Title: Knightly Virtues are a Pain
Author: H. Savinien
Disclaimer: Aziraphale and Crowley belong to Messrs. Gaiman and Pratchett; Palomides, Tristan, Isoude, and Branguine to Arthurian mythology.
Word count: 2710
A.N.: Happy holidays, kirathaune! Hope you enjoy some silly Arthuriana. Beta thanks to ahiddenkitty, who protects me from being too American.
There was a lingering damp, the entire place smelled of rat urine, and a demon was grinning nonchalantly up at Aziraphale from the other side of the cell door.
“So it was you and Palomides they brought in the other night. I thought I heard your querulous tones,” said Crowley with a smirk. “I'm still a little baffled about why you've been questing around with a Saracen, of all people.”
Aziraphale sipped her tisane1 grumpily. “I don't see what that has to do with anything.” It was always the same when they met; they inevitably jumped into in an argument just as they’d left off the last time, whether it was one day or years ago.
“Aren't you meant to be all about the One Faith, true worship, et cetera?”
“Well, I haven't got any messengers telling me which view of... Up There is to be encouraged as the authorized version, if any, and anyway at least Palomides gave up on Isoude when she got married, unlike your knightly companion.”
Crowley grinned at her through the bars of the cell and lay back on the straw pallet (which had, miraculously, no other occupants). “Oh, Tristan's an obsessive moron and certainly cuckolded King Marc, but he's entertaining to be around. The amount of trouble that boy can make with a few poorly-placed words is inspiring.”
Aziraphale gritted her teeth. Tristan was also, unfortunately, Palomides' friend. At least he was when Tristan wasn't having one of his fits of jealousy over Isoude and convincing himself that everyone in the immediate area was swooning for love of her. “Will you just leave? It's not like the cell can hold you.”
Crowley pouted. “Tiring of my company already? No, I'll be sticking around. Tristan's due to come rescue me in a week or so. Isoude couldn't possibly be without her 'dearest Branguine' for any longer and she'll talk him into it. Besides, what's got you on such a tight schedule? Something in particular you don't want me around for?” She sat up in a rush. “Oh, it's not that nonsense about the Cup2 again, is it?”
“Of course not,” Aziraphale snapped.
“Hmmm...” Crowley tapped her lips with a finger. “All the fancy swords and sheaths are distributed at the moment. It's not the Questing Beast, is it? I hadn't thought that was due for another appearance for a couple of years.”
Aziraphale glowered. “I'm not here for anything important.”
“Lying is a si-in,” Crowley sang.
“Bearing false witness against another and preaching false gospel are sinful,” Aziraphale said primly. “I'm doing neither. And it's not anything for you to bother yourself with.”
“You do realize all you're doing here is making me want to know more?”
“That's not any of my concern, is it.”
“Angel, come on, it's boring in here,” Crowley said. She rolled over to prop her chin on her hands. “You never know, I might even have the resources to help your friend along.”
“Even if you did, why would you help me?” Aziraphale asked. “And on what terms?”
Crowley shrugged. “The usual reason. A favor for later, when I'm in a bind. Besides, I'm curious. I know why I'm here, but you've no reason I can see to be hanging around Burhric's castle, as ill-disposed as he is toward Round Table knights. You’re well-known to keep company with one.”
Aziraphale sighed. “I suppose you might be useful.” She pulled up the stool that one of the castle men-at-arms had left against the far wall and sat next to the door of Crowley's cell. “Fine. Sir Burhric's castle sits on a holy well. Unfortunately, I didn't find that out until after Palomides vowed to get his sword blessed at the nearest one, having profaned it by...” she waved a hand in exasperation, “I don't remember now. Striking a foe on a holy day, I believe. We were assaulted by bandits while traveling.”
Crowley nodded. “I'm following so far. Where is your noble knight, then?”
“Three cells along, around the corner,” Aziraphale said, nodding toward it. “He woke up from the knock on the head they gave him a few hours ago, so I imagine you'll hear him praying in a bit; it's getting on toward time. While he's a lovely person, his volume control is less than ideal when he's caught up.”
“I suppose I can plug my ears if it gets too righteous in here.” Crowley shrugged. “Why've you got free run of the place? It's clear they're not too finicky about locking up women-shaped beings,” she added, gesturing to herself. “All I did was miracle a few suits of armor highly magnetic.” She grinned like a snake tasting the air. “They called me a witch, but it's not like they could tell it was my fault, really. You should have seen the one that stuck to the portcullis. And heard him swear. It was almost educational.”
“I didn't make a fuss. I simply let them lead my palfrey in here with only a scolding about chivalric virtue,” Aziraphale said loftily. “And then excused myself from the bedchamber they stored me in. I've been being unobtrusive ever since.”
“You lectured them until they were bored to tears and put you away and tried to forget you existed,” Crowley translated. “Well, I certainly don't blame them on that count. How's the search for the special spring going?”
Aziraphale fiddled with her cup. “Less well,” she admitted reluctantly. She miracled its contents warm again, then threw back the rest of the tisane with a grimace. “Oh, I know generally where it is; there's a guarded gate under Burhric's lady's solar, but I've no idea how to get Palomides in. And then there's the matter of getting us both out.”
"You can't just nick Palomides' sword from the armory, sneak down there, dunk it, then talk him into breaking out?"
"It has to be him doing it, apparently," Aziraphale said. She sighed. "Believe me, I suggested that."
“Honorable knightly strictures and ceremonies are a bugger,” Crowley said thoughtfully. “So, him extracted, reunited with sword, carted down there, ritual ritual et cetera, both of you out.”
Aziraphale nodded. “Hopefully without attracting too much attention along the way.”
Crowley flopped back on her pallet and closed her eyes, grinning. “Have fun with that! My ride's coming in a week and a bit and I'll enjoy watching you huff and flounce around the place.”
The demon rolled back onto her side, snickering. “Oh, your outrage! I'm joking, angel, I'm not sitting on my arse if there's fun to be had. Come on, tell me all you've learnt so far about the castle and we'll work something out.”
They talked and sketched rough maps in the dust until Palomides' prayers started. True to Aziraphale's predictions, they were fervent, pure, and echoed with righteous devotion. Crowley dragged the pallet over to the least-echoey corner of the cell and buried her head in the straw ticking as thoroughly as possible.
It was some time before Crowley dared emerge. Palomides, having been insensible for a night and half the day, had four sets of prayers to catch up on. Aziraphale had fetched him some clean water when he first woke3, then checked on him a few times during, wandering back and forth between the two cells to alternately inspect her charge and Crowley.
When Palomides made his last bow, Aziraphale reassured him that she was working on a plan, then excused herself before he could inquire how exactly she'd managed not to be locked up herself. Crowley finally unearthed herself from under the pallet, since the atmosphere had become a little less overtly holy, and patted her hair down. It hadn't actually managed to tangle or frizz (like Aziraphale's tended to at the slightest opportunity), but the angel dug up a quip about vanity anyway.
Crowley stretched and said, “Right, that's enough of being locked up. You want to do the honors or shall I?”Aziraphale rolled her eyes and the demon miracled the door open with a lazy flick.
Aziraphale sighed. “Come on, then. You send the guards running in circles, I'll fetch Palomides' sword and meet you at his cell.”
The plan was straightforward - they would escort Palomides to the spring, Crowley would sidetrack or distract any men-at-arms they met on the way, and Palomides would perform his purification rite. Then he and Aziraphale would escape while Crowley went her own way.
Of course, things went wrong almost immediately.
Oh, Aziraphale found Palomides' sword easily enough. It was in the armory, which was the correct place for weapons. Unfortunately, Sir Burhric and his lady were both there as well, inspecting a map. Lady Mevanou glanced up - straight at Aziraphale - and yelped, grabbing a spear from the rack beside the table. Burhric started at the noise and looked around himself, then roared for the guards.
Aziraphale snatched Palomides’ sword and fled, slamming the armory door on a slash from Mevanou’s spear. She wasn’t panicking. Just running flat out, leather slippers skidding on the stone, as she tried to find a direction that led away from the shouting and stomp of boots behind her. As she rounded corners, Aziraphale grabbed the wall for balance, chipping perfectly manicured nails and scraping her fingertips in a way that would have taken skin off if she were human.
She huffed along one of the corridors used mostly by servants, then ducked into the alcove beneath a window to get her bearings, patting her brown wool dress back into order and fluffing her hair. Perhaps she could pass for a woman of the household?
A boy in a red linen shirt and blue hose rounded the corner, took one look at her and turned on his heel, bellowing, “Mam! Prisoner!”
Aziraphale groaned and took off running again. Crowley couldn’t possibly be doing any worse than this.
While not worse, exactly, Crowley wasn’t doing much better. The “distract the guards” plan, she realized belatedly, worked rather better when you weren’t someone they had locked up recently and were therefore inclined to capture first and banter with later4. While she had successfully removed all the guards from the vicinity of Palomides’ cell (step one), that left her with the problem of getting them off her own trail (step two) and herself back there sans escort before Aziraphale returned with the sword (step three).
In ages to come, an instrumental melody would be used to illustrate frustrating chases like that Crowley led her pursuers on, as she ducked around corners and behind tapestries, scaled the stable and dropped from the hayloft, snuck through the henhouse and fled the wrath of the roused cockerel. “Yakety Sax,” however, had not yet entered the human lexicon.
Aziraphale snuck around the last corner and sighed in relief at the empty corridor outside the cells. Crowley had succeeded. She quietly reminded the lock that it should be open, and threw the door open with a grand gesture.
“Good sir, the great God has blessed your penitent endeavour! See, I have brought your sword and a guide shall shortly come who shall help conduct us to the holy spring that you might cleanse it and we be free of this wretched place.”
“Lady,” cried Palomides, “I was blessed indeed when we met. Come, let me put myself aright and prepare for our companion.”
He stuffed the few meagre possessions he’d been left with into his coat, put on his boots, and washed his hands and face. Then, joining Aziraphale in the corridor, he reclaimed his sword with a grateful word.
Crowley arrived moments later, looking the worse for wear. Her skirt was torn and slippers missing, mud streaked her feet and one side of her dress to the hip and her hair, normally impeccable, had acquired some straw and a few chicken feathers. When she saw Palomides looking at her curiously, she glared at Aziraphale. It was hard to miracle oneself clean in front of humans without Questions being asked.
“Sir Knight,” she said gloomily, “I am called Branguine, a friend of the lady Isoude, and through strange circumstance, offer my help in escorting you to the spring beneath this castle.” She carded her fingers through her hair as unobtrusively as possible, trying to get rid of the debris.
Palomides expressed his gratitude with no comment upon her appearance, though he cast a few confused looks Aziraphale’s way. He was content to go where Aziraphale and Crowley bade him, trailing obediently along the dim stone corridors behind them with sword in hand and a watchful eye. The castle was in an uproar, but Crowley made a couple of sharp turns that took the three of them away from the sound of running feet. When they reached the branching under Lady Mevanou’s solar, Crowley pointed them down one path and nodded at the other.
“I’ll be distracting attention from you during the… cleansing thing. Do stop by for a drink the next time you’re in Isoude’s neighbourhood. She’ll be so pleased to see you, I’m sure,” Crowley added to Palomides, nearly as an afterthought. “I know she was always very complimentary about your prowess on the tournament field.” She dodged a vicious elbow from Aziraphale and smiled sweetly.
Palomides bowed. “Gentle lady, your help has been most valuable. In the name of God, the most-”
Crowley winced and fled, calling back, “Yes, yes, can’t stop around here. Guards to mislead.”
“What an odd lady,” Palomides mused. “Most energetic.”
“Only when she can’t avoid it,” Aziraphale muttered darkly. She was not best pleased by the crack about Isoude. She cleared her throat. “This way, sir.”
The corridor twisted downward, growing progressively more mossy and slick underfoot until they reached a grotto, expanded only a little by stoneworkers’ chisels from the natural rock. In a shallow basin, milky water pooled up from a crack, rippling gently.
Palomides dropped to his knees immediately and began murmuring prayers, thankfully at somewhat less than his natural volume in deference to their circumstances.
Aziraphale kept watch, peering nervously around the last bend in the corridor and wishing it was seemly to tap the toe of her slipper.
Crowley’s diversion worked. The two them made their way through a castle that should have been swarming with people, then out toward the wall. All the clamor and business of a castle’s denizens on alert seemed to be focused around some of the outbuildings, far enough away that they could creep unnoticed through the gloom.
As they snuck through the postern gate, the darkness gave way to a shattering BOOM from inside the walls. Both Aziraphale and Palomides jumped, the knight brandishing his sword wildly in alarm.
“What in heaven’s name?”
“I… I believe that was the granary,” Aziraphale said blankly. She considered what she’d seen of Burhric’s servants and added, “Burhric’s a wicked man, but he and his lady care for their people. They’ll beggar themselves before they let their serfs starve.” She chuckled, a little stunned. “I fear they will not have the resources to capture any more of Arthur’s knights for several years.”
“God’s work indeed, even through such destruction!” Palomides exclaimed.
“Possibly,” Aziraphale allowed, though she thought Crowley would not thank either of them for the commentary.
- Tea hadn't made it to England yet. Aziraphale existed in a state of mild peevishness whenever she was stationed away from the beverage, alleviated only by the assignments every hundred years or so to see what they were getting up to over in Zhōnghuá or other civilized places.
- Crowley had laughed herself sick the first time she'd heard about the Holy Grail and the apparent requirements for the seeking thereof, then made a concerted effort to set up as many candidates as she could for disqualification. Three happy marriages and an extremely friendly knightly companionship had resulted.
- The castle kitchen had noticed the absence one of the newer, cleaner buckets, though not the clay mug that Aziraphale had liberated for her drink.
- Also, Crowley wasn’t as good at bantering with non-Aziraphale beings as she thought, as she tended to run out of humourous anecdotes when confined only to the last twenty years and a few hundred square miles. But that appeared to be inconsequential at the moment.