Raven (a.k.a. Micah of Greenfarm), the young son of a poor tenant farmer, lives just outside of Camelot. Like other poor farmers, he has no interaction with the reigning monarch, the great King Arthur, but his station means nothing to him when some of King Arthur’s knights rape and murder his sister. Raven swears an oath that transcends social station and nobility; he vows to avenge. Becoming a member of the royal household, Raven manages to get closer and closer to his targets. Cary James’s novel is full of adventure, intrigue, passion, hatred, and questioned loyalty.
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About the Author
Cary James was born in Virginia, and received degrees from the College of William and Mary and the University of California at Berkeley. For two decades he practiced architecture in the San Francisco Bay area, before becoming a professional writer. He has published short stories, poems and book reviews, and served as chair of the Fiction Award Committee of the Bay Area Book Reviewers Association. He is the author of Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel, a photographic essay on that now-demolished building; Julia Morgan, a young person’s biography of the San Francisco architect; and King & Raven, his first novel. Baranaby Conrad once defined the full life as one in which “you build a house, plant a tree, create a child, and fight a bull.” James regrets that he has not yet met his bull. He lives in Mill Valley California with his wife Elaine.
Read an Excerpt
The horse Anduin was no sumpter to carry loads, nor even a riding palfrey, but a battle-horse a knight might take to war. He even stood too tall for our cow-byre, and it took a day to build a new shed against the end of the house. We cut saplings at the edge of the forest, with Thomas' permission, and leafy boughs for thatch as there would be no straw 'til after harvest. My father grumbled at the time it took, how much the animal would eat and what little work he might do. Nor did I know myself what to make of Anduin, save that somehow he was necessary.
In the long summer evenings Perkin and his son came to stare, and then men from the village. To stand near a king's destrier, to watch it move and judge its strength was a rare thing, and they spoke to my father with new respect, as if he were important as the reeve. Yet they glanced at him sidelong, too, amazed his daughter had been worth such an animal. They came for a month, 'til harvest began and there was no time for it. We reaped Westfield, all Ryford sweating in the heat and sun. We made the corn dollies and baked the Lammas loaf. We plowed fallow Newfield and took Eastfield's spring barley, and cut the straw and threshed the grain and gave our rent at Michaelmas, the end of September. And nobody came anymore, to stare at the great horse.
As for Anduin, he was unlike any battle-horse I have known since. Though big as any, his gait was near as soft as a good palfrey, and he was gentle and tolerant and easy-mannered, a thing most unsuitable for a horse of war. Surely the king knew it, that he parted with the animal so willingly.
The first week, watching him nose the green shed wehad built, I saw I must learn to ride. I led him out one morning, tied a hobble round his legs, and hauled myself up on his wide back. I sat there a long time, amazed at the view. This was how knights saw the world, how they stared down at small men limited to their own petty stature, their own two feet.
I sat there on several days, 'til one morning I untied his hobble before I got on. Anduin tossed his head and snorted, and when I was settled began to walk across the houseyard. I felt his muscles move under me, and the great strength and power of the animal half-terrified me. At the road he shook his head and broke into a trot, toward Thomas' farm and the castle. I leaned over his neck and gripped his mane. The wind pressed against my eyes and whistled past my ears. Familiar sights were suddenly foreign, and I could see over hedges and far across the fields, as if into a different world.
We scattered Thomas' hens as we passed. I saw he took me back to his stables, that I would ride through the barbican gate, boom on the drawbridge, clatter under the castle vaults. Halfway across the meadows I pulled desperately on his mane and cried the words we said to oxen, plowing. "Whoa, hold." Anduin slowed at once, and stopped when I repeated it. I sat a moment, stunned and elated both. The ride had set my heart beating, my command over this great animal made me dizzy with pride.
"Around," I said, "turn, Anduin, around, go back."
The horse did nothing. His chest swelled and shrank under me as he breathed. He shook his head and looked at the castle. He switched his tail and whinnied quietly, and would not move. "Turn around," I said. "Anduin. Around."
He lifted one hoof and put it down, and did not move.
I slid off, and pushed against one wide shoulder. He shook his head and rolled his eyes at me. I worked 'til I sweat in the early sun and finally, tugging at his head, I got him turned around. I had clambered up again before I saw Thomas in the road in front of us, scratching his curly hair.
"Out riding are you, Micah?"
"You nearly killed my best hen."
"I'm sorry, sir, I didn't know what to do."
"Men don't usually get off a horse to turn it round." I felt my face go hot. "You don't have reins? A bridle?" He looked past me toward Camelot. "Mayhap I can find an old set. Now go soft past my house, I'll take a goose of your father for every hen."
But the castle gave us nothing, for even stablemen had no like of farmers riding horses. I found by accident I could guide Anduin by tapping his neck with a stick; never have I have known another destrier that would have stood for it.
It was a sunny morning a month after harvest that I rode home with flour ground at Ryford mill, and met a pair of Camelot knights in the road. They appeared at the bend just past the chapel lane. I stopped Anduin beside the hedge. Their elegant palfreys came on at a steady walk. Their linen tabards bore new broidered heraldry, the thousand loops of their mail armor glittered in the sunlight, swords hung from their decorated belts, squires in matching livery carried their pennoned lances. They went bare-headed, these knights, their beards trimmed and their hair newly washed. Their eyes glittered, cold as winter. Yet that day, sitting Anduin, for the first time my own eyes stood level with theirs. I saw with a shock these great knights were young, that each had but a score of years, hardly more than my brother.
"Behold," muttered the dark one, "the wisdom of the king."
"His first mistake." The second had bright red hair. "But God knows he is bedeviled on every side. The wizard's foolish love. His sister Morgan. The queen."
"Women." The dark knight stopped a yard away. He stared at me as if I were an ox, or a tree. "A peasant's brat atop a destrier because his bitch of a sister would not lie still."
I did not even blink but stared at him hard, remembering his smooth forehead, his dark eyes, the short beard on his handsome jaw. His nose bent slightly, as if broken in some fight.
The red-haired knight had freckles on the back of his hands. He did not look at me at all. "Come, Briant, there's no honor in the blood of churls."
I had not forgot I was alone and facing knights, yet still his talk of blood made me clench my knees. Anduin lifted his head and began to walk. With the grand arrogance of a battle-horse he moved past Briant and shouldered his way easily between the following squires. They shouted at me but I looked straight ahead. In truth I could not control him so well as that, and he picked his own way as always, past the knights' battle-horses and the train of laden sumpters.
Behind me the red-haired knight called, "Leave off, Briant. He comes to Camelot next harvest."
Briant. Already I had the name of one.
Rebecca's unwashed dress lay wrapped in old linen, tucked in my mother's box and never seen save when she went for something else. Rebecca's death stayed with me the same way, something hid and oft forgot, remembered with grief while doing other things. Sometimes just as I slept I felt her hand in mine, shaking. Her voice said, "I bleed again." I would lie in the black night, a taste like iron in my mouth, and listen to the others breathing, to mice in the thatch and cats fighting under the hedges and the reeve's dogs barking at a setting moon. Five knights loomed before me, tall, arrogant, one with the dark face of Briant. A red-haired figure wavered among them. I swore again to see them all dead.
Wat the tanner brought us a fine doeskin by way of apology, that my father would not accept 'til my mother insisted. And after harvest when the straw was cut, Sam brought thatch for Anduin's shed and helped us roof the little place.
Perkin our neighbor was manor shepherd, and for his help at harvest we owed him a day of Martinmas slaughter. Our breath smoked in the sharp November air, and frost shone white on the fallow fields, the morning Harry and I walked out with Perkin and his son to the penning they had built on the village common. He swung open the gate and we crowded in among the nervous animals. Steam rose off their icy wool in the early sunlight. Those where the frost melted quickest had the thinnest fleece. They would not last the winter, and Perkin walked among them and nicked their ears, and then as the day warmed we began to kill. Always at slaughter the first animal was the most difficult, and I must keep my gaze from the look in its bright eye, must ignore its quivering fright as I gripped its shoulders between my knees, and lifted its muzzle to stretch the neck for the knife.
A fog soon stood around us, almost pink, that smelled of blood and flesh, of the fright of the animals, the stink of bowels. It was the smell of winter, or at least of winter coming. The Church might have its round of holy days, Yule and Whitsun, John Baptist and All Souls, but the year turned truly from Candlemas and first plowing, to Easter rent and Lammas harvest and Michaelmas rent again, and Martinmas for slaughter. The scarlet stains on our leggings were dried the color of my sister's dress when we came home at dusk. Our mother paled and shut her eyes. I wondered if the blood of knights were any different.
As the weather drew in, the beeches turned golden and the pigmen set their animals on the mast. We went into the leafless forests and gathered hazelnuts. Honey peddlers came, and my mother shouted at them angrily, as seeing Anduin in his shed they asked too dear for sweet and wax.
A square little church stood in Ryford where my family went almost every Sabbath. The forest chapel was but a place for feast days, though a castle priest came every midday to sing Mass. That winter I walked the half-league to it often as I could, the only one there, save a few old widows, as he lit a single taper and muttered his Latin at the crucifix.
In the Holy Book, so priests said, God forbade murder. Only a full confession might achieve His forgiveness. I wondered if the knights confessed, or if a peasant's murder were not for them a mortal sin. It came to me that after I had killed them I must find some hermit monk to confess me, or some wandering friar that would not go at once and tell Camelot. Yet surely God knew my plan already, and were it wrong He would keep me from it. What I had sworn, for Lark's soul, was the ruin of my own. My heart stood in my throat, afraid of it, before I swore again to never waver.
On Saint Andrew's, that was four weeks before Yule, the chapel stood wrapped by a soft and drifting snow. Pale candles burned motionless in the cold air as I touched the holy water to my forehead. The priest bobbed before the altar muttering Latin, but in the midst of his prayer, horses clattered outside. Leather creaked and harness rattled, and half a dozen knights strode in. They stamped the flagstones and shook their snowy cloaks, speaking in uncommonly hushed voices. They pulled off their gloves and dipped their fingers in the font. I watched them, wanting to remember each face. The red-haired knight was there, and a round-faced blond but little older then I.
"Sweet Lady," said the redhead, "it's cold in here." As he touched his forehead he saw me watching. His expression did not change, but he stared such a long moment the others noticed.
"What's this?" said another. "Do you know this, Almant?"
Almant. The second of them. I had heard his name that night. He held the horses.
"Are they allowed in here?" said the young blond.
"In the back, aye," said a tall knight. He was older than the rest, darkly handsome and with pale scar on one cheek. "The king hath said it."
"Methinks our lord is over generous, Agravain."
Agravain. He might be one of them. And the round-faced blond, for as they walked to the altar he stopped and turned. "That brat," he said. " 'Tis the one got the destrier, after John Baptist's."
Hatred lit their eyes, then, for the king's horse set me apart from peasants they rode past unseeing. But the priest, waiting on the steps of the altar, raised his voice in the first words of the service. They turned toward him. I went out through the door. The snow still drifted among the bare oaks.
At Yule the snow lay ankle deep and the river had a skin of ice. Anduin suffered from the cold. His ribs showed beneath the old sacks we draped on him, as we could not spare him grain enough though we were fewer than the year before. Still, whenever I went to him, he tossed his head and wanted to go running.
"Yes," I muttered, one bitter morning, "and you would run me straight to Camelot, wouldn't you?" The horse did not deny it.
It was a little warmer in the shed, out of the wind and with the manure and straw not quite frozen. My father came in behind me. He rubbed the horse's nose. "I must give him back, Micah. I cannot keep him, and he's too fine an animal to starve."
"We could sell him."
"There's no horse market, midwinter. Besides, who'd buy the king's gift?"
"If we give him back, what have we got for ...?" I could not say her name just then.
He frowned at me. "The king's justice. He admitted it was wrong. And besides, you have a place in the castle." I wanted to argue that it was not enough. "I'll talk to Thomas," he said.
The reeve wanted us to keep Anduin, too. He had got the horse for us and it would look a failure if we gave it back. My father offered him the animal yet not even Thomas could afford it, and he agreed to go with us when we went to Camelot.
It snowed again, Epiphany morning. Anduin plodded behind us between the black and leafless hedges. The river meadows lay white under the snow. The moat was frozen, and the walls of Camelot rose over us, black and gloomy, though little scraps of white glittered where snow had caught on the sills of arrow slots. Ice glazed the drawbridge and Anduin slipped as we crossed, for he was excited now. The high gates were closed, as the king spent this Yule in London, but the guard swung open a wicket door just large enough for the horse.
Camelot seemed very empty. We waited inside the Hall door, at the foot of the stairs, until old Sir Ulfius appeared at the top. "Can't keep the horse, eh?" he called, and gave a mocking smile.
"They brought it back, sir," Thomas said, "rather than see it starve."
The chamberlain came stiffly down the steps. "How did you ever believe you might care for a horse?"
We all knew it was the king's idea. I glanced at my father, but Warren would not dispute him.
"What does a farmer even want with a horse?" said Sir Ulfius. "What can he do with it, save abuse it and starve it? And now you bring it back, ill. If it dies, the king will be very angry." He stopped three steps above us, just the height of a man on horseback. "I hope you have learned from this, that people ought keep to the station God hath allotted them."
My father bowed and shambled, but I could not hold my tongue. "We did not ask for a horse, sir, we asked for oxen to plow our fields, to increase our harvests. And our rents."
The chamberlain turned his head slowly to me. "You protest the wisdom of the king?"
"We are farmers, as you say, sir. What do farmers want with horses?"
Despite the echoing quiet of the castle, and the wry smile on Sir Ulfius' face, that moment was far more dangerous than my meeting knights in the road. He might have challenged me, forced me to fault the king, had me killed for treason. Praise God he preserved me from my own rashness.
"You are Micah, I believe."
"Aye, sir." I thought he must have a prodigious memory.
"You come on Lammasday."
Thomas glanced up, still pale from my willfulness. "The king said after harvest, sir."
"Lammas. At Terce. Do you know when Terce is, Micah?"
"Midmorning, between dawn and midday."
"Lammas, sir," I repeated, "at Terce."
At Candlemas we plowed our strips in Westfield. There were half a dozen other teams out that day, plowing their own strips on the broad unfenced field under a windy sky. Harry led the oxen we always rented from Thomas, my father wrestled with the plow, and I followed spading the clods. The February soil was dark and cold, sticky under our bare feet, and smelled of winter and stones.
We had begun again after the midday meal when the first heralds rode past. The king came back from London. Of course we stopped to watch. Knights with shields and lances rode prancing battle-horses. Loaded wains rumbled past, and then another crowd of armed knights, with squires and pages. Large roofed wagons painted blue and green trundled by, and one or two ladies peered briefly out. Dark-robed clerics passed, a hundred footmen bearing scarlet banners, falconers on prancing ponies, the hooded birds clutching their leather gauntlets. Finally, in the midst of another crowd of knights, their lances tipped with fluttering pennons, the king himself rode a great dark stallion. Trumpets rang from distant Camelot and then, as we had bent to the plow again, one last troop of armed knights rattled by.
"King Arthur," said my father, as if we had not guessed.
We plowed again, halfway through Lent, and sowed the barley thin, as the horse had eaten half the seed. After, I went out for weeks to scare the birds from the new seed. There were but a dozen others, boys mostly, to protect the whole wide field. The birds would arrive silent, one by one, only the rattle of their hard wings to alert us. "Raven," I cried, as I ran at them. It had been Rebecca's task, and I wondered had she had called out, Lark.
Easter Sunday the winter wheat stood green in Newfield, daffodils yellowed the sunny meadows, and the crab-apples bloomed white at the eaves of the wood. That day our whole family trooped the lane to the forest chapel. People came from all the villages of Camelot's demesne, everyone washed and wearing clean clothes, and they clustered at the door and shook their heads of Rebecca, before they grinned and asked about the horse. The priest rang his bell. We filed into the echoing space. The new sun blazed through the glass window behind the altar. Crowded thick together we heard again how Our Lord died on the cross, how He rose on Easter and walked the earth again.
I had always liked the story, the fright of the soldiers at the tomb, the amazement of the women, the disciples' doubts. It all had happened in Jerusalem, that I imagined a vaster Camelot, yet Jerusalem seemed very far away and Christ's death an awful time ago. Still, that year I heard the story different. Hanging the cross, as the Jews killed Him, Christ had prayed, "Forgive them, Father." Could I believe it, that God truly forgave such things?
John Baptist's eve, despite my father's word, I walked alone down the chapel lane. The priest was come to sing Vespers. I stood in a dim corner when the knights galloped up, drunk and foul-mouthed and laughing. The redhead Sir Almant won the race, and the bonfire blazed from his torch in a roar of sparks and crackling wood. The priest gave him a little silver cross. I turned to leave but he stood blocking my way, unsteady from drink, looking like he might kill me just for sport. His voice was thick and his breath stank of wine.
"Why d'you peer at us, clod?"
I remembered not to flinch, nor shuffle my feet nor tug at my forelock. "To see the winner, sir."
His brain was thick and it took him a minute to reply. "You know 'twas me, why stare ...?" He stopped as memory caught his tongue. "You are the churl with the horse, the brother of that screaming bitch."
"Micah of Greenfarm," I said. I looked at him straight, my fear unremembered. "Sir Briant raped her. What did you do?"
His hand clasped the pommel of his dagger.
"A year ago, tonight," I said.
Mayhap it was the wine saved me, or boldness or luck. Or God's Will. "A filthy varlet," he cried, "brat of a villein. Who owns not even an ox. Certainly not a horse." His voice rang with his generations of privilege. I had never heard it so clear, that no knight mourns long the death of animals, nor peasants.
"My father is a freeman," I said, out of habit. "We asked for a pair of oxen." My voice quivered, then, and a shaking had come suddenly over me I could not master. If Sir Almant saw he said nothing of it, and for that small kindness I almost forgave him all the rest. And hated myself for the thought of it.
The other knights retrieved their horses and mounted. He turned and swung up, himself, and I remembered how the world seemed from the back of such an animal. "I am Almant of Damerel," he muttered, scowling down at me. "Sir Almant. When you come to the castle you must say, 'Sir.' You must never forget." He paused, watching me. "And I tell you this, varlet. Beware Sir Briant, when you come to Camelot."
Copyright © 1995 by Cary James
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
IF i could tell Cary James just how much i enjoyed this book, i would. Let me tell you i hate to read but i liked this book sooooo much!!!! i couldn't even put it down. i really think that this story both touched me as well as giving me a lesson to life. the lesson would be that revenge isn't everything, but always stick to your word!!!! As I said before it was the best book i wish there was another book to go with it.