My Eoin was sixteen years when they rode through. Eoin, I loved him, he was my seventh, and the others nearly killed me coming out, but not him. He slid out like a fish through a fisherman’s hands, and like a fish, he never did cry, just twisted in the goodwife’s arms. Later, when he was older, my husband and master did his part to beat a tear from Eoin’s blue eyes, but he wouldn’t cry for him either. I did the weeping for him, while I listened from the other room, and the wind took my cries away. My husband beat the others as well, but when he beat them, it was steady, methodical, rhythmic sound, like weaving, or intercourse, or raking up hay. When he beat Eoin, it was the unpredictable scrabbling of a foal standing for the first time, or the chaotic crashing of the ocean on cliffs. The beating would stop whenever Eoin stopped getting up, but Eoin never seemed to learn to stay down, any more than he learned to cry.
Eoin was like a stubborn green willow wand, he would bend but never break. I was proud of all my sons, but I was proudest of Eoin, partly because I was the only one who was. And love means more if it is hard to do.
The day they came in on their horses was summer at its end, ripe and crisp as an apple, the sort of day that makes lords long to be chasing foxes to ground and maidens to bed. There was no mistaking them. Who else had chargers like they, their coats every color of oak leaves? Who else, in this season, had brilliant caparisons draped round their horses’ shoulders and cloaks pinned on their own? Who else rode with the faerie-woman on her chestnut palfry, her face proud as a man’s?
My sons all watched the knights process along the edge of our fields, their horses pressing up against each other and then dancing away, restless with their own strength. My daughters watched them too, but like me, they were not fair of face, so I told them to keep their eyes to themselves. That the knights of the table would not want to be ogled by maidens without flowered cheeks and bee-stung lips, by my daughters with hog-chins and hair fine as an old-man’s. They paid me no mind, and all labor ceased while everyone waited for a glimpse of Arthur.
Here he came then, on a mighty dappled gray stallion draped in green, a faerie’s color, and he was more splendid than they had said. His bearing — proud! His face — kind! His mouth behind its trimmed ginger beard was set with both good humor and with the weight of responsibility, a face every mother should wear. I was in love with him at once, but everyone is. It is easy to love Arthur. Still, I flattened by skirt and pressed my hands to my girl-flushed cheeks and was glad that my husband was not about to see me undone so by the heroes.
I barely had time for this first glance when I realized they were coming this way. My son Aodhan was pelting toward the house, fast as a hound, and his voice carried well to me, full of terror and adulation. The king wants a drink. The king wants water.
My heart leapt inside me as I began to weigh the request — the king could not have water, the king needed wine, did we have wine fit for Arthur, we had the mead that the Deutscher had brought — and then, as the dapple grey horse approached, I realized with sinking heart that I could hear the uneven thunder of a beating from the house behind me. Though Eoin, as ever, didn’t cry out, my husband made up for it with grunts and bellow, insults and crowing, loud enough to hear outside the threshold. Oh! Eoin was never his son, not with eyes like that, oh, did he think that a king would want to look at him, a boy finer than a maiden, oh! a surlier son he hadn’t bred.
The shame stole my words as Arthur’s shadow fell across me and my doorstep. For a long moment there was silence, the king and I listening to the crashing inside. My husband had fallen quiet as well, and now there was only the sound of a beating in earnest.
“Lady,” Arthur said, after a space. His face was hidden in shadow, the afternoon sun a nimbus behind him and his commander beside him, tall as gods on their horses. No one had ever called me Lady. “Could I trouble you for water for our mounts?”
No one could say that we did not do well by him. Once I had stopped the boys’ mouths catching flies and dragged the girls out of Launcelot’s gaze, we watered those horses and we watered those men and I have to say that watching the knights drink, their hands young and unlined, their eyes grateful, I realized that they were just boys like my own.
Arthur thanked me then, but instead of giving a coin in return, he said, “I am needing someone to tend my hounds, Lady. I would ask you if you could spare one of your sons. We will be back through here, again, in good time, and I would return him again.”
And here I had given all our mead to his men, and he wanted my sons as well? What kind of deed was that in return, this king who was so known for his benevolence? I said, “I would be hard pressed to survive the harvest without my sons, my lord.”
The king’s eyes followed the vines up the side of our house, and he did not look at me as he said, “The hounds are skittish this year. They have given us trouble, staying with us as we travel.” His eyes returned to me. “I need someone quiet.”
And I understood the bargain he meant to make, the kindness he meant to offer. That is how Eoin came to join the knights that year.
Oh, I missed him. I missed him as we harvested and rolled hay. When the frost lightened the fields. When the snow covered the branches of the trees that edged the lane. When spring came and the thawed world smelled of animals rutting, flowers budding, carcasses rotting. I missed him every time I heard one of my other sons gasp in pain under my husband’s hand. I cried for him, too, and the wind took my cries and brought him back to me in summer.
There were fewer knights with Arthur this time, but they were no less splendid. His smile was magnificent in its benevolence. “Lady,” he said, as I wiped my eyes, “Did I not promise you I would return your son? I daresay he has refined his silence in our service.”
And there was Eoin, dismounting and making his way through the others towards us. He had become a willow tree rather than a wand, my Eoin, that year.
“Thank you for returning him, my lord,” I said.
Arthur merely smiled and turned his horse. Launcelot, however, remained, his horse half-turned away as he looked over his armored shoulder at Eoin. “Do not forget what I told you,” Launcelot said. And then he spat on my husband’s doorstep. “My apologies, Lady, no insult meant to you.”
Then they were gone, with nothing to prove that they had been there but this new Eoin. He was quiet as a churchman, steady as rain on the roof, and when night came, he cut my husband’s liver out at the dinner table. My husband made no sound, gutted like an animal. Eoin twisted the knife, however, and we both wept, as the wind took our cries away.
Author’s Note: It was surprisingly difficult for me to write something that didn’t just turn into ArthurPorn. Huh. I surprise myself.
Image from: TimOve