In which plans for the quest take shape, and the Friar doth offer most unwelcome counsel.
Arthur felt himself spinning, felt his body changing, found himself plucking at the skirt of a dress, saw himself in the mirror, but not himself, the maiden he had become. He woke with a high-pitched shout, put his hands to his smooth cheeks. Images from the previous day swam in his mind, the face in the mirror, the body.
Bright, morning sunlight poured through his window and across his bed, bathing him in a golden light. He rubbed his eyes. He was still a woman. Well, there was nothing to be done but to prepare for his quest. Merlin had gone back to his cave to gather some supplies and to tell Nimue of his decision to join Arthur. Arthur, for his part, needed to gear up as well. None of his old armor would fit, but he was not shorter than some of the knights, now standing the same height as Guenevere, who was not short for a woman. He would also need a new sword. That he would be travelling from Camelot without his trusted Excalibur did unnerve him. Had someone taken the sword? Had it been taken away by some angel of the lord, denied him as no longer worthy?
He remembered his own decree that no woman could serve as a knight. Had he sealed his own fate, declaring himself unworthy now due to his sex?
He made his way to the sitting room where he, Merlin and Guenevere had met the night before only to find his wife sitting at the table, busy with needle and thread. There were piles of clothes all around.
“My dear,” Arthur said. “Did you not sleep?”
“No,” his loving wife said, eyes on the needle she pulled through a tunic. “As much as a fear for your safety, I know you will not be dissuaded from your quest, and so I am adjusting your clothes so they will fit.”
“I am so fortunate to have you,” Arthur said. He went over and put an arm over her shoulders, and he began to lean down to offer her a kiss of gratitude on the mouth, but Geunevere turned so his lips landed instead on her cheek.
The move puzzled Arthur and made him feel a sting of rejection, but he pushed it away, focusing instead on being grateful for his wife’s efforts. He picked up a pair of trousers, and saw that they had been shortened. “Marvelous,” he said.
“I am glad you are pleased.” At the moment, Guenevere was busy stitching darts into the sides of one of Arthur’s tunics, making space for his newly shapely bust. She did not mention it, as she felt her husband did not need to know.
There was a knock on the door. “Sir Lancelot to see you,” the footman said.
Tension immediately rose between the husband and wife. When Arthur had learned that his wife and best friend had had an affair, it began the darkest period of his life. He had never even considered that either one of them would betray him in any way, and it had shaken his faith in people, and in God. When he learned that their affair had been known throughout Camelot, and that he, alone, seemed unaware, that had added humiliation to the already soul- deadening moment.
He and Guenevere had worked hard to repair their marriage after that, and he had even forgiven Lancelot and welcomed him back to the roundtable. But the trust and friendship they had once enjoyed had not returned.
Arthur glanced at Guenevere. “I wonder what he wants?”
“You should ask him in and find out.”
Arthur felt troubled by the thought. This man had lay with his wife, cuckolding him. Would they be tempted to lay in each other’s arms once again now that Arthur could no longer be husband? He thought of the way Guenevere turned her head when he’d tried to kiss her. But, with a sigh, he decided to let Lancelot enter. “Let him pass,” Arthur called.
The door opened. Lancelot strode in, stopped in the doorway, frozen. Arthur was wearing his sleeping gown, and his long hair was a delightful mess, framing that radiant, feminine face. He met Arthur’s wide, sparkling eyes, and he could not stop staring in wonder at this lovely woman. Seeing her dressed as she was, in a man’s sleeping gown, with that wild hair, she brought to mind many mornings spent with many conquests, and he felt an electric charge pass between them.
Arthur, who had not yet felt the heat of a man’s lusty gaze, put a hand to his heart and stepped back, shocked. No man had ever looked at him like this before. He did not like the feeling. “Don’t look at me like that,” Arthur said.
Lancelot, who’d been acting on instinct, was equally as shocked as Arthur to realize what he’d been doing and thinking and feeling towards his king. He pulled his eyes away, meeting Guenevere’s. “My queen,” he said, wanting to break the tension.
Guenvere slit her eyes, appalled but only slightly surprised at Lancelot’s behavior. “Sir Lancelot,” she said, some acid in her voice. In truth, she was both enraged to see her husband looked at in that manner, as well as jealous.
“I have come,” Lancelot said, now striding fully into the room. “To offer my assistance in your quest.”
“Your assistance?” Arthur said, craning his neck back to look up at Lancelot. Being around Guinevere and Merlin he had not felt small, but standing next to Lancelot now, he felt almost like he’d become a child once more.
“I would ride with you on your journey and offer my sword to your protection. You are and always will be my King. I would die for you.”
The gesture impressed Arthur. His wife’s comments about his small arms came back to him. “Perhaps it would be wise,” Arthur said.
“My darling?” Guinevere said. “A word?”
“No. You may remain here. Can we speak in my chambers, Arthur?”
Arthur followed Guinever to her room, and she patted her bed. The two sat next to each other. “You must not travel into the wilds with Lancelot.” She said.
Guinevere brushed a stray hand away from Arthur’s eyes. “As you well know, Lancelot has a weakness for maidens.”
“I am NOT a maiden!”
“I know. I see still the man you were before me. But you must understand that many girls who swore they would never surrender themselves to him eventually found themselves in his bed.”
“I am not going to lay with a man!” Arthur got up and stormed across the room.
“Of course not. But, you must take care for your reputation. If you go off with Lancelot, there will be rumors. A woman, and you will be seen by many as a woman now, must guard her reputation as she guards her life.”
That stopped Arthur. He had not even considered the possibility of rumors, and Guinevere’s concerns struck him as — real. How would he feel to return from his quest, restored even to his sex, only to have half of Camelot believe he’d given himself to Lancelot?
“That is not something that crossed my mind.”
“It wouldn’t have,” Guinevere said. “That is why I wanted to offer my advice on this. For a man to be suspected of laying with a beautiful girl, it is just another conquest. But for the girl, it can be devastating.”
Arthur sighed, tossed his hair. “Must everything be so complicated for women?”
“Yes,” Guinevere said.
“I swear,” Arthur said, “I shall be far more understanding of what women suffer in our world after this. I have only been one for a few hours and already I miss the freedom of being a man.”
“So, we should tell Lancelot,” Guinevere said, getting up.
There was something in her tone– eagerness? But, it struck Arthur as wrong and brought back all the pain of his wife’s previous betrayal. An idea struck him as forcefully as a hammer: she means to sleep with him as soon as I leave the castle!
Arthur seethed at the thought. His mind went to war. Had she not urged Arthur NOT to go questing? And yet perhaps that was all part of a clever ruse to throw him off as she planned to romp in the hay with her old lover now that Arthur was but a maiden, unmanned?
“Arthur?” Guinevere said, seeing him deep in thought.
“Oh, yes,” Arthur said, going back to the sitting room.
Guinevere followed. Lancelot, who’d sat down at the table, immediately stood as the ladies entered the room.
“I do not feel you should join me on my quest,” Arthur said, getting right to the point.
“May I ask why?”
Arthur now positioned himself so he could see both of their faces. “Because I need you to ride to Londinium.” Arthur was– almost– sure he saw a flicker of disappointment on Guinevere’s face. Though he couldn’t be sure. As for Lancelot, he kept his face blank as he assented, though he’d long been trained to accept orders without betraying any sense of his feelings towards those orders.
Arthur sent Lancelot away. “Londinium?” Guinevere asked.
“Yes. I will need him to govern the Eastern Province in my absence,” Arthur said.
Guinevere did not respond, but went back to sewing.
Arthur went off to find armor.
And so it was that same day Arthur did call together his knights of the roundtable once more, and he stood before him dressed in his own clothes, though none in the room could deny that his face was as lovely as any they had ever seen. Arthur explained that he would journey forth on the quest that had been given him. He asked all the knights to stand strong in his absence, to defend Camelot and serve the Queen with courage and honor.
“Hear!” They shouted. “Hear!”
“Pardon,” a boozy voice called from the back of the room. Friar Lowbottom strode forth from the shadows.
“I will accept your blessing upon this quest in my private chapel later,” Arthur said. “Thank you, Friar.”
“I will NOT be blessing your unholy quest!”
The room grew silent. Arthur frowned. “Speak,” Arthur said.
“You are now a woman,” Lowbottom called out, making the hourglass shape with his hands men often used to suggest a woman’s figure. “And you may no longer act like a man. It violates God’s law!”
“God’s law?” Arthur said. “This curse was placed on me not by God, but a pagan witch!”
“Be that as it may, nothing happens in this world but by God’s design. God allowed this to happen. God chose for you to be made maiden. You must accept God’s will. You must do your duty as a Christian woman,and serve as a proper example to all the girls of England as to what a woman must do, how she must live her life.”
“And what is that duty?” Guinevere called out. She had long disliked the Friar, and to hear him now disrespect her husband, and all women, made her temper blaze.
“It is the duty of all womankind to take a husband and bear his children.”
“Fool!” Guinevere screamed.
“My love, I can handle–” Arthur started to say, reaching to take his wife’s hand, but she had stood and charged toward Lowbottom.
“You booze sodden piglet’s waste! You root of a weed!” Guinevere raged. “Do you truly claim that is all a woman may do with her life?”
Lowbottom, shocked by her rage, held his ground, though his voice shook when he spoke. “The Lady Arthur is a woman! She must accept her place as a woman and–”
He could not finish. Guinevere’s foot had planted itself deep into his groin. Lowbottom immediately sunk to his knees, hands on his aching jewels. The men all winced at the sight. “Get out!” Guinevere screamed. Grabbing a mug from the table, she dumped the ale over Lowbottoms head, then began to beat him around the ears with it. “Get out! Get out!”
Lowbottom crawled piteously to the door, which the doormen, eyes wide with shock, pulled open. Lowbottom tried to get to his feet, wanting to at least walk out with some dignity left, but as he got halfway up, Guinevere did kick him hard in the buttocks and send him tumbling through the doors.
Guinevere turned. Every pair of eyes in the room were locked on her. Also, several warriors who’d lost eyes had their single eyes locked on her. Even Champ, the old English Bulldog that was allowed into the room to eat the scraps, stared at her, his tongue lolling out on surprise.
“Oh!” Guinevere said, coming back to herself. “Goodnes! I seem to have lost my temper!” She knew she had behaved in a most unladylike manner, and now with the fever of her rage broken, she felt quite embarrassed.
But then, Arthur cleared his throat. “Ladies and gentleman,” he called. “Have I mentioned that Queen Guinevere will be in charge of the kingdom while I am gone? I do suggest you avoid making her cross.”
The comment broke the tension. Everyone laughed. Guinevere rejoined Arthur. “My love,” Arthur said. “You are quite amazing.”
“Arthur,” Guinevere said, and this time it was she who kissed him– right on the mouth.
Mordred leaned over to Sir Benethor. “The Friar did make some valid points.”
“Hush,” Benethor whispered back.
Mordred hid his smile behind a drink. The seeds had been planted.
Morgana, for her part, whispered to Lady Whynn, “His wife does defend him now. It seems she is more man than he.”
Lady Whynn, like Sir Benethor, deferred comment, but, indeed, the thought was planted in her mind. Truly, Arthur’s wife seemed more a man.