“Aw, Nathan. It’ll be fun!”
“I don’t know about this, Buck. Ezra’s still recovering from his injuries.”
“I am fine, Sir Nathan.”
Buck slapped him on the back. “See? He’s fine.”
Nathan gave him a disgusted look. “You’re all alike. No one listens to me when I tell them to take it easy. Everyone just says, ‘I’m fine’. I don’t know why I bother.”
“Because you love us so much, Brother.” Nathan harrumphed as Josiah patted him on the shoulder.
The seven men were soon mounted up and riding down into the village. Ezra still wasn’t sure why they wanted him along. Perhaps it was a test. Yes, that must be it. He would have to be especially careful.
When they reached their destination, Buck practically leaped down from his horse. Ezra dismounted with quite a bit more decorum.
“Well. Here we are!”
Ezra raised an eyebrow questioningly. This was the famous Four Corners Tavern? It was a small and unassuming edifice. Hopefully, the interior would be more enticing. As they stepped over the threshold, he was struck by how noisy and lively the place was. People were everywhere, talking and laughing loudly. A minstrel played a bawdy little tune over by the hearth as the drinks flowed.
As he’d journeyed to Camelot, Ezra had stayed at many an inn and tavernhouse along the way. They’d been nothing like this. The proprietor always greeted him respectfully and nervously while the other patrons shied away with downcast eyes. He’d spent precious little time in the common rooms because the atmosphere had always been so tense. It suddenly occurred to him why. It was because he was a lord and had flaunted that at times. Why hadn’t he noticed before? His rank literally gave him the power of life and death over them. The thought of such power disturbed him. No wonder they had been subdued and distant. But tonight…tonight was different. Not a single person ran over to serve them with a bowed head or humble voice. Why? If King Christofer were the feared tyrant he’d been told, wouldn’t the common people be deathly afraid of him? Perhaps they didn’t recognize him. The clothes he wore were decent enough, but hardly what a king would appear in.
“Come on over here, Ezra. There’s an open table in the corner.”
They all sat down, waiting for someone to serve them.
Vin saw how uncomfortable Ezra looked. “You ever been in one of these places?”
“Of course. Just not one that was so…colorful.”
Buck caught the attention of one of the barmaids, waving her over with a huge grin on his face. She approached the table looking slightly exasperated.
“Inez, milady. Beautiful as ever. You’re looking at some thirsty men.”
“Then you are in the right place, Sir Buck. We actually serve drinks here.”
Buck gently took her hand, caressing it. “Now, Inez. Some of us are thirsty for more than ale. Are you going to let me wander in the desert without a sip of your love?”
“You can find plenty of other women to slake your thirst, Sir. You always do.”
“But none of them would taste as sweet as you, beautiful maiden. When are you going to give me some relief for my suffering?”
She pulled her hand away. “Nunca, Sir Buck. Nunca.” She hurried off to get their drinks.
Nathan laughed at him. “You should know by now that ‘nunca’ means ‘never’.”
Vin leaned back in his chair. “She’s been telling him that for two years now. Buck’s got this idea that it means she’s thinking about it.”
Ezra couldn’t resist laughing, as well. “Two years? I think you are chasing your tail, Sir Buck.”
“No. Just means I have to try harder.”
The Iberian beauty returned with their drinks only to have Buck try again. After another rebuff, the man simply went off to find other companionship. Ezra watched him twirl a giggling young woman around and around. “He’s certainly resilient.”
Chris sipped his ale slowly. After Ella, he became very careful about how much he drank and who served him. “He’s loyal to a fault. But with women… The man just can’t settle on one. He wants them all and he doesn’t give up.”
Ezra sobered at that. Now he knew why at least one of the men followed King Christofer. Sir Buck’s behavior would naturally be overlooked by a king who was a defiler of women. Apparently, the oath of respecting women meant little to some knights of the Round Table. Would poor Inez suffer later for her refusal?
Ezra took a drink of his ale. He would have to be careful not to imbibe too much. He couldn’t risk a loosened tongue. He caught Sir Vin staring at him intently over the top of his tankard.
“It’s not like that.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Buck doesn’t use woman.
He respects them enough to love them all and treat them proper. He’d never force a woman. Doesn’t need to. Most of them just flock to him because he makes them feel safe
and special. Every woman’s a queen to
Buck. Women appreciate that.”
How did this quiet knight know what he was thinking? He must have given something away in his expression. Lady Morgan would be furious to see such a lack of control. “And the lovely Inez?”
Vin smirked. “As long as she says no, he won’t go any further. But you can’t blame a man for trying.”
JD slapped the table in frustration. “It’s not fair! He just looks at most women and they come running. Maybe he does have some kind of animal attraction.”
Nathan elbowed him in the side. “Is that jealousy I hear? Maybe someone’s just angry because he can’t get a certain cook’s niece to even give him a second look?”
“Tell everyone, why don’t you!”
Ezra was thankful to JD for inadvertently taking attention away from him. But Sir Vin was still observing him with a discerning eye. Now the Merlin was, as well. The wizard made him nervous. Lady Morgan said he was old and weak, having lost most of his magical power with age. That did little to put Ezra at ease. The man was always questioning him, overtly and subtly. It made him think Sir Josiah was trying to peer into his soul.
A crash interrupted his musing. They all looked over to see Sir Buck in the middle of an argument.
“The girl said no.”
“You think just because you’re a big knight now, you can come down here from your castle and tell us what to do? Put dirt in a fancy box and it’s still dirt. We all know what kind of woman your mother was and what that makes you.” His friends snickered.
“My mother was a saint. Now I’m not going to tell you again. Let her go.”
“She’s just a serving wench and it isn’t any of your business.” The man gripped her arm so tight she cried out.
Buck punched the man in the face. Unfortunately, his friends decided to take offense.
Chris put down his drink. “Every time…” He nodded to the others. They all got up to go help Buck. Ezra followed suit.
Ezra ducked as a chair went flying through the air. Really! They were knights of the Round Table. Tavern brawling was so undignified!
Ezra looked up, stunned. He was on the floor. Someone had actually hit him! Now he was angry!
Vin punched a man in the stomach, dropping him to the floor. “Hey, Nathan! Have you seen Ezra?”
“No. He’s probably hiding under a table somewhere.”
Vin scowled at him. Why was he always saying things like that about Ezra? They were all used to this kind of thing. Ezra wasn’t. Vin was just worried about him. There wasn’t anything he could right now, though. He had his hands full.
Twenty minutes later, there was no one left to fight. Vin finally had a chance to look around. Everything seemed calm. Destroyed, but calm. He saw Josiah and Chris leaning against the wall with mugs in their hands. Nathan sat slumped in a chair. JD was brushing off his hat while Buck swiped a trail of blood from his face. “Ezra?”
“Over here, Sir Vin.”
Vin looked behind an upturned table to find a rumpled Ezra sitting on top of two unconscious men and using a third for a footstool.
“Was worried about you, Ezra.”
“Well, I didn’t think this was your type of fight.”
A dimpled grin escaped Ezra’s tired face. Little did Sir Vin know he’d learned to fight from two of the best armsmen in the Orcades—both on the field of combat and off. “I’m a knight of the Round Table, aren’t I?” He stood up, brushing dirt from his clothes. He sighed, holding up his arm. “Look at this sleeve! Ruined. If I thought they had the coin, I would make these men pay for its repair. Really, Sir Buck! You need to engage in fights with a better class of ruffian—preferably with enough money to pay for my poor damaged garments.”
They all laughed at the pained expression on his face. The man was worried about his clothes! The knights started straightening up the mess they’d made and threw out the “ruffians” that hadn’t already been tossed out the door. Then they sat down and had a few more drinks before deciding to go back home.
As they left, Ezra saw Chris quietly pass a pouch to Inez.
Ezra looked questioning at Josiah. The older man chuckled. “Chris always brings gold with him when we come to the tavern. They’ll need it to replace the things we broke. There will also be royal carpenters here in the morning to fix things.”
Ezra frowned. Why such generosity? He was a tyrant, a despot. The plight of these people shouldn’t matter to him.
Vin was beside him, looking out over the small village buildings as they headed for the castle. “These are his people, his roots. He grew up here in Four Corners. Buck told me that even after Uther took him up to the castle, he kept sneaking back here to visit his mother and play with his old friends. He and Buck spent a lot of time in that tavern until Chris got married.”
Chris had kept in contact with the common people? He’d never heard that. He was beginning to think there were a great many things he didn’t know.
Josiah gestured towards the countryside. “The people of Camelot are more than just his subjects. They’re his friends, his neighbors, his extended family. He’s not like any king I’ve ever met before—he’s better.”
Ezra simply nodded his head. It also occurred to him that Inez had recognized them from the way she’d addressed Sir Buck. She hadn’t seemed a bit afraid of them. He had a lot to think about. Things weren’t as clear as they’d been before.
They rode back to the castle in silence, but Ezra’s thoughts were anything but quiet. He was so confused by these men. Especially since Levinshire. Their anger at him for his abandonment of them there had been understandable—even expected. But this…this kindness was unnerving. When they’d found out why he’d abandoned them, Chris had apologized; then the others had humbled themselves to him later that evening. Why? His reasons for leaving them in battle did not change the fact that he did. And when he’d been in the throes of fever, they’d cared for him. Ezra remembered soothing words, worried eyes, and gentle hands. What did that gain them? He was having trouble discerning their motives.
Josiah had been especially interested in his recovery, always hovering over him, asking after his health. The young lord could vaguely recall being held by the man. Not since Madam Bess had anyone comforted him like that. The Merlin also seemed to be a man of many secrets, but he was quite willing to share his feelings with Ezra. It was almost as if he were trying to…to what? Get Ezra to trust him?
And Vin. The man was quiet, but he radiated honesty and integrity like the sun gave off light. In the tavern Vin had worried about his well-being. He, too, seemed to be trying to gain Ezra’s trust. The stalwart knight had even defended him to Nathan a few times over the past week.
Nathan. He was something of a puzzle, as well. Yes, the man could wield a blade with savage ferocity, but those same hands could be gentle with a healing touch. Ezra had experienced first-hand the care he took with the wounded. He was just a man like the others, not some monster. Had Maude been mistaken about people like Nathan, or had it been more of her lies?
Then there were Buck and JD. Those two seemed so open and completely guileless. Buck had welcomed him wholeheartedly from the beginning even though Ezra had beaten him on the jousting field. The man just didn’t hold grudges. And JD sometimes looked at him like he was a something special, like he belonged.
Ezra realized he’d been thinking of them by their first names. When had he become so…personal? He would have to watch that. Experience taught him that attachments only brought pain.
Why would the king surround himself with such honorable men if he were a brute, a despot? Perhaps a better question would be why men of integrity would choose to serve such a ruler.
He couldn’t figure the king out at all. Ever since he could remember, he’d had this image in his mind of the king as a savage ogre. As a little boy, he’d been plagued by nightmares of the monster Lady Morgan said brutalized her and would kill Ezra if he learned of his existence. But Chris merely seemed troubled, driven—not evil. Ezra had been hoping that the man would reveal his true nature in time, but thus far, he’d shown none of the traits he’d been expecting. Was the king just an accomplished actor?
Ezra retired that evening without reporting to Lady Morgan.