“No such thing. That which a laughing mage prophesies comes true.”

“Ah.”
True! Goddamn!

“She must have been Merlin's assistant…Niviene.”

Percival drank, and thought.
Niviene. Niviene! Of Lady Villa! Who is always away with Merlin. I was too stirred up to know her!

A vision of Apple Island rose up out of Percival's ale-fog as if out of the misty Fey lake. He saw again the low, stony shore, ancient apple trees in bloom, a crumbling white wall of Lady Villa, groaning under vines. Behind that wall the Lady, Ivie, and Alanna sat spinning. And soon Alanna would come to the door and call his child-name. “Percy? Percy! Time to go home.”

He shuddered, and thrust the whole scene away, down and out of his mind. Deeply, he drank.

Niviene! Now, why didn't Lili tell me that? She's had days to tell me that!

A soft touch on his knee. Startled, he glanced down. Lili herself had come to his side and curled down like a faithful hound, cross-legged on the floor. She must have heard his thought.

Even more softly, Gahart said, “Time I learn more about you, Percival. I might maybe make plans for you.”

Plans?

“You come to me from nowhere, leading that great red charger. You carry one fine red-hilted sword, one costly red shield. You wear the rags of a fool. And know no more of the world than a milk-fed brat! Do I recite the truth?”

“Aye, Lord.” Though Percival winced at the description.
Still, it's true.

“One does not ask a guest everything at once. I have waited a while to ask, but now I must know. From where did you come here, Friend Percival?”

Readily. “From Arthur's Dun. There I killed the Red Knight, Arthur's enemy. I took his horse and arms. But for some reason his enemies, Arthur's men, were angry—”

“Before that. From where did you come to Arthur's Dun?”

Another soft Lili-touch out of growing darkness.

“I came from a forest, Lord.”

“A forest?”

“Aye, a forest.”
No need to say what kind.
“My mother raised me there so that I would not grow up to be a Knight.”

“Hah! You had no father?”

“Dead. So were my brothers dead.”

“Aha. And your mother wished for you to live. But to retreat into a forest…she must be a bold one!”

Percival had never considered this aspect of the story. He refused to consider it now. He continued. “When she saw I would go, she told me about the world, and how to be a Knight.”

Gahart spat to the side. “What could a fool woman know about that?”

Percival shrugged. “What she knew, she told me.” And he began to recite. “
Should you meet a maiden fair, kiss her well and leave her there.

Gahart grinned.


Should God's church stand by your way, enter there and gravely pray.

Gahart laughed.


Upon your way you hear a cry? Answer it! Help, save, or die!

Lili thumped a little fist on his knee.
Enough!

Gahart drained the flagon and set it down on the floor. “Listen, Percival. Men do not learn from women. Women know nothing. They're just useful animals. Your red charger could tell you more of Knighthood than your mother! Knighthood must be learned from knights. Like me.”

“Truth, Lord, I have learned much from you since I came here.”

“I see that! You learn very fast. Now you'll learn twice as fast, because I'll show you. Tell you. Everything. That's my plan.”

Percival sat speechless.
It's falling into my hands! Unasked! All of it!

“You're wondering why.”

“Aye, Lord. I wonder that very much.”

“I want you for my son.”

“Son?” Percival stared through near darkness into Gahart's grim face.
I've been a son. Not much joy in that.

“You'll wed my daughter. You know the one?”

Stunned, Percival nodded. He had seen the girl about; very young and lovely, she smiled brightly to any and all. But he had noticed that Gahart's men avoided her carefully and completely. Lili had advised him to do the same.

Not that he would have kept her company by choice.

“Name's Ranna. Been saving her for someone like you.”

Percival swallowed. “Saving?”

“Ranna's my only get, Percival. When I go, Ranna's all will be left of me.”

Percival's mind clung to these weird words, as a fallen man clings to a cliff face.

“One day Ranna's husband will lord it in this hall. Understand?”

Slowly, Percival shook his head. “…Husband?”

Gahart gave a great snort. “Never wed, myself. Never was offered a chance like I'm offering you. Look. Here it is on a silver platter. I show you Knighthood. Chivalry. You go on a quest for me. Bring back what I want. And we get the King to knight you.

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