High on its crag, Camelot slumbered in the shining gloom. The owls drowsed in the bell tower, and the round turrets with their pointed roofs, bright pennants, and golden spires hung in the glimmering air. The guard in the lookout shifted himself on his haunches and prepared for an easy watch. On these blessed summer evenings a silver twilight lingered all night long, even in the dead hours, when the Fair Ones walked.
He chuckled softly. The Fair Ones, yes. Well, a June watchman was never short of company. But a wise man learned to look the other way when he felt the Fair Ones near. And they'd surely be abroad tonight, what with the Queen's feast and all.
Thin snatches of sound came fleetingly to his ears, the chant of plainsong rising from far below. His eyes traveled down to the courtyard, where a long building huddled in the shelter of the wall. Through the high mullioned windows, a single light burned brightly in the dark. It was the flame above the altar, the symbol of unfailing hope and prayer.
Hope, was it? They'd need it, all those poor devils down below. The watchman shuddered as he pondered it. Ye Gods, to be down there now, and all night too!
Yet to the men inside the chapel, their night's work was not an ordeal, but a great honor, he knew. He scratched his head, and let his mind roam free. What must it be like, to be made a knight by the Queen?
The Queen -- his senses misted with a fleeting memory of white and gold, a drifting shape, a shining smile. A haze of precious thoughts descended on him like a cloud of winged things. To kneel to her, and call yourself her knight, to touch her hand and swear to die for her -- yes, any man would thrill to that destiny, that kiss of fate. And all the young men in the chapel had fought for this, chased after it for years. They had valued it above the love of women, above life itself. No matter then what they were going through. Some would endure, some wouldn't, that was all.
And afterward, they'd have a feast to end all feasts. Gods above, he grinned to himself, what the Queen had commanded from far and wide! Wagons full of beer and wine, carts groaning with fresh meat, every home farm raided for miles around. The cooks had been cursing and tearing their hair for weeks as the Queen's orders flew like arrows from her high tower. "Nothing but the best! There are queens and kings expected, and all our people from here and far away. Above all we must honor our new-made knights."
The new knights.
Well, their honor would be dearly bought.
With a sigh, he turned his eyes down again to pray for the sufferers below.
Inside the chapel the air was misty and cool. The young knight swayed on his knees and lifted unseeing eyes. High on the wall, the Round Table hung suspended above the stout trestles that supported it when it was in use. The great circle gleamed with its own light like the face of the moon. The knight fixed his gaze on it and tried to drag his mind back from wandering in some lost realm of pain. Dear Lady, Queen of Heaven, bless my vigil, he prayed humbly. Let me not faint, let me not disgrace my newfound honor and Your sacred name.
At the back of the church the Master of the Novices viewed him sardonically, and echoed his prayer. Folding his arms, he leaned his back against the damp chill of the chapel wall, and surveyed the kneeling rows facing the altar, all silent now, and gray-faced like old men. They were all the same, these young knights-in-the-making, on fire to be the best in the land. But after the first hour on their knees on the cold stone, even the strongest was praying to survive.
They could lie down, of course. Every one of the twenty young men kneeling now in prayer would spend some part of the hours between dusk and dawn prostrate before the altar, arms outstretched to form the sign of the Cross. After the first hour or two, when the stones they knelt on felt like knives of fire, the weaker vessels would fall on their faces and remain there all night long. Others would repeatedly struggle to remain upright, till the bell rang for first light.
The Novice Master smiled coldly to himself. Already he could tell which of them would fall, and even when. And he could tell too, from this simple fact, those who would make good knights, and who would not.
And most would not. His eye passed carefully over their ranks. He was too old a hand at knight-making to sigh over young men's frailties and lost hopes. But every year at this time he remembered how ardently the new knights all embarked, and how few were destined to survive the course. Some would perish cleanly on the point of a lance or sword, often on their first outing from the court, as they sought the deeds of daring that would make their name. Others faced a messier, crueler end, the long slow death of hope and faith, as they measured themselves year by year against the dreams they once had had, and found themselves further back than when they had begun.
These would be the ones who had fallen on their faces at the first trial of strength. He could smell it on them now, the stink of fear and failure, the terror of a little pain. The Novice Master sucked his teeth, and rocked back on his heels. So many were called to knighthood, and so few would prove to be knights of any worth.
Take the Orkney princes now --
With a frisson of unease, he surveyed the three mighty forms shoulder to shoulder at the front of the church, still rock solid on their knees. Not one of them would faint; he would take money on that. They had no fear of pain. And as nephews of King Arthur, they would surely be loyal enough. Loyal, tough, and brave. So what was it about the three sons of King Lot that made him wish they were not among his charges, not destined to become knights of the Round Table when the night was done?
Tenderly he explored the thought like a fresh wound. Sir Gawain had been the King's most faithful knight from the first, rough-hewn and pugnacious, yes, but as true as they came. Why then should his three younger brothers fail? Each of them was as big as Gawain, and as useful in a fight. But none would shape up like Gawain, there was no hope of that.
Yet every year there was one who gave him hope. His eyes returned to the frail youth he had seen before. Mador, it was, yes, Mador of the Meads. Young Mador would not fail.
With grudging approval the older man eyed the slight figure on its knees before the altar, rigid with terror, transcendent with desire. He was a good lad, Mador was, and no mistake. His brother showed promise too, holding on at Mador's side so grimly that he would swoon with agony sooner than give in. They were good lads both, Mador and Patrise. But Mador had felt the flame, he had the edge.
And he would make a perfect knight in time.
The Novice Master sighed. If --
If the lad survived the night with honor, according to his own high desire --
If he did not lose his head for love, and forget tournaments and feats of arms --
If he could find a worthy knight to follow, one like Sir Lancelot, not a rough warrior like Sir Gawain, or a cynic like Sir Kay --
The Novice Master sighed now in earnest, and deeper than he knew. Did anyone in the world know where Lancelot was, and when he would return?
Patrise! Don't fail, don't fall, hold on!
The young knight Mador leaned sideways to take the weight of his brother's swaying body, and tried urgently to drop the thought into his mind: Hold on, Patrise, hold on. Patrise stirred and braced himself, and shot back a glance of grateful love. I will, brother, I will. The comforting recognition passed between them: not long now.
Mador closed his eyes and looked out through the thin flesh of his lids. He had discovered a while ago that he could see better that way. Truly it was the best way to see; in fact it was the only way to see her at all.
And there she was, dazzling his eyes as always, filling his soul with steel. She was all that any knight could hope to worship and adore. And now she was appearing to him in the dim chapel, shining for him, floating below the great Round Table of the Goddess where tomorrow her chosen knights would sit.
The knights of the Queen.
He swayed on his knees, drunk with ecstasy. Guenevere, his soul chanted, Guenevere the Queen. Every man here would give his life for her, if he could die in the light of her smile. But how could he dream of the Queen's favor, when he had done nothing to deserve her regard? How to be worthy? Mador groaned to himself. How to live up to her knight that was gone?
For a moment Mador's faith faltered, and his proud heart quailed. No man could surpass Lancelot, any more than another woman could hope to outdo Guenevere herself. They both seemed to have lived a thousand lives before this, when at last they came into their own. Mador's soul shrank further into itself. Lancelot was the best knight in the world, and would always be.
But any man could become better than nature had made him at the start, Mador reasoned humbly in the breaks between his fervent, wandering prayers. Another man could not be Lancelot. But he could try to emulate the knight the Queen loved. Loved so much, it was said, that he had had to go away. And it was certain he had gone, but none knew where, or when he could return.
But here or afar, Sir Lancelot was the star by which every young man set his course. Lancelot would not fail, and neither must he. Yielding again to the passion of his pain, Mador floated out of himself, above the fragile body kneeling on the stones. His spirit soared with the chanting of his soul: Guenevere my lady. Guenevere the Queen.
From the Hardcover edition.