Travel to Camelot in “Nights of the Round Table” and to ancient Egypt in “Succession”. Revisit beloved fairytales in “All Things Being Relative”. Sail the seas in “Blood in the Water” and “Oh Glorious Sight”. Also includes “What Little Girls Are Made Of,” “A Woman’s Work”, and “Slow Poison”.
Nights Of The Round Table And Other Stories is the first of a series of Tanya Huff short story collections. Published as e-book exclusives and featuring all-new cover art, many of the stories in these collections have never been collected before, or are only available in hard-to-find limited editions.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Those who know me well, or are within earshot when the topic comes up, know I have some issues with the whole Arthurian thing. I find the theories of a historical Arthur fascinating, I enjoy the various fantasy aspects tied to the legends, I appreciate the old religion/new religion analogies, I even quite like the BBC's Merlin, but the whole Arthur/Guinevere/Lancelot relationship mess drives me insane. Which has nothing to do with this story, actually ...
If you're asked to write a story for an anthology about knights and you're me and you've decided to do something Arthurian, you have three choices: Write a traditional heroic quest.
Lay the angst on with a trowel.
Take a step back, insert your tongue firmly in your cheek, and approach the Arthurian legends from an outsider's point of view.
Anyone want to take a guess which one I chose? Anyone? Bueller?
This is the title story of this e-collection because it gives a fair impression of how I view things just generally – for certain variable definitions of the word things.
Nights of the Round Table
They met outside the chamber door, the old woman and young. Camelot slept; the night so still and quiet within its walls, they might have been the only two alive.
"Are you ready?"
The girl drew in a deep breath, dark eyes wide, thin cheeks flushed. "I'm, I'm not sure."
"You've no time to be unsure," the old woman snapped. "We do what has to be done."
"What has to be done," the girl repeated as though the words gave her courage.
Lifting her basket in one claw-like hand the old woman laid the other against the iron-bound door. "Bring the torch," she said.
The Chamber of the Round Table danced with shadows. Thin bands of moonlight poured through the arrow slits and drew golden lines across polished wood, illuminated the rampant stag carved into a slab of oak, gilded pale blocks of stone.
As the door closed behind them and the shadows wrapped around them both like shrouds, the old woman set her basket down in the rushes, placing a fist on each bony hip. "How the blazes they expect us to clean this place in the dark, I'll never know. They got me comin' in to clean up after 'em once a week since they built this great pile of buggering rock, but does any of 'em think to leave a torch lit? No. My cat's got more brains than the whole sodding lot of 'em."
"But, Gran, it's so romantic."
Her grandmother snorted. "You'll think it's a sight less romantic if you step on one of them morning stars left lying around. Now light us up, Manda. They ain't payin' us to waste time."
Six torches, lit. Seven. The light began to reflect off the pale stone walls, filling the room with a soft diffuse glow. Nine torches. Ten. Manda carefully extinguished her own small torch. Only one of the shadows, pooled in the depths of a massive chair, remained.
"Oh, criminey. Not again."
Manda clutched at her grandmother's homespun sleeve. "Who is it, Gran?"
"Sir Gareth, nephew to the king. Used to work in the kitchens with our Sara."
"Long story. You get busy turnin' them rushes now. Any big bits of stuff that ain't supposed to be there, pitch out the window. Unless it looks edible, then tuck it away for later."
"Gran!" Her cheeks were bright pink as she stared across the room at Sir Gareth. "That's one of the knights. I can't be doin' cleanin' in front of a knight."
"You can do what you're told, girl, while I goes and has a word with ol' mournful Morris. Odds are good," she added, shaking her arm free of Manda's grip, "he won't even notice you. Servants is invisible to his sort."
"But you're a ..." Her grandmother's glare wedged the final word sideways in her throat. "Won't you be invisible?" she rephrased after she stopped coughing.
"No. He knows me." Prominent gray brows drew in and, girded for battle, the old woman stomped around the table. "Well?" she demanded glaring up at the fair young man in the chair, who, even sitting, was taller than she was. "Don't you got a home to go to?" He opened a pair of brilliant blue eyes framed by long lashes. "Is that you, Mother Orlan?"
"No, it's the sodding queen of the fairies."
"Ah fair Tatiana, who doth tempt with silvered words and capricious beauty."
"And I hear she does windows. Spit it out; what was it this time?" "A raspberry flan."
"Fain, but it came to my table with a soggy center and yet the syrup did not reach the edge. Two of the berries maintained still their stems and others had been crushed beyond recognition. And the cream, well whipped as it was, was nigh to butter. I vow by my faith as a knight, I could have made it better in my sleep."
"You said that?"
He sighed an affirmative. "And my lady has banished me from her chamber."
"We've been through this." Grabbing the front of his tunic, she dragged his head around until she could capture his gaze with hers. "Don't criticize the cooking. Your missus don't like being reminded of that year you spent in the kitchens."
"Two of the berries maintained their stems." The fingers he held up wore a lacework pattern of scars. "Two."
"I heard you the first time."
"And a large fly had been cooked into the syrup."
"Protein. Some of us are thankful to get a fly or two cooked into our flans." Releasing him, Mother Orlan folded her arms and stood quietly for a moment, brow creased in thought. "All right," she said at last, "here's what you're gonna do. Since you can't keep your mouth shut, we gotta work with what we have. You're gonna go home and clank your knightly way down to the kitchens and you're gonna make that flan the way it's supposed to be made. Then you're gonna take it to your missus and get down on your knees and feed it to her. If you're still as good as our Sara says you used to be, you'll have her eatin' out of your hand."
"But I am a knight of the Round Table," he protested, weakly. "I am a protector of the realm, a slayer of evil, I defeat all those who raise their swords in opposition to Arthur, King of all Britain."
"Trust me, kid, women prefer a man who can cook."
"But you said my lady preferred I not remind her of my time in the kitchens."
"Are you arguing with me?"
"An incredible dessert," Mother Orlan said slowly and distinctly. "Presented to her on your knees. She'll come around. In fact, if it's just you and the dessert she'll come around faster, if you take my meaning."
"Just me and the ..." His eyes widened as understanding dawned and his fair cheeks flushed. "I don't know."
"I do. Unless you'd rather be sittin' here in the middle of the night moanin' to me when you oughta be home in the sack with your missus."
"No. I wouldn't." The flush vanished as one gray brow rose and he added a fast, "No offense."
"Very well then." Broad shoulders squared, Sir Gareth laid both hands against the edge of the table and, with a mighty heave, pushed back his chair. A martial light gleaming amidst the brilliant blue of his eyes, he surged to his feet. "There is no dishonor in a flaky pastry. I will do as you advise, Mother Orlan."
"Atta boy." She watched him stride manfully from the chamber and then returned to her granddaughter. "Lad's a dab hand with a pudding by all accounts."
Tossing an armload of rushes back to the floor, Manda straightened and brushed a lock of hair from her face. "Will it work? What you told him?"
"It'd work on me."
"But Gran ..."
"What goes on between a man and his missus is nobody's business; especially where desert toppin's involved."
They finished the rushes in silence.
"Nice to have that done with no unpleasant surprises," Mother Orlan sighed, pulling one of the chairs out from the table and lowering herself carefully into it. "I found half a wyvrn's tail in them rushes once. Them boys'll drag the darnedest thing back from foreign parts."
"Gran! That's the king's chair!"
The older woman made herself more comfortable. "And how do you know that? Every last one of them's the same and his bum ain't in it now."
Manda pointed with a trembling finger. "That's his name there, in gold."
"And his name makes it his, does it? Makes a fiddly bit of polishing if you ask me. Besides, I don't expect he'd begrudge an old woman a chance to rest her weary bones." She dragged her kirtle up so that bare legs the size and coloring of dead twigs swung free. "Ah, that's better that is. Come on then, and I'll show you what's to be done to the table."
The Round Table had been made of a single section of an ancient and venerable oak, carved and polished. Resting on stone pillars the same pale gold as the castle, it ensured that no Knight sat above any other; that all were equal in honor.
"If'n I told 'em once I told 'em a hundred times, if'n you gotta bang on the table take your bloody gauntlets off! Sir Kay's the worst; he's got a temper on him like a weasel in a sack. Look at that gouge. Never thinks he's makin' work for others. Oh no. And there, just look there."
Manda followed her pointing finger and blanched. "Someone's carved their initials."
"Carved something anyways." Mother Orlan squinted down at the marks. "If you can see that's initials, you're doin' better than me. Whole lot of 'em's got bloody awful penmanship." Her remaining teeth gleamed between the curves of a salacious grin. "One of 'em's got some drawin' talent though. And an imagination about the sorts of positions a man and a woman can get themselves into."
"Oh, I know, it's the ..." Both hands waved for emphasis. "... Round Table. You needn't look so horrified. What do you expect when you sits a bunch of men around a wooden table with blades in their hands? They're no different than your brothers. 'Ceptin' they're bigger and they clank," she added after a moment's thought.
"So what do we do?"
"We sands it out, that's what we do."
They'd nearly finished when the chamber door crashed open to show a distraught young knight standing in the doorway. Chest heaving, muddy helm tucked under one equally muddy arm, he swept a near desperate gaze around the room and cried, "Mother Orlan! Mother Orlan!"
She sighed and straightened, one hand in the small of her back. "Stop shoutin' Sir Gawain, I ain't deaf."
He raced around the table and threw himself on his knees at her feet, the force of his landing flinging up a great bow wave of rushes. "Mother Orlan, I pray you will grant me the boon of your wisdom!"
"Stay away from the seafood at an all you can eat buffet."
Golden brows drew in over brilliant blue eyes. "What?"
"Oh. You wanted specific wisdom. What's wrong, kid?"
"Dost thou remember how a year since, a huge man all of green did interrupt our feasting? How he did challenge one among our proud company to take his noble axe and strike a blow having first vowed that twelve months hence that knight would stand and take an equal blow in turn? And dost thou remember how I rose and asked my lord king and noble uncle that the adventure be mine and when he did full grant me that boon I took up the axe and cut through flesh and bone beheading the green giant?"
"Remember?" The old woman snorted. "Who do you think had to clean up the mess. Sure, he took his sodding head with him," she explained to Manda who was listening with her fist pressed hard against her mouth, "but first it rolls half way across the room. Oh there's no blood, thanks very much, but we got knights and their ladies throwin' chunks left, right, and center. Had to toss out half the rushes in the room." She turned her attention back to Sir Gawain. "Let me guess. Year's up?"
"The year has passed full swiftly, yes, and ..." He glanced over at Manda and back. "Mother Orlan, we are not alone."
"Don't worry, that's my granddaughter, it's her first night. She's learnin' the ropes."
One gauntleted hand clutched at faded homespun. "But this matter is, I fear, of a delicate nature."
"Good. So's she." As Gawain tried to work his way around that, Mother Orlan sighed and prompted: "The year has passed full swiftly ..."
His brow unfurled. "... and I rode out to find this Green Knight and keep my vow."
She covered her mouth, turned her head, and coughed. "Patsy."
"Didst thou say ..."
"No. Go on. Get to the needing my wisdom bit, we've still got to scrape under the chairs."
"I did not come first to the castle of the Green Knight, but another. The lord of the castle and his lady bade me welcome, fed me well and bade me rest. As night fell, the lord went out to hunt and the lady to my bedchamber came."
"Though she was fair and did long beg for my attention, pleading and throwing herself upon me, pulling the covers from me and laying her hands upon me ..."
"Do yourself a favor kid, and get to the point; armor ain't made for those kinds of memories."
Gawain shifted uncomfortably, and nodded. "For the sake of my oath of knighthood, I allowed her but one kiss and then struck with guilt, leapt from the bed and rode back to Camelot as fast as my horse could run. On the morrow, when the lord of the castle returns, what shall I tell him?"
"You're gonna ride right back?"
"I must for still my vow to the Green Knight binds me."
"And you don't know if you should tell this fella what's off huntin' that his missus was trying to play hide the sausage with a pretty stranger?"
"Not those words perhaps," Gawain allowed, after a moment's consideration, "but yea."
"Give him what's his."
"But I have naught that does belong to him."
"You gotta kiss from his missus doncha?"
"Give him the kiss?"
Mother Orlan nodded.
"But he's got this beard and his lips are chapped and ..."
"Look, sweetcheeks, I ain't suggestin' you slip him the tongue, but you can't go wrong givin' a fella what's rightly his."
"Give mine host what is rightly his," he murmured, thoughtfully. "I did ask thee for thy advice."
"Yeah, you did."
"So it would fain me to listen to it."
"Yeah, it would."
He stood and, towering over her, smiled a brilliant smile. "Thank you, Mother Orlan."
"Glad to 'blige. And Sir Gawain?"
He paused just outside the chamber and turned.
"Next time, lock your buggering door." When he waved a little sheepishly and clanked away, she turned to Manda. "What the blazes does fain mean?"
"I don't know."
"I thought it might be one of them newfangled words you kids are usin'. Like gadzooks and fizig."
"No, Gran. You know he's got an awfully pretty smile for someone missin' so many teeth."
"You'd be missin' teeth too if'n you spent your hol's sittin' up on a big horse with a big stick while a nuther guy sits up on a nuther big horse with his own stick and you rides full tilt at each other until one of you gets whacked and goes ass over tip."
Manda winced. "Why do they do that?"
"For the glory they reckon."
"Doesn't it hurt?"
"Glory usually does. Now, get your putty knife and take a look see under them chairs."
"What am I lookin' for, Gran?" she asked, dropping to her knees.
"You'll know it when you sees it." The old woman grinned as the visible bits of her granddaughter stiffened.
"Eww. I didn't even know you could stick that to a chair."
"Don't touch anything with your bare hands; half of this lot are dealin' with wizards and the like."
"And the other half?"
"Are also morons."
The torches had burned down over half of their length by the time Manda stood. "'Bout time." Her grandmother took her arm and pulled her around the table. "Give us a hand getting up on a chair, I ain't as young as I used to be."
Manda dug in her heels. "If you gotta stand on a chair, Gran, this chair's closer."
Dismissing the offered chair with a disdainful snort, she dragged the girl on by. "I ain't standing on that. That's what they call Siege Perilous."
"I doesn't know 'bout the siege part but the perilous is plain enough if'n you ever stand on it. It's got a right dicky leg. This here's good."
"It's Sir Percival's chair."
"Just get me up on it. I ain't as tall as I used to be either and I can't reach it from the floor."
With one hand tucked in her grandmother's armpit and the other clutching her elbow, Manda heaved. For a skinny old lady, her Gran was a lot heavier than she looked. "What is it you need to reach, Gran?"
"That." Squinting a little, she reached back. "Pass me the can of polish."
Eyes wide, Manda did as she was told.
The cup pulled from the light had been made of plain hammered brass and had clearly seen better days. Holding it firmly in one hand, Mother Orlan rubbed it vigorously with a soft cloth.
"It's the ..."
"Oh, aye. Comes in every week regular, just about this time. All the sodding damp round here dulls it down somethin' fierce but it's gleamin' when I'm done with it, let me tell you."
"But I thought it gleamed because of ..."
"Elbow grease. And a bit of polish on an old pair of knickers."
There was no denying that the cup was looking better. Manda cocked her head to one side. "I always thought it'd be, I dunno, more fancy. All over jewels and stuff."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Nights of the Round Table & Other Stories"
Copyright © 2011 Tanya Huff.
Excerpted by permission of Jabberwocky Literary Agency, Inc..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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