Prince of Dreams: A Tale of Tristan and Essyllteby Nancy McKenzie
It is a generation after the fall of Camelot. The legendary figures of Britain’s brief but shining renaissance—Arthur, Lancelot, Guinevere—are gone but not forgotten. Their memories live on in song and story. But Arthur’s dream of a united Britain is fading fast. The hard-won alliance of independent kingdoms is fracturing. Sensing weakness, defeated enemies are returning.
Such is the world of Tristan, Prince of Lyonesse. Born with the soul of a poet and the heart of a warrior, Tristan has been pushed aside by his uncle, Markion, who is determined to succeed King Constantine. Because he shares Markion’s dream of restoring the faded glory of Camelot, Tristan supports his Uncle’s claims to the High King’s throne, against the better judgment of his friends.
Markion dispatches Tristan as his trusted agent to fetch his new bride, the daughter of King Percival. As soon as Tristan sets his eyes on the beautiful Essylte, and Essylte sees the handsome Tristan, a fateful love blooms between the two young people, a love that knows no law but its own fierce and imperious demands. Now, torn between duty and desire, Tristan and Essylte will risk everything—their lives, their souls, Britain itself—to be together. . . .
This powerful tale of love, betrayal, and redemption has echoed down the ages. Acclaimed author Nancy McKenzie brings it stunningly to life for a new generation.
- Random House Publishing Group
- Publication date:
- Product dimensions:
- 5.51(w) x 8.19(h) x 0.92(d)
Read an Excerpt
BORN BETWEEN THE STARS
Rain fell in sheets. The swollen river tore through its narrow valley, bearing sodden bodies like old logs, dashing them against rocks, spinning them heavily in swirling cataracts, heaving them up along the drowned shore, pale and bloated, a midnight feast for eager kites. Upstream where the forest thinned under the cliff face, a lone company of soldiers slogged wearily through the mud, heads down, shoulders hunched against the heavens’ fury. Their captain sat on his horse, his face raised to the sky. He stretched out his arms as if to embrace the storm, the black night, the soaking wet, and gather them to himself. Through the din of the downpour they heard his cry.
“Gods of the high hills, gods of the moving deep, gods of the living forest, the birthless sky and the deathless night, accept our thanks! Praise be to Lord Mithra, the Bull-Slayer, the Light who conquers darkness! We honor your name. Great Goddess of Nemet, arbiter of fate, stay your bright sword and smile on us! We bend our knee to Yahweh, Lawgiver, whose vengeful eye can turn a man to stone! Hear our plea, sweet Jesu Christ, who died for all our sins—grant us the grace to forgive our enemies. Ai-ya! We have beaten back the Saxons and exult in victory!”
The captain turned in his saddle and grinned at his men. His face, under the dark mop of streaming hair, was the beardless face of a boy. “How’s that, Bryn? Conwyl? Haeric? Did I leave anyone out?”
The soldiers laughed with affection, called him a Druid’s spawn, and named forty gods he had forgotten. One man, a veteran, turned to his younger companion.
“Never saw a lad delight so in bad weather. Can’t bear to be indoors when there’s a storm outside. Begotten of the sea witch, he must have been.”
“Aye,” growled his companion, wiping blood from a cut in his cheek. “Sings like an angel and wields a sword like the very devil. Born between the stars, as we say in Lyonesse.”
“Born under the Twins, you told me, Kerro, born too late. Don’t they say in Lyonesse his fate’s unlucky?”
Kerro squirmed. “His mother the queen died at his birthing, but that doesn’t always bring bad luck.”
The veteran hawked, turned his head and spat. “I’ll tell you what’s bad luck. His father’s dying before the lad reached manhood. Ill-fated prince! Old enough to see his future just beyond his grasp. That’ll bring black shadows down around anyone’s ears.”
“Black shadows, indeed! You and your superstitions. I don’t think our prince is unlucky. He’s a likely youth, strong and well favored, an excellent swordsman, a sensible fighter, a good head on his shoulders. You’ll see, Haeric, someday he’ll make us a fine king.”
The veteran laughed, water streaming from his beard. “If he ever gets the chance.”
“What do you mean?”
“His father Meliodas was King of Lyonesse and King of Cornwall, too, being firstborn of the High King Constantine. Young Tristan’s sixteen and, as you say, a sensible fighter. He’s the heir. Yet what’s he king of?”
“Oh, come, Haeric, that’s an old story. He was twelve when Meliodas died, too young for kingship. It’s only right that Cornwall passed to his uncle Markion, Constantine’s second son. Would you want to be led by a boy?”
“He’s a boy no longer. And not only is he not King of Cornwall, he’s still not King of Lyonesse, his homeland.”
“Markion’s only waiting until he’s been battle-tested. Everyone knows it. Why else has he been training and schooling the boy himself these four years past? He’s been grooming the lad for kingship. Mark my words, when we get home he’ll make Tristan King of Lyonesse. You’ll see. Tristan’s lord of the land already in all but name. Everyone honors him there.”
They trudged on, the mud sucking at their boots, past the cliff and into the rising woodland.
The veteran grunted. “You’ve been in Lyonesse. I’ve been at Tintagel and Dorr with Markion’s troops. I’ve slept in their tents and heard their barracks talk. And I can tell you, you are dreaming.”
The young soldier did not answer. The path rose steeply toward a narrow ridge. Their feet slipped on wet rocks, wet roots, soft earth that gave beneath their weight. Rain fell in a loud, steady hiss.
“Tell me, Kerro,” the veteran continued between labored breaths, “just when do you think Markion will step aside, hand over his crown, and make Tristan King of Cornwall? When he dies, perhaps? But he’s not yet forty; he’s a man in middle years with a third of life ahead. And he has a son, Gerontius, eighteen, well trained and ready. He’s here leading Cornish troops, representing his father as a son should who knows he is the heir. And when old Constantine dies, who will step into his shoes? Will it be young Tristan, firstborn of the rightful heir? Or Markion himself, with years of experience and a loyal army at his back? No, no, Kerro. You are dreaming. Your Tristan is unlucky. Bad luck his father died too soon, bad luck his uncle is ambitious, bad luck his cousin Gerontius is older and abler. He’ll never see his birthright. Born between the stars, indeed.”
“You’re too hard on him. I tell you, it’s a mistake to count him out. Look at him. A strong enough youth and shaping for a man. And quick- witted to boot. Would you have thought of that clever ambush? How did he know the Saxons would head this way? Eh? And now look, there’s honor aplenty for all of us, thirty Britons killing a hundred Saxons, and not a man of us wounded. Except for scratches.” He wiped his face again. “This boy will be somebody, I’ll wager my life on that.”
Haeric shrugged, hunching futilely against the onslaught. “Gods help the man who tries to build a fire on such a night!” He coughed and lowered his voice. “And gods help the man who ever tries to cross King Markion.”
“Hey, Tris!” a voice called from the ranks. “Give us a song! We’re freezing to death in this godforsaken wet!”
“By the blood of the Bull,” Haeric grumbled as a chorus of voices echoed the plea. “Look how the ruffians treat him! In Arthur’s day a prince was shown respect.”
“They do him honor by asking him to sing. You don’t know Tristan.”
“Is he a commander or a bard?”
Kerro laughed. “Both. He’s a wizard in his way. Listen.”
Around them, dimly through the downpour, came the clear, melancholy tenor of the boy’s song, piercing the curtain of rain, lifting their hearts and quickening their steps. At the top of the ridge the young commander raised his arm and halted the company, finishing the song with a deft rhyming couplet. Below them on the valley floor three bonfires burned, set well apart, the surrounding tents invisible in the dark.
“Wales on one side, Cornwall on the other, old Constantine in the middle to keep them from each other’s throats,” Haeric muttered. “But thank the gods for fire and food.”
At the bottom of the hill a sentry met them, sword raised. Tristan gave the password and the men filed past, filthy and exhausted, to such comfort as they could find in the unrelenting storm.
Out of the dark a voice called in loud relief, “Tristan! Where the devil have you been?”
Tristan slid from his horse as a young man strode out of the shadows and punched him lightly in the shoulder. “I was beginning to give up hope. What happened? Let me guess—you thought of a new song and missed the turning.”
“Oh, Dinadan, what a battle! And I did think of a new song. But it was the long climb up that sodden ridge that delayed us. And your company? How are Dorria’s losses?”
“Light, thank God. Once we broke their line, they ran. Toward the cliffs and the river. At least two hundred got away.”
“Not two hundred.”
“What—you met them? You went that way?”
“It seemed the simplest route of escape. So we blocked it.”
“By God!” Dinadan grinned and slapped his friend hard on the back. “However did you think of it? How many were you?”
“Thirty. But we took a hundred, easy.”
“Christ, does Constantine know?” Dinadan threw back his head and laughed. “Your first battle, and by God, if you’re not the fox set among the fowl! He put you on his flank so you wouldn’t see much action, and you take out half the force that escaped him. It’s too rich! Come on, get out of those wet things and let’s split a wineskin. Come to my tent, it’s hard by. I’ve news, but for your ears only.”
Dinadan’s tent was small and smelled of ill-cured skins, but it was dry. His servant had a small fire going, and a wineskin hung on its tripod stand above the flame. Dinadan poured the thin liquid into two horn cups.
“Hang your tunic there, it’s your only chance.”
“You’ve no kindling. It will never dry.”
Dinadan grinned. “Dravic steals a log from the bonfire when my flame gets low. Go on. You’ll freeze in those wet things. Shall I send him for your bedroll?”
“No need.” Tristan tugged off his sodden boots and stripped down to his loincloth. The meager warmth of the fire met his icy skin, and he shivered. What a battle it had been! First the cold wet, biting into flesh, then the dry, icy prickle of fear when the Saxons burst through the underbrush, followed by the hot sweat of excitement and exertion, the exhilaration at such total victory, and lastly, the stab of dread at all the bodies. He laughed to himself. He had been more aware of his body’s swift sensations than of the flow of the fight. And afterward, marching home in the glorious storm, he had heard around him the pleasant voices of men tired from battle, the comforting timbre of their speech, while the dark wind whistled in his ears and the rain hissed down. Now he could hardly remember the plan of battle or the moment when he had decided on the ambush—but he remembered every assault upon his senses, every touch upon his skin, every sound, every sight, every smell. Separate threads of his living spirit, they wove themselves, mingling and dividing, into the fabric of his memory.
Dinadan shook his head as he listened to Tristan’s recounting of the ambush. “Tris, forget what it felt like. Who cares if it was cold or wet? How many Saxons got away? How many died? What were their numbers? You didn’t count them?” Dinadan groaned at Tristan’s sheepish smile. “I’ll bet you named each raindrop that touched your face, and made a song about them. And yet you can’t tell me how many Saxons died?”
Tristan shrugged. “One of the veterans counted a hundred bodies. Most of them fell into the river. Who cares, Din? They are dead. But what a glorious night for a battle!”
Dinadan handed him a winecup and raised a toast. “To your mysterious virtue, Tristan of Lyonesse. May you live forever.”
Tristan raised his cup toward Dinadan. “To your unflagging friendship, Dinadan, Prince of Dorria. May you live beyond me.”
The wine was only half warmed, and bitter. Dinadan wrinkled his nose and downed it, but Tristan held it on his tongue, examining the flavor, letting its sharp bite burn into his memory.
“Now, Dinadan, what’s the news?”
“Trouble’s brewing. I’ve been hearing snatches among the troops. And Constantine has called a council. Tonight.”
“What’s it about?”
“The men expect Wales to challenge the High King. They’re all here, you know, the Welsh kings, or they’ve sent their proxies. They’re presenting a united front. They must want something.”
“What do they ever want but land or power? God knows they’ve land enough. They must be after the High King’s crown.” Tristan sighed and drank again from his cup. Awful as it tasted, the thin wine lit a fire in his belly that began to thaw his limbs. “Ever since Grandfather grabbed the crown at Arthur’s death, it’s been a burden to him.”
“You don’t see him offering to give it up, do you? It may be a burden, but he counts it worth the price.” Dinadan grinned. “And you’re the only one of his kin who will allow he grabbed it—most loyal Cornishmen are brought up to say Arthur bequeathed it to him as the rightful heir.”
“They forget Mordred.” Tristan waved the argument away. “I’ve thought of something else they might want, Din. They might withdraw from the alliance, as the northern kingdoms did when we were children. And if they go, what will happen to the High King? It would be no more than an empty title, a dead remnant from Britain’s glorious past. His only troops would be us, his own Cornishmen. The dissolution of Arthur’s Britain would be complete.”
“Poetic, but not likely. If they wanted to withdraw, why did they answer his call in the first place? Why not stay comfortably in Wales and leave us to fight the Saxons? But they came, all of them.”
“Thank God they did.”
“Yes, without them it might have been a close thing. And I’m sure they know it. That’s why I think they’ve gone together to demand some reward from Constantine.”
Tristan frowned. “Were we invited to this council?”
“Are you jesting? I’m a lowly prince of a small subkingdom. All Constantine wants from Dorria is Castle Dorr. He knows our future is tied to Markion’s, whether we like it or not. Have you heard my father on that topic? And you—he may be your grandfather, but he has little love for you. Markion is his darling, and you’re the thorn in Markion’s side.”
Tristan shook his head. “Don’t start that again. My grandfather may have blind spots, but he doesn’t hate me. He’s waiting, as I am myself, to see what kind of man I make. As for Markion, you wrong him. He’s an honorable man, a fine warrior, and a steady Christian.”
“And King of Lyonesse.”
“As my guardian,” Tristan said a little sharply. “Until I’ve proved myself. It was my father’s wish. And he is our best hope for the future.”
“Fah! He’s a sneaky devil. I’d much rather serve you, Tristan, and I’m not alone.”
“Look, Dinadan, I’ve spent the better part of four years in Mark’s household at Dorr and Tintagel, learning all he has to teach me, learning to fight, learning to rule. I’ve even been included in his councils. Grant me that I know my uncle better than you do.”
Dinadan extended his hand. “I’m sorry, Tris. Didn’t mean to strike your sore spot. But you know as well as I do that sometimes you don’t see the forest for the trees.”
“I’m right about Uncle Mark.”
“I yield. Have it your way.”
“But I want to know what’s going on in that council.”
Tristan put down the winecup and slowly rose. Even naked, Dinadan thought, he was a regal figure, long-limbed and well made, with shoulders beginning to broaden and the strength of manhood beginning to mark his face. Dinadan, rising with him, felt somehow dwarfed, although he was a year older and dressed in princely clothes. There was something elemental about Tristan that cut through trappings, something simple and direct and open. It flashed through Dinadan’s mind that this boy might not be made for kingship, with its daily battles between jealous lords and incessant demands for compromise. Was this what Constantine had seen? Perhaps he was, like the great Galahad, made for a single purpose, a deadly blade to cut a narrow swath, straight and deep, through his time. Dinadan shook himself and pushed those thoughts away. Tristan had to be king if they were ever to be rid of Markion.
“I want to know what’s going on in that council,” Tristan repeated. “Let’s join them.”
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