The Five of the Queen

The Death of King Arthur by James Archer (1860).

And so it was that Ambrose the Scholar gathered up the sacred books in his arms and rescued them from the flames. He saved the holy words of Monmouth and Malory, Tennyson and Zhou, Perez-Morales and Fournier and Smith. He saved the holy words, and by them, the people built the world. — Nimue Ekubo, A History of Early Loegria, Foundation Through the Tenth Reign

“Yay and aye, this is most … curious.”

Gwyr frowned at the half-moon spread of the cards across the table. Their colors were still bright and clear, despite many years of use, and they stood out against the dark blue of the cloth.

His mother had woven that cloth for him, and trimmed it in silver and gold thread; presented it to him proudly when he had been accepted into the Sibyl Guild, and hugged him hard, as she knew she would likely never see him again.

A Sibyl’s lot: to wander always in search of those who needed the wisdom of the cards.

“What do you find curious, Sibyl, if I may inquire?”

Gwyr straightened in his chair, taking a moment to again study the knight who sat across from him.

A High Queen’s Knight, no less.

Some who came to him were easy, their needs and desires written on their faces and in the shaping of their hands in the air and even the clothing that they wore and the items in their packs or wagons. For such as those, the cards only reinforced what he had already guessed for himself.

Others — like this Knight — were not so open.

She was no longer young, but not yet old, either; at least not in body. Early thirties, perhaps. Her tabard was pristine white, as was her shield, and her baldric and belt were of supple dragyn leather. Her skull was shaved bare, exposing the long scar that ran down the side of her head and cut her right ear in half. The scar ended where her single shoulder pauldron began. A pauldron that was alternately silver and rainbow and black, depending on how the light through the tavern windows reflected off its rounded surface.

Gwennan metal. Carved from the ruins of the star’s ship that had crashed on Loegria near unto a millennium ago, saved by the Smiths who had the knowledge to do so. Knowledge carefully held in secret, passed from one Smith to the next, and never even whispered to an outsider of the guild. The means to create more Gwennan metal had been lost with the ship, and what there was of it was priceless.

For this High Queen’s Knight to wear a pauldron of Gwennan metal spoke of her skill and dedication — and utter loyalty to the High Queen.

And yet here she sat, in a tiny tavern on the western border of the minor kingdom of Tinyrys, far from Camelot, seeking the guidance of a Sibyl and his cards.

Gwyr pointed to the card that lay at the bottom arc of the crescent. “Your root card is The Five of the Knight: The Quest and Achievement of the Holy Grail. You have already won your life’s goal.”

The woman dipped her head — “Yay and aye, that I have.” — but a hunger tugged at the corners of her mouth and the edges of her eyes. 

“But your query card ….” Gwyr lifted his hand, lightly touching his fingers to the next card on the left, slightly higher. “…. Is The Three of the Knight: The Lamia and the Soldier. You fear deception. Lies. Falsehood.” Another pause. “That you are being led astray.”

The Queen’s Knight blinked slowly, but did not otherwise react or respond.

The far side of the tavern erupted into loud laughter and shouts of congratulation. A young woman was spinning in a circle, a junior Smith’s hammer held high above her head, while those around her applauded and yelled for honey wine. Gareth, the keeper of the tavern, responded with a hearty “Yay and aye!”

Gwyr waited for the noise to recede, for the celebrants to settle back around their table.

To the right, this time. “Your desire card is The Two of the Queen: The Accolade. Certainly not uncommon, especially for a Knight.”

A response: a quick scowl, there and gone again. “I seek only to serve my Queen and to protect the peoples of Loegria from the titans of the woods and the behemoths of the sea and the fiends of the air, and those who spurn the Court to live out-of-law and prey upon its people.”

Word for word from the Knight’s Oath.

“Of course,” Gwyr murmured. Back to the left again, higher on the arc of the crescent. “Obstacle. The Three of the Enchantress: The Castle of the Maidens. A peculiar card, open to many interpretations. Even Yan-Li the Wise said this was the most difficult of cards, as the maidens represent … well … temptation. But temptation to do or say or be what? That is for you to know, deep in your heart, where even a Knight may fear to go.”

A fiercer scowl this time, and the creak of the wood and cloth chair as the Knight leaned forward. “Take care with your words, Sibyl. I have faced dragyns and scaled cats and flame foxen. I am no coward.”

Gwyr cast a quick glance towards the cluster of Smiths; so far, they seemed content to gossip and celebrate among themselves. None yet had wandered over to chat up the Knight about her Gwennan pauldron. 

From the bar, the tavern keeper caught Gwyr’s eye and lifted a heavy mug in silent question.

Gwyr shook his head at Gareth and turned back to the Queen’s Knight.

“Coward, no. I would never make such a baseless smear against your honor and character, Lady Knight. But our temptations are cunning things, clever and scheming and oh so very good at hiding — especially from us. Something tempts you, Lady Knight, and that something, whatever it is, is an obstacle in your path. It threatens your quest.” He tapped The Castle of the Maidens again. “That temptation must be confronted and overcome. If it is not ….” He lifted his hand, touching his fingers to the highest card on the right, The Three of the Queen: The Lady of Shalott. “ …. it will continue to influence you, driving you to dangerous risks and desires, and despair.”

Gwyr paused again, tracing the prow of the Lady’s ship and the three candles that lit her way. Two were already extinguished, and the flame of the third flickered weakly.

The cards did not lie. They told truths, always, however harsh and unwanted.

Yan-Li had been wise, indeed, when he had assembled the cards and taught his children how to read them.

Finally, Gwyr lifted his hand, touching the card in the very middle of the blue cloth, supported by the crescent. “The Five of the Queen: The Death of King Arthur. This, The Lady of Shalott, is a warning: beware or this will be your ultimate fate. The outcome of your quest.”

The Knight’s nose curled and she sat back in her chair. “I do not fear death.”

Gwyr shook his head. “There are five death cards, one in each suit: the Five of the King, the Five of the Queen, the Five of the Knight, the Five of the Wizard, and the Five of the Enchantress. Each represents a different kind of death, and a different kind of life and of immortality. The Five of the Queen is the most … ambivalent.”

The Knight’s jaw set. “Explain.”

Another loud burst of applause from the table of Smiths as a second group tumbled through the wide open door, applauding and holding aloft their own hammers; some small enough to fit into an apprentice’s palm, some as wide around as an adept’s bicep.

Outside, the sun was lowering towards the northern horizon. The air was heavy with the scent of citrus blooms and fresh wheat. The moons would rise soon, all five of them, summoning the fiends of the air. The fiends would dance through the night, screaming and belching purple flames.

The Knight impatiently thumped her fist against the table. “Explain this card.”

Gwyr tightened his jaw. “Arthur is dying, but not dead. He is surrounded by his wife and sisters: Guinevere, Morgan of Avalon, Morgause of the Orknies, and Elaine of Garlot. Merlin and the Lady of the Lake wait on the shore as the ships come in that will carry him to Avalon.”

The Knight tilted her chin up. “To paradise, for a life lived with honor.”

Gwyr drew a breath, fighting for patience. “Arthur lies here because of pride and arrogance, because of fear and greed. His sisters and his wife are in pain. Grieving. The ships will carry him to Avalon, yes, but to what end? To be healed? To sleep forever and dream of what was and what might have been? Or to be interred, fallen to dust and bone, dead by the hand of treacherous blood-kin? Which of these was his fate?”

The Knight’s eyes widened and her lips worked, soundless.

“You sought my counsel and that of the cards. I give it to you now, whether you will hear it, yay or nay.” Gwyr laid his hands flat on the table, arms framing the oracular crescent. He kept his voice low, even and firm. “You have been sent on a quest by the High Queen, but you fear deception. You fear that you have been lied to, but your faith and trust in your Queen and in your own honor and skills blind you to that deception. You seek only to prove yourself, to complete greater and greater quests. And that blindness will lead to your end — one without honor, filled with pain. A death that will not be remembered well.”   

The Knight sucked in her breath and lunged to her feet, knocking the chair back across the stone floor. The sudden movement and sound alerted Gareth and the Smiths, a few of whom turned, frowning and silent.

The Lady Knight braced her hands on the blue cloth and leaned towards Gwyr, face twisted with anger. The scar down the side of her skull throbbed a dull red-brown. “My life and my death will be remembered, and they will be celebrated in song — songs as great as those of Gawain and Juan-Tomas and Benedetta! You will see, so-called Sibyl!”

She spun on her heel, gathered up her shield, and stomped through the door, back ridged and shoulders straight. Her tabard flared in her wake and her Gwennan metal pauldron shimmered in the late sun.

Gwyr watched her go, and then carefully gathered up his cards. He wrapped them in the blue cloth with its silver and gold threads, folding the fabric round and round to protect them.

“All is well, Sibyl?” Gareth asked at his elbow, a heavy mug of tea in his hands.

“No.” Gwyr tucked the cards away in his pack, offering a nod of thanks as Gareth set down the mug in front of him. “The cards speak, but not all will listen.”

“That is the way of things. Though you can be sure that I listened.”

“Oh?” Gwyr waited as the tavern keeper dropped into the now empty chair opposite him. “No wedding with the fair widower Haruto, then?”

“Nay and no.” Gareth shook their head. “When I told him that the tavern would be staying with me, but that he was welcome to sing and dance and keep those coins for himself, he packed up his bag and harp and set off with the morning caravan south.” A heavy sigh. “Skilled at bedplay, but he wouldn’t have made a good husband. So I thank you for that.”

Gwyr sipped his tea thoughtfully, then asked, “Is there another morning caravan tomorrow, by chance? Or one going in the direction of Caerleon, and of Camelot?”

Gareth grinned. “Will you be leaving us, then, for the beauty and delights of the capital, and the court of the High King and High Queen?”

The shadows were lengthening now as the sun sank beyond the northern curve of the world. Lanterns were lit up and down the street, and windows warmed with candle glow. Inside the tavern, the hearth painted the stone walls and floor in soft orange.

Gwyr looked towards the door, and the Lady Knight who was long gone from his sight, and thought on the crescent of cards; deception and lies and ignominious death.

“Perhaps,” he finally answered. “I have spent my days as a Sibyl wandering the smaller lands of the coast and the rivers. Perhaps it is time for me to wander inland, to see the wonders of Caerleon and gaze upon the mountain of Camelot.”

“Yay and aye. Two mornings hence there is a caravan.” Gareth motioned towards the junior Smith with her little hammer. “Lynette will be going to work at a cousin’s forge in Caerleon. You could travel with her. And perhaps even read the cards for the Arthur or the Guinevere themselves, aye?”

Another sip of tea, the citrusy tang filling his mouth. “Aye. A reading of the cards for the Guinevere, the High Queen herself. That should prove … curious, indeed.” 

[Written by Rebecca Buchanan.]

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