In Camelot's Shadow
By Sarah Zettel
Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd. Copyright © 2004 Harlequin Enterprises, Ltd.
All right reserved. ISBN: 0-373-80204-8
The monks tell me it is the year of our lord five hundred and sixty. They tell me it is the feast day of some saint whose name I have already forgotten. I am an old man. It is enough that I remember the important names.
I remember Arthur. I remember Camelot.
I remember Mount Badon, and I may be the last one who does. I remember the flush of victory, of the moment we truly undersood we had won. I remember throwing my cap in the air and crying, "The King! The King!" and seeing Arthur smile.
I remember yesterday standing on the seashore, scanning the horizon for any boat that may have come from the west lands, bearing news of the land where I once lived. I was told once that some of our people live on, in the mountains and in the north, fighting the invaders, holding to the old memories. Perhaps I will go to them one day. Perhaps one of them could use a man of letters, skilled in the arts of maps and of planning.
One who remembers both the birth and the murder of the great promise.
You who read this, understand I do not excuse myself. I know well what I have done. The priest here speaks of the perfidy of women, and I must laugh. We are told they are weaker, they are worse. After all, was it not Eve who plucked the apple? He frowned like a carp when I did say, "But 'twas Adam who was fool enough not to ask his wife what she'd brought him for dinner!"
I tell you the evil of the most foul of women is nothing compared to man's folly, and of all men I have been the greatest fool. Sometimes I think I should lay out thirty pieces of silver at my own feet and take the same road as Judas. It would be fitting.
I have confided this to a holy man who visits upon occasion. There is a warrior's look in his eye that sometimes reminds me of Arthur. He says that if I would put to use the life God spared, I should cease to sharpen my tongue against the sides of defenseless monks, and sharpen instead my quills.
I have decided I will do this thing. I hear the tales they now tell of Camelot, of Arthur and Guinevere, and Lancelot, Gawain, Morgaine and Mordred. The truth is fading, washed away by the tide of story. If I am to tie a noose about my neck, it should be done with words. Words were forever my weapon, my prop, my delight, and in the end my downfall.
All you men, beware the tongues of rumor. Beware the poison burden of the tale-bearer and the tattler. These will do naught but raise a canker of the soul that will blacken and swell until there is nothing left but pain.
But this is not to be a record of my self-pity. It is to be a record of those days and those deeds led by my brother Arthur, the greatest king our island ever birthed. Do men love a tale of war? Do the ladies love a tale of romance and beauty? Then I, who amused the whole of Camelot time and again with my clever words, shall give them one.
Read on then, this tale of magics, white and black, and of the faith of true hearts. Read then this memory of Gawain, greatest of all knights, and how he came to win the heart of the proud and fair Risa of the Morelands, sometimes after known as the Loathly Lady.
Kai pen Hir ap Cynyr
At the Monastary of Gillean,
Eire The rain pelted through the trees as if to make a second Flood. Its noise muffled Jocosa's moans.
The oaks had provided some shelter when the rain fell softly, but now they were as useful for stopping the water as a sieve.
Lord Rygehil eased his horse backward a few steps and lifted the curtain of Jocosa's litter. Rain ran in rivulets down onto the cushions and their occupants. Jocosa tossed restlessly beneath her woolen cloak, lost in her own tortured imaginings. The two maids who flanked their fever-racked mistress looked up at him in mute distress.
Rygehil's throat closed on his breath. He let the curtain fall.
Curse this rain. He pounded his fist against his thigh and glared at the darkening sky from under the hood of his cloak. Curse King Arthur and his coronation, curse his useless physics and curse me, curse me for taking Jocosa so far from help!
The rain fell implacably upon him. His horse stirred restlessly, shaking its mane and stamping its hooves. The animal was soaking wet, and no doubt cold. He could smell, rather than see the steam rising from its back. The men-at-arms around him were at least as bad off, if not worse.
Forgive me, God. Forgive me. Rygehil bowed his head low over his horse's neck. Mother Mary deliver my wife. I love her, I love her. Take me. I'll go gladly to the grave, but spare my Jocosa, the radiant, the incomparable. I beg of you!
"Hoofbeats, Lord," said Whitcomb. Rygehil jerked his head up. "Liath is back with us at last."
Without waiting for an order, Whitcomb urged his horse out onto the road. Sea of mud, more like, Rygehil thought ruefully as his horse sank up to its fetlocks in the mire.
Even though the clouds had brought night down far too early, Rygehil could make out young Liath, urging on his dun pony for all the poor beast was worth.
"A fortress, my lord!" Liath cried as he drew close. He brushed at his hood and sent an additional gout of water around his own shoulders. "An old Roman garrison. The roof is still good in spots. We shall have some shelter at least, and a place a fire can be made."
Hope sparked in Rygehil's heart. A fire, a dry place to rest, it could make all the difference to Jocosa.
"Lead on, then, boy." Whitcomb's voice called before Rygehil could get the words out. Rygehil glanced behind to see Whitcomb checking the thongs that held the litter to the mules' backs.
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