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I, Guinevere, Celtic Princess of Rheged and only child of King Leodegrance, woke to a clatter of activity in the stableyard. The sound of gruff orders and jingling harnesses was accompanied by swearing and grunting and the occasional stomp of a large, impatient hoof.
I scrambled out of bed and ran to the window. Sure enough, down by the barns the yard was filling with people and animals. Arthur's men were strapping packframes on the ponies, and before long even the traveling horses would be saddled. Too soon tomorrow had arrived, and a surge of panic rose up to choke me. It was all happening, whether I willed it or not, and I struggled to keep control of my destiny even while I searched for a way to change it.
"I can't go...I can't leave Rheged," I'd cried defiantly last night, tugging on a pair of heavy breeches while Brigit stared at me dumbfounded, the unlit lamps forgotten in her shock at finding me half-dressed for flight.
"What do you mean you can't?" Her voice was incredulous, and she tossed her head back defiantly, the red hair swirling like a shadow in the twilight gloom. "No Celtic queen whimpers she can't face a challenge. Of course you can!"
Her words were more proud than angry, and for a moment she sounded so much like her cousin I could swear it was he speaking.
"That's what Kevin used to say..." Tears leaped up behind my eyes, and I blinked fiercely to keep them back.
"And right he was, for once." She relaxed then and came over to the bed, where I had piled the things I planned to take with me in my bid for freedom. "But that's no cause to be talking of running away. You know no one survives in the forest; we'd be eaten by beasts, or caught by bandits and sold as slaves, or worse." Her green eyes brimmed with terror, and she shivered suddenly and made the sign of the cross.
Her assumption that where I went, she went too was typical. At any other time I would have smiled at her loyalty, and I began to weaken in spite of myself.
"God forbid I let you do such a thing, Gwen. If you truly won't accept this marriage, tell your father. You know he won't force you to marry someone you don't want, even if you are a princess."
The hot tears of anger and frustration and heartbreak broke loose then, and Brigit gathered me in her arms and let me sob out my anguish against her stalwart shoulder. If we both remembered the other time I had cried thus, neither of us spoke of it. This night held enough pain without bringing back a grief that was best left peaceful in its grave.
When the first crest of my emotion had subsided, a hiccup caught me unaware, and fishing a handkerchief from her apron, Brigit handed it to me without a word. I dried my eyes and, turning to the window, stared out over the fort. Like most Roman things, it was half in ruins; patched and mottled and left to decay. Usually I disliked such places, but here a double-storied tower had been set aside as "women's quarters" after Lavinia joined the household. The top room had a fine view of the lake and fells, so whenever my father held court at Ambleside I settled in like a swallow returning to her favorite nest. Tonight Windermere lay serenely sheened with silver, while above it a new moon hung misty in the pale sky. A fish sent ripples outward in silent beauty, and the little murmuring quacks of a mother duck calling her offspring drifted up to me. Somewhere in the village a child was trying to drive a noisy old hen into its coop for the night. It made me think of the one-eyed biddy who used to flap and squawk whenever I shooed her toward the roost at Patterdale, and the poignancy of so simple a memory threatened to bring back the tears I was trying to control.
"I think you're suffering more from nerves than from a real dislike of Arthur," Brigit suggested, calmly returning to the task of lamplighting. "Though I'll admit, he certainly picked a forbidding emissary to come and fetch you."
"Merlin?" I shivered a little at the thought of the distant, unbending magician. He had given no more than a curt nod when my father presented me, and throughout the evening meal had avoided so much as looking in my direction. Even in the past, on those rare occasions when he had visited our court during my childhood, he was always strange and aloof, reeking of the magic Archdruids are known to have. It was said he had made himself indispensable to the young High King, and if his attitude was an example of the welcome I would receive in Logres, I had good cause to regret the loss of my homeland. In the end I promised Brigit not to run away, but to face my father on this morning. And the last thing I did before going to sleep was pray long and hard to Epona, begging the Horse Goddess for help in breaking the marriage contract without bringing dishonor to our family.