Authors: Marie Phillips
Gods Behaving Badly
PUBLISHED BY RANDOM HOUSE CANADA
Copyright © 2014 Marie Phillips
All rights reserved under International and Pan-American Copyright Conventions. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means, including information storage and retrieval systems, without permission in writing from the publisher, except by a reviewer, who may quote brief passages in a review. Published in 2014 by Random House Canada, a division of Random House of Canada Limited, Toronto, and simultaneously in the United Kingdom by Jonathan Cape, an imprint of The Random House Group Limited, London. Distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada Limited.
Random House Canada and colophon are registered trademarks.
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication
Phillips, Marie, 1976–, author
The table of less valued knights / Marie Phillips.
eBook ISBN: 978-0-307-35996-4
PR6116.H45T32 2014 823′.92 C2014-901521-6
Cover illustration by Jonathan Burton
For Sophie, Jean-Yves and Rebecca
Know that there were three tables there. The first was the Round Table, with King Arthur as companion and lord. The second, the Table of Errant Companions, was for those who went seeking adventure and waited to become companions of the Round Table. Those of the third table never left court and did not go on quests or in search of adventures, either because of illness or because they lacked courage. These knights were called the Less Valued Knights
– Suite du Merlin, the post-Vulgate cycle
It was the feast of Pentecost at Camelot, and the air thrummed with anticipation. All of King Arthur’s knights had gathered together to re-speak their vows, to celebrate the successes of the year, and to toast the future. Pentecost was also when the most prestigious of quests came to the castle door, and the knights were waiting for this year’s to arrive.
In the centre of the Great Hall of the castle, the Round Table gleamed by the light of a thousand candles, though nothing shone brighter than the faces of the good men who surrounded it. On a modest wooden throne sat Arthur, a simple circlet of gold atop his brow, telling the assembled knights the familiar tale of how he pulled the sword from the stone, a story as lengthy as it was uninteresting. On Arthur’s left sat loyal Lancelot, smiling at his liege’s tale, and wondering if he could feign the need to relieve himself so that he could go and visit Queen Guinevere (eating alone in her room tonight, as befitted a woman). On Arthur’s right was the Siege Perilous, said to bring instant death to anyone who sat in it, though this was rumoured to be a lie invented by Sir Kay so that he’d have somewhere to put his coat. The rest of the knights were arranged in what, in a less outspokenly egalitarian court, one might have called a hierarchy, with the best and most famous sitting nearest their king, and the ones furthest away casting nervous glances at the other tables in the hall, wondering if that was where their fate lay.
For there were two other tables in the Great Hall of Camelot,
two tables less sung of by storytellers and balladeers, in fact barely mentioned at all. One was known as the Table of Errant Companions. Oval in shape, tucked in the shadowy space beneath the minstrels’ gallery, it housed those young upstarts who aspired to the Round Table, who busied themselves with minor quests and prayed for a precious chair in proximity to Arthur. The other table, to be found in the draughtiest corner furthest away from either of the fires, was rectangular, and had one leg shorter than the other so that it always had to be propped up with a folded napkin to stop it from rocking. It was home to the elderly, the infirm, the cowardly, the incompetent and the disgraced, and was called the Table of Less Valued Knights.
Amongst these Less Valued Knights was one Sir Humphrey du Val, a handsome if rumple-faced man, with hair on the turn from dark, and eyes that were tired and guarded. Sir Humphrey was bored. Bored and hungry. By tradition, nobody was allowed to eat until the Pentecost quest turned up, and this year, the quest was late. It was like waiting for the speeches to end at a long-winded wedding, and for Humphrey the wait was barely going to be worth it. The Table of Less Valued Knights was served last, the food was always cold, and if the kitchens had miscalculated how thick to slice the roast, as they often did, the portions would be smaller. Humphrey was fairly certain that they watered down the wine too, after an unfortunate incident a few years ago involving a confused retired knight who’d spent many years captive in a witch’s dungeon, and thought he was still there.
He watched the Knights of the Round Table as they showed off to one another, pretending to share news but actually competing as to who had killed the most fearsome monster or rescued the most dazzling maiden. Humphrey’s days of monster-killing and maiden-rescuing were behind him. Knights of Lesser Value were forbidden from going on quests. He was doomed to live out the rest of his decades sitting at this table, with toothless Sir Benedict
to one side, who began every conversation with the words, ‘Have I ever told you about the time I fought the bear?’, and shivering Sir Malcolm on the other, who had a phobia of armour, and spent every meal staring fixedly at his plate muttering, ‘I’m alone in a beautiful meadow, I’m alone in a beautiful meadow, I’m alone in a beautiful meadow.’ Humphrey’s stomach rumbled. There was no bread, but he wondered whether anybody would mind, or even notice, if he took a swipe from the butter dish. He sighed. Sometimes he disgusted even himself.
Meanwhile, at the Round Table, King Arthur had finally finished his story, and the knights had subtly shifted their chairs to get a better view of the door.
‘Have I ever told you about the time I fought the bear?’ said Sir Benedict.
‘Never,’ said Humphrey. ‘Do fill me in.’
‘I was a much younger man then,’ said Sir Benedict. ‘It’s probably hard for you to imagine …’
Just then, the door to the Great Hall burst open at last. Everyone craned their necks to see who it was. Framed in the carved stone arch was a young man, tall, handsome and fair, clad in red velvet and wearing a crown several times more ostentatious than Arthur’s. A few coins discreetly changed hands on the Table of Errant Companions, where bets had been placed over whether or not it would be a damsel this year.
Arthur stood. ‘Welcome, traveller,’ he said.
The man bowed and smiled. There was an audible gasp in the room, quickly suppressed: the man had the most astonishingly colossal teeth, which ruined his otherwise impeccable good looks.
‘I am Edwin,’ said the large-toothed man. ‘King of Puddock, and next in line to the throne of Tuft.’
King of Puddock? Humphrey frowned. The last King of Puddock had died only recently, and he’d left no living male heir – his only son had been a Knight of the Round Table himself,
and had been killed a number of years ago. Puddock had a queen now. So this must be her husband. But surely that made him Prince Consort? As for Tuft, King Leo sat on the throne there, and he was young and unmarried. This Edwin must be his brother, and only next in line to the throne until Leo took a wife and begat an heir.
‘Good sirs,’ the self-proclaimed king continued, ‘I am in need of your most urgent assistance. Six days ago, on our wedding night, my beloved wife, Queen Martha, was snatched from our marital bed by miscreants unknown.’
So it was to be kidnap. A few of the knights nodded knowingly. Kidnap was a classic quest scenario.
‘I was asleep at the time, and, alas, saw nothing,’ continued Edwin.
, thought Humphrey.
‘Our village crone, however, said that she found a strange man in her cottage in the early hours of that morning, whom I can only assume was one of the gang involved in taking my bride. But unfortunately he absconded before he could be apprehended.’