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So I said to Sir Malory, “Thomas, you’ve written of the adventures of Sir Galahad and La Cote Male Taile. You’ve devoted one whole book each to Sirs Launcelot, Tristan, and Gareth. What of Sir Mordred?” “Mordred?” he said. “Mordred set knight against knight and brought about the destruction of King Arthur’s Round Table.” “True,” said I. “But before all that, he rescued his fair amount of damsels and had several ‘good’ adventures, if you will. Even if we didn’t have the documentation for it, we’d know that he must have had a reputation as a fair and honest knight, or the others would never have chosen him above Arthur.” Then Sir Malory’s eyes grew hard. In the years we had spent compiling the stories of Camelot, he had grown to love Arthur, as of course had I, so that now he said, “Le Morte D’Arthur is my book, written in my way.” “But surely,” I said, “you don’t expect that by ignoring Sir Mordred’s more noble endeavors you can make people forget they ever occurred?” Sir Thomas raised his eyebrows at me. “Oh, no?” he said.
from a letter by Brother Lucien, a scribe and a friar of the Holy Order of St. Benedict, to his sister, Claire. Spring, 1471
Part I Alayna
Chapter 1 After looking everywhere in the house, Alayna found Kiera in the barn, talking to the horses.
Alayna knew thatgiven the chancemost children of five years would talk to horses. But Kiera was crying, sobbing, her voice coming out in gasps and hiccups, barely able to get the words out, and what she was saying to the horses was “No, I’m sorry. I couldn’t tell. But something terrible.” She was still dressed in her night dress, and she had her arms flung around the neck of the mare, Alayna’s own horse, who was nuzzling her as though to offer comfort. The other horse, Toland’s old nag, looked up as Alayna entered and gave a soft nickering sound.
“No,” Kiera said as if in answer. “Why should I? She never believes me anyway.” “Kiera.” Alayna’s voice came more sharply than she’d intended, for it was one thing to talk to horses; it was something else entirely to think they talked back.
Her daughter turned and stood there, still crying, but not speaking.
“What is it?” Alayna asked. “What has happened?” Then, because Kiera was her only child and Alayna did have a tendency to worry: “Are you hurt or ill?” Kiera hesitated and the mare used her head to gently bump Kiera’s back, forcing her to take a step forward. Looking and sounding torn between reluctance and hope, Kiera said, “I had a dream. A very bad dream. Something bad was about to happen, but I don’t know what.” Alayna crouched down among the straw bedding, unmindful of the hem of her gown, and held her arms out, and Kiera ran to accept the hug. Alayna stroked her hair, soft and shiny but still tangled from the night’s sleep. “Everybody has bad dreams,” Alayna assured her in a gentle murmur.
Kiera pushed herself away. “This was not that kind of bad dream.” Not again, Alayna thought. “Come back to the house,” she said, and she swept Kiera up in her arms as she stood, which was getting more difficult lately, with Kiera looking to grow all tall and gangling like her father. Cheerfully Alayna announced, “I’m to bake bread today.” Sometimes Kiera could be distracted from these moods. “You may add the raisins and the seeds.” “Something bad is coming,” Kiera insisted. “We have to warn Ned, too.” “Do you remember how two years ago you dreamed that the well collapsed? And do you remember how you refused to go anywhere near there all that summer long? And every time your father”she was able to get the word out without a catch”or Ned or I went near, you cried? And nothing bad ever happened anywhere near the well.” “Two years ago I was just a baby,” Kiera said. “Now I can tell the difference.” Alayna kept walking and Kiera twisted to call back to the horses. “Be careful. Oh, please be careful.” So seriously, so anguishedit nearly broke Alayna’s heart.
Alayna glanced to the peach tree on the little hill, where Toland was buried, and managed not to feel resentful.
Ned was just coming out of the house. “Found the little one, eh?” he said with a wink for Kiera. Of course Alayna would have awakened him in his little room at the back of the house with all her slamming of doors and calling for Kiera. He was carrying a bucket of slops for the pigs and didn’t pause, for the bucket was heavy. “Everything all right, then?” “Fine,” Alayna assured him.
Kiera said, “Ned, be extra careful today!” “Of what?” he called back over his shoulder.
“I don’t know. But something is wrong.” “All right, young miss,” he told her, disappearing around the corner of the barn.
Kiera gave a loud sigh of exasperation, which Alayna knew Toland would have said was a mannerism their daughter had definitely inherited from her mother’s side.
In the kitchen Alayna put her down and told her, “Go get dressed. And this time don’t forget to brush your hair.” Baking day always made her impatient. She had never mastered the art of making bread, but until a year ago she hadn’t realized it. Growing up on the wealthiest of her father’s several estates, she had never needed to learn. And with her father’s young second wife eager to avoid the reputation of demanding stepmother, Alayna had been allowed to spend her time as she wantedand what she’d wanted was to accompany her older brother, Galen, through sword and riding lessons rather than learn how to run a household.
Then, married at the age of fifteen, it never occurred to her that the effortlessly wonderful bread she baked could have anything to do with the fact that her husband was a wizard. It wasn’t until Toland died that she realized just how much help he had secretly given around the house.
So now, twenty years old and on her own for the first time, she pounded and kneaded a slab of dough, and knew for a fact that some of the loaves would end up mostly big holes, and some would be too hard to bite through.
Her hands sticky with dough, Alayna blew at a stray lock of hair that had come loose and kept falling into her eyes. What she wouldn’t give for a few household servants now. But there was only old Ned, and good as he was at tending horses and fixing thatch and working the garden, it was too much to expect that he should be able to bake, also. She thought again of how her parents had advised against her marrying Toland, how they’d warned that life with a village-wizard would be nothing like the life she’d led so far. But she’d loved Toland enough to give up everything for him, even enough to put up with the queasy feeling she got at the thought of twisting nature through magic.
She’d defied her father, who in all likelihood would welcome her back home despite what he’d said almost six years ago; but she was determined to keep the home she and Toland had built togetherbad bread or no bad bread. And, unless Galen had told them, her parents didn’t even know Toland had died.
Emotions mixed together, like the flour and water of the bread she was kneading: Missing him blended with annoyance, for he had always sworn that he wasn’t meddling.
She was so intent on not crying, not again, and on getting the bread right that she didn’t hear anything from outside.
No warning, until someone kicked in the door.
She didn’t have time to turn. Someone grabbed her from behind, slapping a sweaty hand over her mouth to keep her from crying out. Alayna bit as hard as she could, and the hand jerked away.
“Miserable wench!” Alayna managed to twist around. The one who held her was a short, dark haired man wearing a stained woolen shirt and breeches. The other two crowding through her doorway were in full plate-metal armor despite the heat of the day. Their helmets covered much of their faces and they wore no identifying insignia.
Knights? Knights were attacking her? The absurdity of it was enough to stop her, so that she lost her advantage, and the first manthe commonertightened his grip again.
“Forget her,” one of the knights told him. “Just find the whelp.” Whelp? Kiera? Why in the world would knights be interested in Kiera? There was no time to work it out: Nothing was as it should be. “Kiera!” she screamed, hoping to get Kiera out of the house and at the same time warn NedPlease, please, let him be close enough to hearthat something was wrong. “Kiera, run!” She had barely gotten those words out before the second knight struck the side of her head with his armored fist.
Alayna’s head was throbbing and there was a roaring in her ears. She didn’t have the energy to open her eyes, much less to lift her head.
Useless, she thought. Foolish and useless. She’d provoked them for nothing: Even if Kiera had heard and obeyed without question or argumentwhich in the best of circumstances was unlikelyhow could a five-year-old child possibly hide from determined knights?
And what could knights possibly want with her anyway?
With her thoughts come full circle, Alayna became aware that the noise in her ears was not the result of the blow to her head, and that the heat in the room was much more than sunlight through the casement and the fire in the hearth.
She sat up. Instantly thick smoke coated her throat, stung her eyes. She dropped to her hands and knees and fought the instinct to self- preservation that told her to crawl directly to the door.
“Kiera!” She tried to scream, but her voice, thick and slow, wouldn’t cooperate.
She started to crawl, but almost immediately banged into a wall. So. The stool she had dimly glimpsed through the smoke wasn’t where it was supposed to be. One of the men must have pushed or kicked it aside, and now her directions were all confused.
She followed the wall, but the smoke and heat seemed more intense in that direction. Her eyes streaming from both smoke and frustration, Alayna turned back the way she had come. But when she reached a doorway, it was the one leading to the rest of the house, not outside. And smoke was billowing from there alsoa fire in each room.
“Kiera!” she tried again, and broke off, choking. She fought against the idea that Kiera could be in there. Surely, whoever those knights had been, whatever they had wanted, surely they wouldn’t . . . they couldn’t . . .
The front door would be just about opposite. Coughing almost to the point of retching, Alayna decided the risk of cutting across the unseen room was less than that of taking the time to feel her way around.
The cottage, so small after her father’s manor, suddenly seemed vast; and she was chiding herself for another wrong decision when she felt the door jamb and fresh air on her hot face.
Shakily she got to her feet. “Kiera!” Her hoarse scream came out little more than a whisper, but she repeated it in all four directions.
She called, “Ned! Where are you?” and stumbled toward the barn, also aflame. The horses must be goneher mare which her father had presented to her on her fourteenth birthday, and the old nag Toland had used to make his roundssurely they must be dead already or the men had taken them, for they weren’t in the enclosure and if they’d been trapped inside, they’d be frantically trying to get away from the fire. Yet she could hear nothing of them.
She found Ned’s body behind the barn, and she did not need to turn him over to see that he was dead.
The body of a stranger, perhaps squire or attendant to one of the knights, lay nearby. Ned, who had taught Alayna and Galen all about riding and weaponry and survival in the forest, had been nearly sixty, yet she saw that it had taken a sword blow from behind to kill him.
More tears ran down her face, this time nothing to do with the smoke.
“Kiera!” she called again, her voice finally gaining strength. She gulped a deep breath though it felt like nails scraping the inside of her throat. “Kiera!” she screamed.
There was no answer.
She turned at a loud cracking sound from behind and saw the house cave in. The air quivered in the heat as she watched the end of all that had remained of her life with Toland.
Alayna dug her fingers into her hair, sank to her knees. She covered her face with her hands and rocked back and forth. “Kiera,” she moaned one more time.
But, of course, there was no answer to that either.
Copyright © 2005 by Vivian Vande Velde. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.