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She always knew that she lay in a queen's arms when her mother told her stories of the Fair Ones who watched out from their hills and hollows for little princesses like her. And she knew that she rode out beside her mother to greet the people all in white and gold because all the Queens of the Summer Country had done so too.
When her nursemaids said, "Hush, do not trouble the Queen," her mother would smile and say, "Let her come to me. One day she will be Queen."
When her father frowned and said, "Guenevere is a grown girl now; she must be married one day soon," the Queen would laugh and say, "'One day' is soon enough for her to choose." And all the tall knights around the Queen's throne would smile at her and agree.
Childhood was one long summer in sunlit meadows clad in white and gold, daisies and celandines spangling the grass like stars. At midday the sun blazed down on silent glades and lofty forests, living green cathedrals roofed with fire. Of all the kingdoms of these islands, her mother said, summers were longest here. That was why, when the Old Ones made the world, they called this the Summer Country, the sweet green southwestern kingdom by the sea.
It was an enchanted childhood in a land of summer sun. And though the autumn winds were blowing that would turn her world to winter, she saw nothing, and felt nothing, until suddenly it was gone.
Why is it all so very different now?
"Guenevere, where are you? Hurry, darling, do!"
She could hear her mother calling as she slowly climbed the stairs. In the wide gallery as she reached the top, the Queen stood in the midst of the crowd surrounded by her knights. Radiant in her light gown and crown of gold, she shone like a flower in the forest among the tall men.
So many men, so many watching eyes . . .
Guenevere moved toward the group of knights, willing herself to avoid their curious gaze. Laughing, the Queen took her hand and drew her toward the rail. "See, they're all here; which one shall I choose?"
Below the viewing gallery, a handful of horsemen were already out on the jousting field. Like dolls on their prancing steeds they curvetted about, the spring sun flashing from their armor of shining steel. On the meadowland beyond, the bright pavilions of the contestants dotted the grass like flowers. Between the tents, squires and pages hopped to and fro like crickets as they worked furiously to prepare their knights for the fray.
In the distance the white towers of Camelot shimmered in the sun. Clad in their holiday best, crowds of the townsfolk were pouring out of the gates and over the meadows toward the jousting field. With a loud peal of trumpets, the heralds were making their rounds. "Move along, there! Clear the field, make way!"
Guenevere breathed deeply, savoring the sweetness of the new-mown grass. She smiled at her mother's joyful face and dancing eyes. The first tournament of spring was always the Queen's Championship, and the Queen showed her pleasure openly, like a child. Indeed, she still was a child in many ways, Guenevere thought fondly, not like a queen nearing forty with a grown daughter now.
"Oh, Guenevere!" The Queen touched Guenevere's hair with a loving hand and brushed the silken sleeve of her new gown. "So fair-darling, you're so lovely today." She was looking around the gallery as she spoke. "Has one of my gentlemen caught your eye at last? Your father thinks someone has."
Yes, Mother, someone has.
But how do I catch his?
A dull sense of defeat dampened Guenevere's soul. She willed herself to meet the playful gaze. "The King sees husbands for me everywhere," she said evenly. "But madam, this is your special day, not mine."
The Queen's face clouded. "My special day-" She gave an odd small laugh. "It's the feast of Penn Annwyn, did you know that?"
Guenevere shook her head. "The old Lord of the Underworld?"
The Queen nodded. "This is the day, they say, when the door opens to the world between the worlds. When the Dark Lord comes for those he has chosen to take home." She shivered, the silk of her dress rippling like sunlight over water, and tried to smile. "Old superstitions from the Welshlands, where old things die hard. We have had word that Merlin has been seen."
Guenevere gasped. "Merlin?"
She always knew it as a name of fear. The country folk went in dread of strangers because Merlin could take so many different shapes. Once her nurse had snatched her up and run from a child with staring eyes, certain it was the old enchanter himself. But that was childish nonsense, long ago. She steadied her voice. "Is it so?"
The Queen looked away. "The old man of magic is about again, it seems."
Guenevere grew cold. "But that means-"
The Queen raised her hand and shook her head. "Where Merlin goes, dreams, rumors, and phantoms always follow him. We have sent messengers to London and to the Welshlands, and our scouts are everywhere. Whatever happens, we shall know of it."
Suddenly the Queen's spirits lifted, and she touched Guenevere's cheek. "Never fear! Whatever is coming is already in the stars. And tomorrow will be soon enough for that." She smiled her sweetest smile. "Be happy, my love!"
She called to the chamberlain. "Are the knights ready for the tournament?"
He bowed. "Ready and waiting for the royal word."
"Why, then," she said, beaming, "begin!"
In front of the gallery the heralds and trumpeters lined the grassy field, their colored tunics as bright as playing cards.
"All who challenge for the title of the Queen's champion, come now into the field!" cried the chief herald. "Enter now, or all depart in peace!"
The Queen stepped to the edge of the viewing gallery, arms upraised to acknowledge the cheers of the crowd. She stood for a moment reveling in the applause, then dropped her handkerchief. The scrap of white lace fluttered through the air like a drowsy dove. The chief herald's baton fell, a fanfare of trumpets split the air, and the best knights of the land rode out before their Queen.
"Look, Guenevere, look!"
Guenevere smiled. She knew her mother would miss no detail of the glittering armor and elaborate trappings as the twelve knights took to the field, their horses strutting out stiffly one by one. In their bright plumage of red and white and black, blue, green, and gold, they were gorgeous beyond compare. But with their helmeted heads and tall nodding plumes, there was something sinister about them too, more like birds of prey than men. Guenevere shivered. Why should such thoughts darken this sunny day?
"Leogrance the King, the Queen's first champion!" the heralds bawled.
Into the ring rode a tall shape encased in golden armor, a gold coronet encircling his helmet, attended by knights bearing banners of cloth of gold. First champion and first love, the Queen had told Guenevere, in the white and gold wonder of their early days, when the glow they shared had brought her into the world. Uneasily Guenevere eyed the heavy form still straight in the saddle, but stiff and unbending on a none-too-willing horse. Why do you do this, Father, every year, she wondered unhappily, taking the field with knights young enough to be your sons?
The Queen sat bolt upright, staring ahead. Do not ask! commanded her rigid back. See only that he has to do it, and that he needs our love.
Now all the challengers had made their bows, and still the people had not seen the man they craved. A clamor began and was carried around the field. "The champion! Give us the champion!"
Once more the bellowing heralds split their lungs. "Give welcome to the Queen's knight who comes here to brave all challengers-welcome the Queen's champion and her chosen one-"
The crowd roared its applause. From behind the wooden walls of the knights' enclosure at the far end of the field bounded a huge black horse with evil in its eye. Mounted on its glossy back, standing up in the stirrups, was a tall, lithe, laughing figure in red and gold.
The newcomer dragged the furious beast to a standstill before the gallery and bowed to the Queen. "Your servant, Majesty, in life and death!" he cried. Deftly he sent something spinning through the air. One of the knights reached down to catch it for the Queen.
It was a heart-shaped posy of roses and pinks, with trailing strands of honeysuckle that scented the air.
"A bleeding heart!" Guenevere said, entranced.
The Queen's glance flashed toward Lucan and away again. "A weeping heart," she corrected, her trembling fingers playing with the honeysuckle as if it were Lucan's hair. Her eyes were very bright, and the smile she gave was for him alone.
The heralds were trumpeting the next lord into the ring. But after the laughing knight in red and gold, all the challengers were shadows, doomed to fade. Lucan would win. He knew it, all those around him knew it, and even the dark and ugly monster that he rode seemed to know it. With each challenge the black beast charged down the field in a frenzy, bent on destroying what lay in its way.
But for all its boldness, Lucan's horse did not please the Queen. "That new creature Sir Lucan rides: what is it?" she demanded, and back the answer came: "A black stallion he sent for out of Wales, when he heard of its spirit from a lord who owned it there." The Queen nodded, but the faint frown did not leave her face.
The sun beat down, hotter than usual for the time of year. Lucan was clad now in deep black armor gleaming like his horse, and his opponents had no more chance than men of tin. One by one they galloped down the lists, and one by one he knocked them all down. At last the sun stood halfway down the sky, and Lucan held the field alone.
"So now, which shall I choose?" The Queen's face was pink, almost girlish, and lit again with that special smile.
"Madam, you know that you must choose the victor," Guenevere said fondly, "if you want the best of your knights to defend you to the death."
Once more the strange shadow crossed the Queen's face. "Don't talk to me of death!" She closed her eyes.
Guenevere stared. This was the woman who never admitted fear, the queen who had faced death in battle, fighting from her chariot like Queens of the Summer Country from the ancient days. No tears, no fears were words she had soothed Guenevere with from childhood as she schooled her to be strong. Faint strands of fear entangled Guenevere's heart. What was haunting her mother? Was she enchanted; was she ill?
"The Queen's champion!" The herald's chant was howling round the ring. "The Queen will choose her champion and honor him."
The Queen opened her eyes and gave Guenevere her best smile. "No tears, no fears, little one," she whispered, squeezing Guenevere's hand. "I must go." Guenevere could not speak. She sat without moving as the Queen's knights and attendants parted the crowd and ushered her below.
In the center of the field, the men-at-arms had raised a low platform for the Queen. Guenevere watched as her mother lightly crossed the trampled grass and mounted the dais, all happiness now, her quicksilver soul at ease again. Others followed with tasseled cushions bearing the rewards for the victor, rich gifts of gold made ready for many months.
In front of the knights' enclosure, Lucan stood waiting beside the King. Enraged at being kept standing, his horse was shying violently, till it was all the champion could do to hold the brute down.
At last the heralds gave the signal to move forward to the Queen. Flanked by the King, waving to acknowledge the wild cheers on all sides, Lucan set off in triumph down the field. On the dais ahead, the Queen waited for him with starlight in her eyes.
The sun was low in the sky now, the heat of the day no more than a memory lost. A sly wind sprang up, whipping the heavy trappings round the horses' legs, and the air grew cold. The sun sank behind a livid bank of clouds, blue, black, and purple, swelling from the east.
The two riders drew up before the dais.
The Queen stepped forward to meet Lucan, the gold chain of victory in her hands.
"Well fought, Sir Knight!"
"My lady and my Queen!"
Still astride the snorting horse, his face wreathed in a grin of triumph, Lucan leaned down toward the Queen. She smiled and reached up to place the chain around his neck. Neither of them saw the horse's evil eye fix her in its glare. With a loud scream the great beast reared up, its front legs pawing at the dying sun. Then, like heaven falling, it plunged down to strike the Queen and crush her into a broken, bloodstained heap beneath its feet.
With a scream of horror, Lucan leaped from the horse and dragged it away from the pale shape lying motionless on the grass. Still howling, he tore his sword from its sheath and struck straight and true into the horse's heart. As the monster beast keeled over, bucking and heaving, a laughing, snorting spirit burst out through its mouth and took to the sky. The last echoes mocked the hollow air and died as the horse's lifeblood sprouted in great red blossoms, soaking the earth where the Queen's body lay.
"He has come!" A low cry swept through the screaming crowd. "The Dark Lord, the Lord of the Underworld, has come; he is here!"
From the Trade Paperback edition.