- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
Medraut, the bitter, illegitimate son of King Artos, is tempted into joining Morgause, the king's treacherous sister, in a plot against Lleu, the legitimate Prince of Britain.
When I left the Islands I had a vague image of myself fleeing from you with the speed and surety of a hart, straight to my father's estate at Camlan. The morning I left I was certain, Godmother, certain beyond anything you could have suggested to make me doubt it, that I could return to Camlan as though returning home: though it was fourteen years since the twins were born, six since I left Camlan and two since I came to you. When my father asked me to go to Brittany six years ago he had expected me back in a matter of months, and after that when I was traveling in Africa and Byzantium his letters always anticipated my return. He was not happy that I chose to remain with you over those next two summers—you, his sister; you, his enemy, treacherous and faulted as the ceiling of a mine shaft.
The morning I left you I was so desperate to be away, and free, that the very direction of the wind seemed a portent to guide me. The first fisherman I spoke to was leaving that day for the mainland, and I already carried with me all I intended to take: my hunting knife, the three bows I had crafted that summer, and a satchel containing the precious and delicate physician's instruments I had bought the year before from the Eastern sea merchants. Except these, all the possessions that I cared for I had either left in Camlan six years ago or had sent there directly as I acquired them. There was nothing to hold me to the Islands, nothing except love or fear of you. And I would not submit to either of these.
The journey's start, after the long summer of pain and illness, seemed so clean and true and swift that it did not seem possible I might be rash to travel so late in the year. The wind was perfect; we sped past the barren cliffs of Hoy, and the day was clear enough that we could see Cape Wrath looming in the distance. I have never made such a rapid journey to the mainland. I felt I had some god's own special benediction: such luck: away so quickly and secretly. Once on the soil of the mainland it occurred to me that my legs were still not very strong, that I had hundreds of miles of empty moorland to cross, and that winter was coming on. But I would not go back.
That was in October. It was well past New Year's when I arrived in Deva, the city and port closest to Camlan. There was a heavy snowfall that same day. I had not encountered snow even when I was crossing the Caledonian highlands, but now that it was steadily cold there came snow with a vengeance. I stayed in Deva several days, just to watch the harbor freeze over completely, locking its ships into my father's city: Artos the high king's city. Deva is beautiful, full of Roman ghosts. The harbor is smaller than it once was, because the river is silting up. But the streets are paved, and there is a ruined theater that they use as a marketplace. There is even a bathhouse where they still use the old hypocaust for heat. Artos probably had a hand in the last; Gofan, the master smith at Camlan, calls him "our engineer king." While I was in Deva, Artos himself arrived to inspect the harbor and make sure the old city walls were able to endure the ice. It was the first I had seen my father in six years. After the months of trudging through a wilderness of black peat mud and chill rain, alone, the pure dry cold and my father's heavy hand on my shoulder seemed more intoxicating than wine, the snowbound streets more holy than the clustering wind-scoured cells of Iona.
It is about sixty miles from Deva to Camlan, and Artos sent me on ahead of him. I went as his emissary and as his son; I went because he could not in good conscience send anyone else into that weather, and because I wanted to go. He planned a route for me, making certain I would have food and a bed each night, so the last few days of my long journey were made in relative comfort. And the countryside was achingly familiar. After Caledonia's bleak mountains even the high moors to the east seemed gentled by the snow, not shadowing but cradling the Mercian plain—beautiful. The country around Camlan is all field and forest, riddled with old Roman salt and lead mines, except in the village just two or three miles west of Camlan, where there are copper mines that Artos has set working again. The mines and the village existed long before the high king. When he rebuilt the Roman villa nearby and made it his home, the local people named the new estate Camlan, the champion's village. The original cluster of farms and householdings they now speak of simply as the village of the "elder field." The jutting cliff and scarp where the copper mines are they call the Edge over Elder Field, and it dominates the horizon even more than the distant high peaks. Camlan nestles securely between the Edge and the peaks, protected from all but the worst of weather; the forest is usually abundant with deer, the fields bountiful. It was all snow-blanketed when I arrived, uniform in whiteness.
They had had a hard summer, even as we did in the Northern Islands, in the Orcades. Everyone I met on the way seemed thin and worn: grim, haggard, hungry. They were cold, too; their winters are usually milder. It was dusk when I finally came to Elder Field, and I might have stopped for the night with Gofan at the smithy; but by now the road was so familiar that I could have walked it with my eyes shut, and I was overcome with a childish wave of homesickness for Camlan. I could not possibly wait until morning to walk the last few miles. I shared the evening meal with Gofan and Marcus, his new apprentice, and they lent me a lantern to guide me through the dark to the high king's estate.
The old Roman villa at Camlan was drab; it was cold and decaying. The echoes of its former splendor only exaggerated its cheerlessness. The tiled floor still held between its cracks the dust and pollen that had settled there during the dry summer; mildewed grain littered the corners of the central atrium, which had been used as an emergency storeroom during the haphazard harvest that was gathered in the threatening shadow of a sudden storm. Part of the hypocaust had collapsed, and someone had tried to block off the drafty hole in the atrium floor with disused masonry and rubble left over from the villa's original restoration. The old leaded glass windows, so perfect and unusual, had not been cleaned for many months. Even the braziers gave little heat. The Great Hall was warmer, with its roaring fire and close company, but after months of solitary silence and open space I found it crowded and airless almost beyond my endurance. I felt at home in the villa, ruined as it was; I knew those corridors, where each lamp bracket fits, the artist's little flaws in the tiled border of the atrium mosaic, the staring glass eyes of the Christian portraits there.
No real welcome awaited me. Of course, they did not expect me, and those of the household who were still awake were preoccupied with some present crisis. It did not seem the right moment to inquire if I could still use my old room. When my father's queen hurriedly received me I told her I would stay in the Great Hall where most of the household slept. Ginevra agreed, apologetically; they had been using my room for storage, and it would have to be cleared out before I could use it. "You'll be more comfortable in the Hall," she added. "It's warmer there. Artos is the only one who knows how the hypocaust works; we can't mend it till he returns. And"—she paused; and I could see her setting her jaw so that she would not falter—"and I think Lleu is dying. He has been ill all winter, and today he is scarcely able to breathe. Otherwise we should have given you more of a welcome, Medraut."
Lleu, the Bright One: the high king's youngest child, his heir, and my half brother. I had forgotten how sickly he was. His sister Goewin had always been healthy, and fiercely protective of her small twin brother. They were eight when I left. Lleu's letters had stopped more than three years ago, before I came to the Orcades. He would be almost fifteen now, almost adult. Still so frail, racked by asthma, torn through and through by even the slightest chill wind or damp day? And Artos counted on him to be the next high king.
"Is Aquila still your physician?" I asked.
"Yes. But he's hardly slept for three days," Ginevra told me, still unfaltering.
I said cautiously, "I might help him."
"We have all been helping," she answered.
"I meant as a physician," I said.
"Truly?" She was surprised, perhaps pleased. "Well, you had to learn something in six years away from us! You do seem wiser than you did. You look the same, but there is more to your silence than there used to be."
Ginevra has the smooth, open face of a child, and she is too short and stocky to be beautiful. But she is skilled as a mapmaker, speaks three different British dialects, and knows most of the villagers by name; she manages the household with undisputed authority. Her quick appraisal made me suddenly and unexpectedly shy, though it was for a moment only. She could not have noticed. I do not color, or blanch, when I am ill at ease. I glanced down briefly at the cracked, tiled floor beneath our feet, and asked if I might see Lleu.
The corridors were dark, for Ginevra could not afford to keep lamps burning in the halls. Since Lleu had been ill he was sleeping in the antechamber to his mother's rooms, the only rooms in the house that were being steadily heated. He seemed to be asleep, or senseless, when we came in, struggling for breath with eyes clenched tightly shut; but when I sat on the cot next to him and spoke his name he tried to answer, though he could do no more than gasp and choke, lying wretchedly trapped in his ridiculous frail body. Even so I was momentarily astonished by his beauty. It struck at me as it had when I first saw him, when he was an infant. I think it is the single characteristic in him that I have always envied, will always envy. He is graceful and slightly built, like an acrobat or a cat, with black hair and brilliant dark eyes; but the eyes were closed now, the fair skin dry and fiercely hot to touch, and he did not know me.
He did not even know his mother. She tried to comfort him while I felt his forehead, gauging his fever; but when my hands moved to his throat, testing the swollen glands there, he fought me, wildly trying to tear my hands away. "You want to strangle me," he managed to whisper, coughing and struggling. I stared at Ginevra, perplexed.
"Go gently, Medraut," she cautioned wearily. "He is afraid of everything."
I bent down and said firmly, close to his ear, "Little idiot. I'm trying to help you." I brushed his own hands aside, trivial, and lifted him till he sat upright coughing and sobbing against my shoulder. With one hand I rubbed his back firmly and with the other stroked his damp hair; and gradually the coughing subsided, and he could breathe a little. He slumped against my side, whimpering and exhausted. "Keep him sitting," I murmured to Ginevra. "I can make him a drink to ease his cough. Where can I find water?"
"In the next room," she told me. "You may use anything—there're herbs and honey, as well."
I found all I needed; the room was a dressing chamber converted into a little clinic, and Aquila seemed to be keeping almost all his medicines and equipment there. The suddenness of what was happening worked on me like a drug. I could move and think with precision, knowing with accuracy what I could do for Lleu. I forgot the winter journey, the misery of the last months with you, my own uncertain welcome in my father's house. I had the sure certainty of my knowledge, and the healing in my hands. I went back to Lleu with the drink I had mixed, and held him while Ginevra coaxed him to swallow. Still he fought, this time refusing to drink when he noticed the sharp and bitter taste beneath the honey, strangely alert for all his delirium.
"Don't send me to sleep," he begged desperately, quiet and fervent. "I want to breathe, not to sleep."
"This will ease your cough, little one," I answered. "It won't make you sleep."
"Who are you?" Lleu asked abruptly. "Stay here." He choked again, and clung to me.
"I'll call for someone to watch him," Ginevra said.
"I'll stay. I don't mind."
So she left us. I eased Lleu back down onto the pillows and sat on the floor next to the cot to wait for morning.
Sometimes Lleu slept; sometimes I helped him to drink, or held him upright until he stopped coughing, or drew the covers up again when he threw them off. A servant brought me a blanket, and late in the night, when Lleu's breathing grew less ragged, I could doze a little. But most of the night I sat and watched, until the gray dawn light came stealing from behind the cloth-covered windows, and I could hear that others in the household were rising. Then I could not bear to stay awake any longer and fell asleep just as I sat: on the floor next the bed, leaning on the mattress with my face buried in one arm and the other flung across Lleu's waist so that I should know if he stirred.
Not long afterward someone woke me and helped me to rise, and I found myself being led through the corridors in the direction of my own chamber. I felt dazed and stupid; it was a long time since I had let myself grow so exhausted. The girl who accompanied me explained that my room had been set in order for me while I had been with Lleu, and that I must feel free to come and go as I pleased within the villa. She was dark-haired, tall and long-limbed, with a somewhat hard face whose severity was tempered by humor. She seemed familiar, and at my door I asked her name. She stared at me, then laughed. I knew her then, and smiled with her, too tired to laugh. She looks more like Artos than either Lleu or I. "Princess Goewin. You must think me very foolish."
"No, no," she said. "You're half-asleep, and I have changed since I was eight. I recognized your pale hair." She opened the door to show me in and said conversationally, "You saved Lleu's life, didn't you? I insisted they open your window, so it's my fault if it's too cold in here. I remember you almost always had the window open, and it needed airing badly." There were wooden shutters instead of glass in my window, and I used to keep them open for light, not minding the cold. It touched me that Goewin had remembered. I went to the window and leaned out: the Pennines glistened clean and bare in the distance, and closer by were black trees and stone walls limned with white. "You're not wanting to go out in it again?" Goewin asked at my shoulder, narrowing her eyes against the bright light.
This time I did laugh. "No. I'm going to sleep. If Lleu gets worse, call me."
I ministered to Lleu for most of the winter. I was not so experienced as Aquila, but my knowledge of herbs and medicines reached far beyond his: for which, in all honesty, I must thank you, Godmother. Aquila, who worked with the calm authority of long years of practice, accepted me as a colleague and an assistant. No one spoke openly of my skill. Some were frightened by it; was it not madness to put the life of their young prince into the hands of the high king's illegitimate son, who might know a thousand ways to poison him? But all that winter my own life centered around Lleu.
He was barely strong enough to get out of bed, and could eat only soup and thin wine. All life else for him was only the constant struggle to breathe, or to sleep fitfully, or to stare at the coals in the brazier and listen to people passing in the tiled corridor. We made him eat and saw that he was as warm as possible, and kept him bent over steaming bowls scented with mint and mustard to try to ease his breathing. He fought and fought against his illness, as though it were a physical creature that he held at bay. For long hours I fought with him. His unconscious fear of being hurt by anyone who touched him fascinated me; as far as Lleu was concerned it was a fear without foundation, but there is no emotion I could have understood more completely. When I was so badly hurt the summer before, I used to lie in dread of falling asleep; and more than that I dreaded your visits, your touch, your long fingers testing broken bones or securing bandages. But I had reason to dread you, and Lleu had no reason to dread anyone.
Excerpted from The Winter Prince by Elizabeth Wein. Copyright © 1993 Elizabeth E. Wein. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Posted September 20, 2006
I read this book in about two days, would have been one if I hadn't made my mother take the book away so I didn't finish it so fast. Very entertainging and enjoyful. I would recommend it to any reader.
0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted April 1, 2003
I have loved this book ever since I first read it in 1997. I had been unable to find a copy of it anywhere other than my public library, and have had it checked out constantly. This is an intriguing twist on the perhaps overused Arthurian legend, and I can't wait to read Wein's next book.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted February 1, 2002
I love the story and the people in this book! I thought that it was all great! I have read the book many of times and every time i reas it, it was like a new book I had never readed before. I think this book is great!!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.